Social Media as a Force for Change (A Guest post by Izzy Wood)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that social networks like Twitter and Facebook are the sole domain of inane chatter, people ‘friending’ those they haven’t seen in ten years, and teenagers orchestrating their highly complex social lives from the comfort of their sectional sofas; but in recent years these networks have taken on new roles – as tools of social and political change. During the Arab Spring of 2011, and the unrest that followed across the globe, websites such as Twitter and Facebook were instrumental in the co-ordination of protestors and rebels. To such an extent, in fact, that during the overthrow of the Egyptian government, the internet was actually switched off. The implementation of this block serves as proof of the power of the web; giving the oppressed the ability to reach out to others across the globe, whether as a call to arms or a cry for help. But when both the instigation of an attack, or word of oppression, can be delivered in less than 140 characters – is social media a gift or a curse for international relations? Does it bring us all together, serve to incite more animosity, or have no real purpose at all?
A new way to source information
In the past, international relations have relied upon various centralised media institutions, including newspapers and television. The only way that international stories could ‘break’ is via these traditional news sources, so there would sometimes be a delay in the delivery of breaking news stories, or information censored or removed. The internet has changed all this, and more specifically, social media has changed all this. International relations are now as simple as checking a news feed or searching for a hashtag. News spreads in a much more organic way thanks to the web, and as such it’s not uncommon for traditional news outlets to be somewhat ‘late to the party’. When you can discover exactly what’s happening in a particular country with a simple social media search, why bother waiting for a news website to draft a story about it? The realtime nature of social media has meant that international stories are heard more quickly and by more people who then have the chance to act – and that can only be a good thing for all of us.
The rise of ‘slacktivism’
One of the reasons that social media is so great is that it gives everyone a voice; however, for many people, voicing their concerns is where the story ends. From an awareness point of view, it’s great, because more and more people will learn of the plight of those in other countries, but it doesn’t necessarily achieve anything in terms of action. For this reason, the term ‘slacktivism’ has been coined. In essence it refers to those who speak up on international issues via networks like Facebook and Twitter, but fail to take any action – be that donating money, attending protests, or any other form of activism. This highlights one of the key issues with international relations via social networks: awareness is increased (along with indignation), but in real terms, a tangible difference being made is often absent.
Challenging channels of authority
For many years, and in many countries, there has been a hierarchy of information in place which allowed those in power to control the flow of information. Social media practically abolishes this hierarchy. If a protest begins in any major city across the world, news of it will hit social networks in seconds, meaning that the country’s authorities have no power to stem this flow. And because social media is a global medium, the news can be picked up rapidly by those in other countries who can then begin to report on the incident. For this reason alone, social media is a tool of incredible power. Far beyond a being a platform to arrange a meetup with friends, social networks have become a tool of revolution.
So is social media a gift or a curse? The answer is a subjective one. If the freedom of information enabling help (or at least awareness) coming from other countries, then it’s most certainly a gift. But if it’s used only for talk and not action, it can become a victim of itself. With responsible action taken based on social media sources, networks like Facebook and Twitter can emerge as something far more than the sum of their parts.
[pic: CC-BY, Arenamontanus]