21 August 15 -

The political significance of social media.

I decided to write this article because I wanted to know how social media has impacted our world. That is, really changed our world in a meaningful way.

I wanted to find concrete examples of those times social media has made a difference in someone’s life – beyond giving them the perfect platform to describe what they had for breakfast, or what they’d been up to at any given moment of the day. I wanted to find examples of social media at its peak of social influence.

Why? Because I think there is more to social media than hash-tags, self-obsession, and “friends” who aren’t actually friends. When I have the opportunity to stand back, see the bigger picture, and realise how the way we communicate has fundamentally changed because of it, it’s fascinating.

At a surface level, it can be easy to forget how social media has changed our lives. It’s easy to get lost in the trivial, the mundane and the ugly side of social media. But using these petty aspects as a reason to write off social is the same as writing off print because of a trashy magazine, or television because of ‘Real Housewives of Wherever’. Essentially, to mistake low quality content for a fundamental characteristic of the medium.  I wanted to make the point, but enough of that.

Let’s be honest: this is an expansive topic with near limitless perspectives and approaches to be taken. This is why I wanted to narrow my focus to social media and its impact on politics.

To try and get a better understanding of this landscape, I’ve taken a look at three examples of how social media makes a difference in the world, and how it’s changing the way we conduct politics.

Oh, and one more thing…

When we say social media, most people think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on. When I talk about social media here, I’m using a broad definition.

Social media in this article refers to all digital communication channels based on community-generated content where – while some content may be regulated – there are no restrictions placed on the people who can contribute. In short, it is the medium that belongs to the people.

This definition encompasses all possible forms: online forums, content publishing platforms, such as YouTube and blogs, email, and, as you will see, even text messaging.

Estrada: trial by (social) media.

In the 2001 impeachment trial of Filipino President, Joseph Estrada, mass protests were orchestrated following the revelation that key evidence was being set aside. What’s interesting is that the protests were orchestrated by text message.

More shocking, however, was that the protests were initiated within two hours of the news going public. Word got out when the prosecution panel vacated the court. On the first day thousands of people converged on the streets of the nation’s capital Manila. Two days later, more than a million packed the streets.

Long story short, on 20 January, three days from when the protests began, Estrada was stripped of his presidency.

The outcome: social media can be, and has been used to oppose government corruption.

The key feature of this event – the one that made it so startling for the Philippines’ government – was its immediacy. In 2001, a response of this scale on such short notice was all but unheard of.

Immediacy is the product of a number of social media’s key benefits. One, communication is instantaneous. Coupled with its ubiquity – social media is in our homes, our workplaces, our pockets – and you begin to see why it can be used to organise large-scale demonstrations.

The last factor allowing for such a rapid response is the inherent simplicity of social media. All it takes is an idea people will respond to; communicating and sharing of the idea is the easy part. In this case, it was the sending and sharing of a text that read: “Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.”

It also suggests social media is perhaps more culturally reflective than other media. Unlike other media, ideas that do not resonate strongly with a large number of people do not gain momentum. If an idea strikes to the heart of a cultural mindset, it is beyond most governments to oppress its perpetuation.

The Arab Spring: a social revolution.

The most significant part of the Arab Spring revolution took place between December 2010 and early 2012.

During this time, political figures and dictators were forcibly removed in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, public uprisings took place in Bahrain and Syria, and protests – both peaceful and aggressive – took place across 12 North African and Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

What’s truly fascinating about this whole event is how it was catalysed by the actions of a single man and then amplified across social media.

A street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the streets of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, on 17 December 2010. He did so in protest of attempts from local authorities to exhort and confiscate his goods. He was also allegedly harassed and humiliated by government officials.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation was captured by onlookers, who were filming on their phones. Spread through social media, this footage became a symbol for the Arab world’s fight for a more politically equitable and civil society.

The Tunisian Revolution began the day after Bouazizi’s demonstration, marking the start of the Arab Spring.

What’s significant in this example is the flexibility of social media to deliver content in a variety of formats.

Do you suppose Bouazizi’s self-immolation would have had the same impact if the story had been communicated in writing, or with photography? It was the communication of this horrifying event through the medium of video that was potent. The people who saw it got the nearest possible experience to actually being there.

Another key point is around the lack of regulation – or, perhaps more accurately, the difficulty of regulation – which made social media such a powerful tool in this instance. Bouazizi’s actions are a shocking demonstration, one that would never have otherwise seen daylight due to the tightly held restrictions on mainstream media outlets in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries.

And yet Bouazizi’s actions were precisely the impetus to trigger broader political change. Middle-Eastern governments almost instantly found they were powerless to stop the unrest. They could no longer restrict the public’s communication, or their coordination of protests through social channels, as they once might have with traditional media.

All of the above reasons are important, but what I feel is the most interesting point of this story is social media’s role as a virtual civil society.

It provides many of the people in affected countries with the order, civility and sense of community they find lacking in their physical world. This feature of social media is integral. It’s these communal frameworks that allow the large-scale decision-making and cooperation necessary for political change.

Depending on the context, it might appear that social media was built for revolution; elsewhere it appears it was built for entertainment and self-expression. Neither of these views necessarily discounts the other. It simply has multiple purposes.

How a comedian became the UK’s second-most influential political figure.

A list put together earlier this year placed actor and comedian Russell Brand as the second-most influential political figure in the UK, behind British Prime Minister David Cameron. How is it that a comedian – who claims to never have voted in his life – is considered very nearly the most influential person in British politics?

Brand appears on television to talk about politics and has even written a book with a strong focus on the subject. But a significant portion of his influence has social media at its foundation, namely, his YouTube channel with 1.1 million subscribers. Through this channel, Brand analyses social and political events, and often speaks with journalists, activists and political figures.

By using his influence through this channel, Brand has been able to communicate with online audiences to gather support and generate media attention for a number of causes.

One example is Brand’s support of families of the New Era Housing Estate, who were being pushed out of affordable housing by a private firm. The group organised a number of protests and gathered more than 300,000 signatures before the firm abandoned their redevelopment plans for the estate.

Brand also endorsed and took part in the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, where around 50,000 people gathered to protest the government’s lack of recognition and conversation around inequality.

Interestingly, Brand posted interviews with key political candidates on his YouTube channel shortly before the May 2015 General Election. Interviews which included previous Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

Brand urged people to vote either Green or Labour rather than Conservative. But in the end, he was widely blamed for low youth turnout, as his call for political involvement came after voting registration had closed.

Brand is not the only figure of this type. Recently retired American talk-show host and comedian Jon Stewart is touted as one of the most politically influential person in his country. The difference, though, is Brand’s focus on social media as a broadcasting tool.

Once again, the flexibility of multi-format content on social media is a key factor in Brand’s popularity and influence. When content appears across Brand’s social mix – video, blog and podcast – he is giving his audience the ability to choose the method of delivery that best suits them.

It’s a perception thing: people perceive they have greater control of what they receive through social media, as opposed to, say, print or television – and they’re usually right. It means they are more likely to trust what they receive through their social network.

This is closely related to the highly subjective nature of social media. The deconstruction of traditional hierarchies – where people can engage with one another in level-ground dialogue regardless of their social status – has led to a peer-to-peer dynamic. This brings with it a degree of trust and credibility.

Think about it this way: we tend to trust the testimony of a friend over the promise of an advertiser. With social media, we often trust the connections in our social networks more than we do the authority of traditional media. It plays a large part in Brand’s influence as a political activist – he is seen as a credible source with nothing to gain from lying to you.

Perhaps the most notable point in which Brand excels is in his understanding that social media is the place where information and entertainment collide. It’s not the nightly news and it’s not reality TV; it’s somewhere in-between.

His experience as a comedian allows him to make the political and the esoteric into something amusing and relatable.

The era of social politics.

The examples in this article lend themselves to the positive impact of social media as a political tool. Social media is an amazingly effective tool for the coordination of group efforts, and can be useful in building support for a cause.

However, it is important to remember that social media wasn’t constructed as a harbinger of political change. The reality is that it will never be a substitute for real-world action. True political change – that is, change that happens not within the political system, but to the political system – requires more than sentiment or empty gestures.

If people want social media that enables, and even enhances, a truly inclusive and representative political system, it could be time to build something new.

***

I’m interested in your thoughts. How do you think social media has changed our world in a meaningful way?