6.5 Social Media and Revolution

  • Who do you think is “right” about social media’s role: Shirky? Gladwell? Both? And why?
  • How much do you think technology matters when it comes to politics in general and revolutionary change in particular? Do you think the revolution in Tunisia would have happened without social media? How about Egypt?
  • Are there potential “dark sides” or problems with the role social media is playing? What are they?

I believe that Gladwell makes a couple of very valid points, the best of these is the observation that protesting via social media does not lend itself to being a very “low risk” activisim. I think  that he poo poos too much though. That a person lends a very little amount to a protest if he/she is only participating via Twitter and other social media is not the key here-it is that they are participating. Can you imagine the type of outcry that would have occurred had our kind of social media been around during the Civil Rights Movement? The way that Gladwell makes it sound is that, unless you are willing to be beaten or killed, your support (or lack there of) means nothing. If you don’t make a significant contribution in the way of blood sweat and tears you invalidate the whole process.

I do not for one minute think that social media is the end all-be all of communication and activism, but I do believe that people without a voice in public are sometimes willing to be warriors when they can stay safe-not pretty or redeeming really, but true. Politics as usual ended with the advent of the president being on TV, Twitter and Facebook and the rest are just a continuation of that. The fact that everyone seems to have a portable video maker on their phones just means that some people get caught with more than their hand in the cookie jar. That being said, I think the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt would have happened with or without social media as we know it. The boiling point had been reached in those areas. What social media and the internet did was give the protests/revolution a wider audience. It is hard to hide social injustice when it is “caught on tape.” Was it a tool in the previously mentioned places? Undoubtedly. Did it drive the protests/revolutions? Probably not in the way we would like to think. And I disagree with Gladwell’s assertions that it would not be possible to have a hierarchical base via social media. Has the man never seen a full blown flash mob? You get a hundred people that don’t really know each other to the same place and get them to dance cohesively and then tell me that large numbers of people cannot be mobilized via text message! I am also insulted by his assumption that I think of all the people I know on Facebook are my true friends. I am certainly aware, as I am sure most people are, that my acquaintances are just that. I am also very aware that not everything posted on the Internet is the absolute truth!

Are there dangerous, dark areas to this whole revolution? Of course! A person would be really silly to believe everything that is tweeted or to jump to conclusions before all the facts are in! A really sad example happened during the recent coverage of the shootings at Sandy Hooks. Before the investigation had even gotten off the ground, the shooters older brother was tagged as the killer. In a matter of minutes there were bogus Facebook pages, twitter accounts and much more. That poor guy had to endure death threats, the loss of his mother and, for better or worse, the death of a brother. Much of the bogus information was gleaned from Facebook and Twitter and leaked to the media. Years ago we would have been waiting for information as the investigation progressed. The police would not have been spending time trying to correct bogus information that had popped up in the mainstream media because some idiot sent a text!

Social media is like any other tool, it is all in how we use it.

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