What do President Barak Obama’s 2008 campaign, the Arab Spring in 2011, the “occupy wall street” movement in 2011, and the Sri Lankan presidential election in 2015 have in common? Out of the many guesses you would have taken, the main would be the influence of social media on the outcomes of these events. It is not a secret that social media usage is rising at an increasing rate. It is also becoming a deciding factor in global politics and a tool for campaigning. The concept of a “Global Village” was first put forward by Marshall McLuhan, he wrote about technology acting as an electronic nervous system that would connect the entire world. Today we see evidences of this notion as social media has not only connected people but also has taken up the role of being an arena for free speech and liberation.
The amount of users in social media sites have increased dramatically over the past years. This has been further empowered by the accessibility to smartphones. With cheaper smartphones entering the market today there are 3.65 billion people accessing the internet via mobile devices. This has given great mobility and speed in terms of data and information transfer. Facebook still stands as the leader in the herd of social media networks with nearly 1.4 billion users accounting to 47% of all internet users. Even though Mark Zuckerberg had the intention of connecting people with his initiative, it is doubtful that he ever predicted such a global impact from his website. Twitter has 250 million users with a majority accessing the site via mobile devices. The use of hashtags on twitter took root in the global society rapidly and was used to voice opinions of millions, regarding global occurrences. #Bringourgirlsback #WhyIstayed #OccupyWallStreet #UmbrellaRevolution are few examples for hashtags that had a global impact over the past years. Apart from politics and social movements, hashtags such as #Worldcupfinal used during the FIFA world cup 2014 have been able to bring supporters from across the world together to support their favored teams. The impact of social media to our lives is irreversible; it will continue to occupy space in lives of millions not only as a method of communication but also a tool for social cohesion.
Role in politics
The protest against then Philippine president Joseph Estrada In January 2001 was organized within hours mainly through using text messages as the main source of communication. Close to seven million text messages were sent in that week and the pressure of these protest resulting in a change of rule in the country. Estrada later blamed the “text messaging generation” for the outcome. This is considered as the first time communication technologies acted as a deciding factor of a political outcome. Not every social movement through social media succeeds. During the Green movement in 2009 Iranian activists failed to achieve the desired outcome despite using every possible technological tool. The growing impact of social media in politics is understood by governments worldwide. Both authoritarian and democratic governments are seen trying to limit the access to these services. In 2010 U.S. Secretary of state stated that the United States would work towards promoting internet freedom abroad. Freedom here varies from freedom to access information, freedom to produce information and the freedom to converse. These are important aspects of a strong civil society. Leaders such as Tadeusz Mazowiecki in Poland are a result of a strong civil society and accessibility of information due to communication technologies. These technologies helped the civil society take power from the weak communist states in the late 20th century eventually contributing to the collapse of the power bloc as a whole.
Sociologists Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld stated that mass media alone does not change people’s mind. They stated that firstly ideas are transmitted through the media and secondly the ideas and opinions are internalized to an individual through the opinion of friends, family and colleagues. This socialization process is responsible for the formation of political opinions. Modern social media provide this arena for the exchange of ideas, and conversation. This creates a state of “shared awareness” among the people of a country which is becoming universal by the day. President Barack Obama capitalized on social media and the state of shared awareness during his campaign in 2008 with the effective use of his website “my.barackobama.com”.
“Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and Middle East and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising.” These are the words of Philip Howard, a professor from the University of Washington regarding the impact of social media in the Arab Spring. Tweets about political change in Egypt stood at 230,000 a day during the days before President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Along with this, Facebook posts and videos posted online skyrocketed. The story from Tunisia was similar to that of Egypt’s. The decision of a street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire against injustice and corruption ignited the Tunisian revolution and set in motion the Arab Spring. Many with a cell phone recorded his protest and later the video played a key role in the revolution. The Arab spring stands as the icon of a civil society movement in the 21st century, and social media played an unprecedented role in deciding its outcomes. Pierre Omidyar writing to the Huffington Post states that he views social media as tool for liberation and empowerment. He states that the freedom to communicate openly and honestly is not something to be taken for granted. “In countries where traditional media is a tool of control, these new and truly social channels have the power to radically alter our world.”
On the 8th of January 2015 President Maithripala Sirisena swore in as the 7th president of Sri Lanka. He contested against the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa who to date is a prominent political figure in the country. It was vastly acknowledged that social media played a vital role in the outcome of the elections. With 22% of the population estimated to use the internet regularly and 2.5 – 3 million smartphones in use within the country, social media is an integral part of Sri Lankan youth. The run up to the elections resulted in heated discussions, banners of support and advertisements. The difference however was that these appeared on Facebook than on television. To emphasize on this statement further, the “independent” opinions and ideas appeared on Facebook as many in the country took to their social media pages to pose their personal views and even extend their time to carry out a digital campaign for their preferred candidate. Even though traditional media was used, it was mainly one sided and ‘abused’ in favor of the previous regime. The civil society seemed fearless to voice their options regarding the allegations of corruption and nepotism against the then president Rajapaksa on social media and this resulted in a ripple effect across the society. A newspaper in Sri Lanka once published a cartoon in which the logos of Facebook and twitter have a rope wrapped around the leg of a figure resembling the then President Rajapaksa. This digital democracy spreads across the world and emancipates thousands and proved to be a threat to governments as supported by these examples. This makes one wonder of the power of usernames and passwords in politics.
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