Report on Is Social Media a Force Against Political Oppression
Social Networking, since the last decade has started to impact individuals’ life on a macro scale. The websites are primarily directly impacting the social, economic, political and other spheres of a country. As noticed by many scholars, social networking on the internet has affected changes in the political elections and social considerations in both, developed and developing countries for instance Cook (2010) identified how social networking through mobile phones impacted political scenario in United States and Canada, Marandi et al (2010) discussed these social tools in context of changing preferences of upcoming generation in Iran. Shaheen (2008) in a similar study studied the powerful influence of social media in political activism that lead to overturning of government in Pakistan. In China, Guobin (2010) discussed how strongly social media and internet networking resulted in protests and clashes between individuals and governments. Moving forward, according to Attia et al (2011), recent political unrest in Middle Eastern countries of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Algeria can be attributed to social networking sites in general while Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in particular. These events have commonly been known as Arab Spring.
Social Media and Networking on the Internet – Defined:
Social Media has truly been able to change the way world communicates. The platform allows individuals to communicate effectively and quickly with others to share and gather information, topics and subjects that are of mutual interest. The term has been defined in many contexts. For instance, Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) suggested the initial definition that resulted in the formation of social networks as a group of applications based out of the World Wide Web on the technology of Web 2.0 that allows creation and exchange of user generated content. Within the ambit of social media is the category of websites suggested as social networking. The most widely used and elaborative definition of social networking was given by Boyd and Ellison in 2007. According to the them (p 211), social networking is
“web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct
a public or semi-public proﬁle within a bounded system,
(2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share
a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of
connections and those made by others within the system.
Of course, the nature and descriptive terms applied to
these connections vary from site to site.” (p. 211)
Social Media websites can be classified into different categories based on the nature of information sharing. The most distinctive characteristic of social media is the ability to communicate both ways between the users. Table 1 has been extracted from Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) and can be considered as an exhaustive, but not complete list of social media classification:
Table 1: Classification of Social Media Websites – Kaplan and Heinlein (2010)
Wikipedia, Delicious etc
Enables collaborative and join content building by many users working at different times and places
Blogs and Micro Blogging
Twitter, WordPress etc
Allow users to be able to send a registered group of individuals messages at any time
Content Sharing Communities
YouTube, Flickr etc
Allow users to upload, share publically or privately media files
Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn etc
Allow user to add friends, share messages and information and join likeminded communities of mutual interest
Virtual and Social Gaming Worlds
Secondlife, Farmville etc
Allow users play games online with users connected from different places
Due to limitation, we have discussed three widely used social media sites that have played a significant role in impacting social, political and cultural tangents of our lives. These include Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
- Facebook: Facebook was launched in 2004 as a social networking website exclusively for Harvard students. However according to the statistics, Facebook has now over 1.15 Billion active users around the world as of June, 2013 (Facebook, 2013). Less than 20% of the total users are from United States. This suggests the penetration of Facebook has been to all parts of the world. The website allows users to interact with other users by sharing information, messages, joining of communities of mutual interests, play games and subsequently a tool for marketing and promotion. In June 2013, the website had an average of 600 plus million users accessing the webpage on daily basis.
- Twitter: Twitter was launched in 2006. The platform allows users to connect to latest information of their interest through a terminology called “Tweet” which is unique to the application. (Twitter, 2013). According to sources, the website by the end of 2012 had 200 + global users with average 340 million tweets per day. Tweets can be explained as 140 characters short posts that allow subscribed users to follow it on real time basis. Further the subscribed users can follow real time status updates.
- YouTube: YouTube was the first website that launched a platform for users to upload, share and watch videos online. The website was launched in 2007, and since then, the number of users and playback hours of videos have been increasing. According to the statistics, more than 1 Billion users visit YouTube website each month. Another surprising statistic is that more than 6 Billion hours of videos are watched each month i.e. almost an hour for every individual on earth (YouTube, 2013).
Safranek (2012) suggested that the biggest attraction of the three social media’s discussed above is the premise that an average person with little exposure to technology can access these successfully, conveniently through a smart phone and the content on them can be entwined. For instance, videos that are posted on YouTube can simultaneously be shared on Facebook and Twitter. In other words, large number of individuals can be reached effectively at very low cost.
Social Media and Politics:
Political parties and leaders across the globe have started to use social media as a strong medium to achieve political goals. For instance, all the candidates in recent presidential elections in United States of America relied heavily on social media including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube to achieve political objectives such as 1) involving prospective voters in a reiterative two way communication 2) to enhance interaction and keep voters updated of political campaigns 3) to provide a platform for voters to encourage participation in online communities and 4) lastly to financially support the campaign (Robertson et al, 2010). Consequently, for presidential elections in Iran in 2009, the decision for public was to choose between keeping the already in power president for another four years or to bring about a liberal reformist. The movement that constituted of younger Iranian members stood behind one candidate whose campaign was largely promoted through social media (Safranek, 2012). However, as a result, the already in power government restricted access for public to Facebook and interrupted mobile phone networks to hamper the campaign. As argued by Levy (2008) social media tools including have allowed regular individuals to be part of the larger political process, which otherwise they would not have been able to do so. Furthermore, the social media presents individuals with exponential opportunities for retrieval and dissemination of political information to engage in political campaigns at very low cost. Social media users can actively subscribe to live information and feeds about their political leaders and parties and allows them to keep updated and informed without having to visit a political gathering.
Protests in Democratic Governments vs. Authoritarian Regimes:
Much of the literature that has discussed political movements has marked a clear distinction between democracy and authoritarian rules. Democratic protests can be categorized as open to contention under which usually non-violent organized protests are carried out to voice dissent against political situation and is considered as part of the main stream politics. While under the authoritarian regime, the task of carrying out an organized civil protest is significantly harder as suggested by Meyer and Tarrow (1998). According to the authors, the biggest challenge faced by public is organize freely and openly, to be able to communicate their sentiments and messages to other public. Also the risk of carrying out such activities has a higher cost associated to it since authoritative regimes tend to suppress voices that show dissent against them.
According to Shirky (2011), considering social media as a “silver bullet” to bring about all the necessary political change is not a conclusive argument. There cannot be a fixed a rule for the success of social media to stand against political oppression as the overall situation depends on a number of factors including the size, ethnic diversity, availability of information technology and cyber infrastructure, education and literacy rate of the population and above all, the amount of cyber censorship that prevails in a given regime. In most of the cases, the outburst of protests also depends on the willingness of state to use force in order to quench protests. For instance, in case of Egypt, the protestors grew as they realized that Egyptian army would not turn against peaceful demonstrations (Shirky, 2011). Furthermore, social media according to Shirky should be considered as a long term tool that has the capacity to strengthen public and political sphere. Social media can serve as a foundation to bring together increased coordination among loosely knitted social groups and can bring about an impact that was previously reserved to larger organized social organizations.
Finally, it is critical to understand the fact that protests such as Egyptian and Tunisian are end of a process, rather than replacement of the current system. Political freedom once achieved needs to be mature enough to understand the opinions of the society while subsequently; society needs to be educated and literate enough to comprehend on the issues presented to them. Social media has been able to give “hope” to groups that felt powerless against oppressive and brutal regimes and providing them with a level playing field (Shirky 2011).