As a political observer, I’m interested in how social media plays a role in politics both from the top-down and the bottom-up. I previously wrote about how politicians are using social media to campaign and reach voters, and with Hilary Clinton using YouTube and social media channels to launch her bid for U.S. presidency, it’s clear that social media is important in politics. But what about from the voters’ perspective? Can they too use social media to affect change?
According to Foreign Affairs magazine, “Since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the world’s networked population has grown from the low millions to the low billions. Over the same period, social media have become a fact of life for civil society worldwide, involving many actors — regular citizens, activists, nongovernmental organizations, telecommunications firms, software providers, governments.”
Further, the article states: “The use of social media tools — text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like — does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore, attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes. … The safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question, Do digital tools enhance democracy? … is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run — and that they have the most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constrains the actions of the government.”
This article was printed in the January/February 2011 edition, and likely written before the Arab Spring happened. It even says that social media technologies were too new to assess, but I think it’s clear, four years later, that social media can be used as political tool for regular citizens. In Canada, we saw that in 2013 with the Idle No More movement.
“Social media allows the people who are actually directly involved and impacted by these kinds of movements … to have their voices heard,” said Erica Lee, then a university student who took part in the movement that saw a rally of 100 in Saskatchewan at the start turn into a national outcry which led to political conversations about the state Canada’s aboriginal peoples were in.
There was also the social media backlash against proposed legislation to allow warrantless searches online, known as Bill C-30, which effectively killed the bill.
Malcom Gladwell notes however that social media is not be all and end all.
“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, co-ordinate, and give voice to their concerns,” Gladwell wrote. That may be true, but activism still needs activists to create real change, he adds.
“The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”
Gladwell is correct, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the tools in modern activism are bad. I believe social media is playing a larger role in political movements, and is becoming more influential in the political sphere both in Canada and around the world. Because of its mass appeal, large outreach, instantaneous communication and the technology that allows all of that, social media is an important tool in changing society.