Social media and its role to shape world
The rise of the Internet has spurred the development of web-based communication platforms. Digital platforms have been growing stronger throughout the last decade, facilitating the exchange of information. Online content has undergone a transformation from being a source of raw data to also becoming an interactive tool, enabling the public to collaborate on projects through the exchange of knowledge and opinions.
As a result, consumers of information have now also become producers of information. People with common interests organise online groups and societies in which every participant can contribute by using social tools such as social networks, videos, blogs and photo-blogging to establish common ground. The Internet enables any person to influence public opinion, creating inclusiveness and a new dimension for public relations.
Social media has established new ways of communicating and creating perceptions between businesses and consumers, organisations and their audiences, political offices and their electorate. Yet despite the optimism about what social media can achieve, evidence appears limited--and sometimes contradictory. A recent World Bank report simply states that there isn't much evidence of the impact of social media in developing countries.
The most intensive scrutiny of the relationship between social media and politics is found in analysis of the Arab uprisings. Social media was instrumental to the uprisings because it provided a means to transform individualised, localised and community-specific dissent into a collective consciousness and shared opportunity for action. As one Egyptian protestor put it at the time: "We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world".
In this way, as Pippa Norris argues, social media reinforced "cultural values conducive to participation in popular protest movements". A US Institute of Peace report further argues that sharing videos relating to regime violence and electoral fraud appear to have contributed to new norms against such behaviour. However, social media may be less effective in representing the interests of ordinary people on a sustained basis. A number of critics bemoan 'clicktivism', arguing that it gives a perception of participation that may actually reduce effective, real world action.
In addition, greater transparency doesn't necessarily equate to better debate or meaningful participation by politicians. A recent study of the intense social media usage in the run-up to the Ugandan election notes that both President Museveni and his then-challenger Amama Mbabazi are "active tweeps with huge numbers of followers". Mbabazi actually announced his candidacy on YouTube and held a 3-hour online press conference at his home, running under the hashtag #AskAmama.
However, throughout the campaign, online analyses of policy positions and political objectives were mostly overshadowed by discussions about rumours, allegations of misconduct, personal attacks and which candidate pulled the bigger crowds. In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov issues even harsher warnings about the way in which some regimes use social networks to spread propaganda and suppress nascent democratic movements. Social media and networking have broken the barriers when it comes to communicating and we are spoilt for choice when it comes to ways of getting in contact with someone.
Today, if you can't reach someone on the phone, you can leave a voice mail or send a text. Or even better, tweet, Facebook message, or touch base in other ways. We have the ability to see what others are doing, often within seconds of them doing it. Social media search functions also make it easier if we want to track someone down who we are looking for or may have lost touch with. There are seemingly endless sources we can search to access the information we need.
Social media has given everyday people the ability to have a voice that can reach millions of people. Before social media was such a big element in our lives, you could have an opinion, or a view on something and only really your close knit group of friends or family would know about it. But given how easy social media makes it to reach other people, more people are using social media as an outlet to vent, and share their thoughts.
While this can be a great tool (as we've highlighted above) with raising awareness for worthy causes or sharing important news with your network. Many social media users have found themselves in extremely hot water when it comes to sharing an opinion online that may not be a welcome opinon, or a view that might have the capacity to offend people. For instance people have found themselves fired from positions, or on the face of news publications for over sharing, or making comments on issues that has caused mass offense. Social media has given companies a chance to have a voice when it comes to their brand and a different way to connect and engage with their customers as well as their employees.
Social networks enable businesses across the world to amplify their message in a way never thought possible only a decade or two ago. Businesses can now respond to customer queries and complaints in real time, with the ability to converse and engage with their customers on a different level which is continually improving as social media companies' progress. This in turn is creating a better sense of customer service and brand loyalty among followers. Social media has proved to be an invaluable tool for businesses who want to grow and connect with their audience.
The speed of social media has changed the way we learn about and respond to natural disasters. After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, non-profits used social media to mobilize rescue efforts and to support the community. This also saw the deployment of one of the most successful text-to-donate campaigns seen at the time. Similarly, when earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan in March 2011, millions of people around the globe used social media to search for family and friends, as well as get updates on a situation that was very frightening at the time.
More recently back in April 2015 after the disaster of the Nepal earthquake Facebook reacted quickly by activating a function that allowed those in the vicinity of the disaster to mark themselves as 'safe' on Facebook so that their friends and loved ones we're able to see. Years ago, it was more difficult after a natural disaster such as an earthquake for families and friends to located potentially lost family members, social media has been able to bridge where there was a gap there.
Arif Majumdar is NGO worker and social activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org