Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and SMS messaging, recently used in movements such as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the Vancouver riots have generated conflicting views regarding the role social media play in the outcome of such social and political events. While scholars such as Clay Shirky argue that social media tools play an important role in political and social change, others such as Malcolm Gladwell argue that social media does not really translate into meaningful change but merely gives the illusion of change. In the end, the issue is not whether Twitter or Facebook caused a revolution but about the power of a real-time communication network. While social media tools may not trigger such social or political events, there’s no question that they can help to fuel them by mobilizing users for action.
Social Media are Powerful Tools for Coordinating Mass Movements
Since social media is inexpensive and easy to use it provides an ideal platform for coordinating mass events and global movements. In his article “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change” Clay Shirky (2011) states that “Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination” (p. 3). During the United States presidential election in 2008, the Obama campaign became known as the networked campaign for its extensive use of the Internet and social media tools. According to Castells (2009), Obama was able to raise a record breaking $744,985,566 for his election in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s campaign of $233,005,665. How was the Obama campaign so successful in raising such a substantial amount of money? It was through the skillful use of online fundraising tools that provided an inexpensive and easy way for supporters to repeatedly donate small amounts over the duration of the campaign (pp. 379-381). Castells (2009) states that “the Obama campaign surpassed every major political campaign in the use of the Internet as a political mobilization tool both in the US and in the world at large” (p. 392). The Internet provided a powerful tool to mobilize supporters that was easily accessible and familiar. The Obama campaign’s focus was to use the Internet to “link people and communities among themselves, while centralizing knowledge” (Castells, 2009, p. 394) and providing tools for interaction such as My.BarackObama.com website and centralized fund-raising initiative.
In the case of social and political activism, social media can assist to organize and mobilize disadvantaged groups in oppressive regimes and “amplify their power” (Black, Social Movements and Political Change PowerPoint, 2012). According to a tweet sent by Shirky “no one claims social media makes people angry enough to act. It just helps angry people coordinate their actions” (Shirky, 2011). Facebook helps to organize people locally while Twitter helps to get the message out to the rest of the world.
Social Media Provides Validation
A second aspect of social media that mobilizes people for social and political movements is its ability to provide validation. Traditional forms of mass media such as newspaper and radio were push mediums that transmitted in one direction with little to no interaction from the public. On the other hand social media allows for interaction and shared awareness as individuals echo opinions from one to another. In the case of the Arab Spring, as people from Egypt viewed the demonstrations from Tunisia it seemed to “help trigger the same kind of response in Egypt, because it helped protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt see themselves as part of a larger movement, or at least not alone in their desire to revolt” (Ingram, 2011). Another aspect of the validation of social media can be witnessed in the way authoritarian regimes handle social media activism. As the turmoil erupted in Tunisia, phishing campaigns were setup by the regime to harvest Facebook passwords in an attempt to delete information threatening to them and key social media users were arrested. In the case of Egypt, Mubarak aggressively seized and threatened Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing manager responsible for creating a Facebook group in memory of Khaled Mohamed Said, who was believed to have been murdered by police in June 2010. The Facebook group drew over half a million followers and resulted in numerous protests. In desperation the Egyptian government turned off the internet for several days. This approach not only cripples the economy; ironically, it builds greater awareness of an issue “alerting the population at large to political conflict” (Shirky, 2011, p. 4). The question becomes very clear, “why would the regime take these steps if they didn’t see social media as a threat?”
Social Media Builds on Weak Ties
A third aspect of social media that mobilizes people for social and political movements is its ability to build on “weak ties.” The real power of social media comes from the connections (weak ties) social media allows between individuals. People who may not even know each other are joined through a larger network of social connections. In a sense social media can be seen as online contact management systems capable of efficiently “following” and “keeping up” with family, friends, acquaintances, and people you may never have met. Gladwell (2010) is missing the point when he argues that weak ties generated from social media “seldom lead to high-risk activism” (p. 5). Social media has the ability to take those weak ties and turn them into strong ties with enough combined power to rise up against and over turn dictatorial governments. Also, social media provides a communication channel with “greater autonomy from the mainstream media” (Sanders, 2011, p. 100) allowing protest groups the ability to get the message out while building strong ties with the general public. In an online article entitled, “London, Egypt and the Complex Role of Social Media”, Srinivasan (2011) makes the point regarding social media’s ability to turn weak ties into strong ties by stating, “The story of Egypt presents an example of how a shared desire to end a corrupt regime can bring together peoples from all walks of life. And learning from Egypt allows us to understand how complex networks form, sustain, and present possibilities for people to collectively imagine and take hold of their political and economic futures” (para. 7).
Revolutions and uprisings have existed since the beginning of humanity. Srinivasan (2011) argued that “With or without these technologies, people will ultimately stand up and speak their minds” (para. 6). Therefore, social media are neither necessary nor sufficient for an uprising to occur. On the other hand we must not deny or ignore the role social media play in current revolutions and uprisings as a means of mobilizing people for social and political change. Through its real-time organizing capabilities, or source of current validating information and ability to turn weak ties into strong ties, social media provides a means for people to mobilize for action.
Black, D. (2012). Social movements and political change. Course material PCOM 640 Communication Policy, Politics and Law, Week 9, 1-43, Royal Roads University, Victoria, British Columbia.
Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Gladwell, M. (2010, Oct. 4). Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. The New Yorker.
Ingram, M. (2011, August 8). Network effects: Social media’s role in the London riots. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/technology/network-effects-social-medias-role-in-the-london-riots-08082011.html
Sanders, K. (2009). Chapter 7: Communication in opposition, protest and violence. In Communicating Politics in the Twenty-First Century (pp. 92-107). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign Affairs, 90(1), 28-41.
Shirky, C. (2011, January 14). [Twitter tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/cshirky/status/25982118639181825
Srinivasan, R. (2011, August 11). London, Egypt and the complex role of social media. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/london-egypt-and-the-complex-role-of-social-media/2011/08/11/gIQAIoud8I_story.html