Until recently, no one took social media seriously. Its only use was to either find your long-lost friends or brag about your latest acquisitions or just indulge in voyeurism. Social media was actually considered a nuisance for parents whose children were spending more time on Facebook than studying or for companies whose employees were socializing more than working. No one thought social media could make any serious contribution to human life, forget creating revolutions.
But Arab Spring which started a year ago or our own Jan Lokpal movement have proved us all wrong. Facebook and Twitter are said to have played a major role in creating awareness and organizing people in the massive protests which took place against the authoritarian rulers of Arab World.
The so-called Arab Spring started in a city called Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia when a street vendor set himself on fire. Many people took to the streets in sympathy for the man and against the corrupt government, rising prices and lack of opportunities. The protests intensified when the man died few days later, ultimately toppling the government.
Tunisia has a population of just around 11 million, but 35% of its population is online. There are around three million Facebook accounts in Tunisia. Facebook was wisely used by political activists to organize protests. Many tweets were fired through cellphones and videos uploaded on You Tube.
Arab Spring later spread to Egypt, Libya and Syria; toppling governments in Egypt and Libya. In Syria, protests are still going on. Social media is said to have played a major role more or less in all these countries.
But everyone is not convinced. Many people think that social media is given more credit than it deserves.
There is a merit to this argument. Revolutions can not happen by updating statuses and tweeting. People have to come out on streets. Also, there has to be a built-up resentment in people’s mind against the government; the resentment so strong that it can make them face the police or go to jail if required.
Another argument that is put against social media is that many people feel content with internet activism. Also, when they express their anger online, the intensity of their anger mellows down. They don’t actively take part in political activism. Also, it is hard to believe that social media is the only medium through which people were organized. We can’t discount the importance of mass media and one-to-one interaction.
But where social media helps is in creating awareness. Making people feel that they are not alone. Sometimes, it acts as an alternative media when mainstream media fails to reach at a certain place or when a certain incident or fact skips its attention. Citizen journalism has come of age because of internet. During Arab Spring, mainstream media effectively used social media. They were keeping tabs on what people were tweeting or talking about on Facebook. They also engaged with common citizens on these platforms.
Since social media is a horizontal medium unlike mass media which is vertical, it is more engaging. People are more likely to take part in something if their friends are participating. Also, Facebook could be a good source of information for people who don’t like to read newspapers or watch news channels.
Though social media is at a nascent stage as far as its use for political activism is concerned, it holds a great potential in future. The only necessity is the people who are informed as well as know how to use social media effectively.