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The Political Power Of Social Media

Social Media As A Tool For Political Activism

Not just a trendy tool for marketing or sharing photos, social media is playing more and more of a political and activist role in international issues and relations. It makes sense – globalisation is the ultimate aim for most big corporations and businesses, and governments’ foreign affairs policies are certainly informed along international and global lines. Social media, a conduit for en masse interaction and engagement, is not just a side effect or outlet for modern politics but is actively driving and shaping it.

It all started with a text message in the Philippines on January 17, 2001. Well, not just one text message but a chain of messages which quickly escalated into a full-blown SMS campaign. During the trial of the country’s President Joseph Estrada, thousands of Filipinos – outraged at the decision to let their corrupt president off the hook – assembled at the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major crossroads on the streets of Manila. The protest was arranged by forwarded text messages reading ‘Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk’. Over the next few days, near on a million people arrived, causing the city’s transport infrastructure to meltdown and the President was consequently re-trialed.

Social media is democratising – anyone can use it, from regular citizens, celebrities and figures of public interest, activists, nongovernmental organisations, telecoms firms, software providers, governments and secret services. No longer is political power the reserve of the elite, nowadays a clued up and logged in public can mobilise massive and rapid responses to events they wish to stand against.

In the early 1990s, a few million had access to the Internet – now it’s a fair few billion. Before the Second World War, Walter Benjamin predicted that the technology to reproduce and replicate would democratise the art world and elitist thinking; in a similar way, the technology behind social media’s ability to reproduce and replicate on a global scale is fuelling a change in political thinking. 

The Philippine strategy has been adopted many times since. From the Arab Spring to the Tottenham Riots, political protest is organised and played out on social media. In Spain 2004, after the then Prime Minister José María Aznar wrongly accused the Basque separatists for the Madrid bombings, demonstrations organised by instant messaging led to his being ousted out of office. Social media networks (text messaging, e-mail and photo sharing) allow the public to quickly mobilise a dissident reaction – technology is at the heart of powering political activism and protest.

Social media works both ways though, and Islamic extremist group ISIS have been using Twitter to spread barbaric propaganda and instil fear on the ground – amidst a government crackdown on social media, Iraqi civilians are using anonymous social network Whisper to share secretive messages and cries for help to the world.

Celebrities and public figures have been under fire for airing their views online about the Gaza conflict. The troubles have developed on social media as well as on the ground - #GazaUnderAttack has racked up over four million Tweets as opposed to under 200,000 for #IsraelUnderFire. The Israeli government has attempted to gain public support on social media, promoting tweets on behalf of the Prime Minister and recruiting students for a public campaign. Despite their actions, it seems they recognise the fact that public opinion is won online not with guns. 

So do digital tools enhance democracy? On the whole, it seems so. However, for countries struggling under more restrictive and authoritarian governments, social media can’t be seen as a simple catalyst towards democracy. Social media seems to have the most dramatic and discernible effects in states where a public sphere already constrains the actions of the government, i.e. where democracy already exists.

Politicians in egalitarian societies are keen to utilise social media for all it’s worth, almost overly so (we don’t need to see a picture of George Osborne eating fish and chips) whereas in more controlling states the government and powers-that-be are working overtime to limit and censor the public’s access to social media and the freedom of speech that it brings. Ed Snowden may beg to differ with this, as the WikiLeaks founder-turned political activist is currently in exile in Russia after being charged with theft, espionage and potentially treason by the US judiciary after leaking top-secret government details online in, what he calls, the interests of freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, as is the norm these days, politicians tend to get their fingers in all the (social media) pies. It is important that social media really remains a bastion for freedom of speech and opinion – even in democratic nations where politicians are keen to engage with the public on social media it must remain true to the values that it represents; the internet needs to remain a policy-neutral arena, and governments should maintain social media freedom as a goal to be pursued in a principled and politics-free fashion, not as a tool for implementing their latest policy aims. Social media is the public’s domain, a theatre for opinion and debate for everyone, not just the political elite.

Recent graduate and now interning as content editor, when she's not writing articles Katie can quite likely be found festival-ing, holiday-ing or reading a book (dedicated English student that she is). Follow her @KatieAtSMF.

Contact us on Twitter, on Facebook, or leave your comments below. To find out about social media training or management why not take a look at our website for more info http://socialmediacambridge.co.uk/.
The Political Power Of Social Media Reviewed by Anonymous on Thursday, August 07, 2014 Rating: 5
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