Worshiping Social Media

This week’s readings seemed to comment on the notion that we, as citizens, give today’s new Internet technologies far too much praise than they deserve.  We are so captivated by them (and what we believe they can help us achieve) that we are becoming blind to many of their potential downfalls.  Social media, in particular, has become the ultimate new form of political engagement.  Many organizations worldwide are in the process of making a switch from using traditional resources to relay their information to using websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.  This switch is even happening in the government: The International Information Program has decided to stop using their America.gov site, and instead shift its focus towards social media projects.  Their Deputy Assistant Secretary, Duncan MacInnes, claims that a “static website is no longer the best way to promote understanding of policy (…) The new paradigm, particularly for reaching youth, is you have to go to where people already are on the Web.  People don’t visit you, you have to go to them.”  Given the rapidly changing communications environment it seems logical that they would make this switch, one that MacInnes claims is a far more “proactive” engagement strategy than what was used before.

However, as Morozov points out, the Internet may not fully incorporate all of the aspects necessary for true activism that traditional methods had.  Also, those creating the social media sites may be experts, technologically, but that does not mean that they are experts socially or politically.  In other words, they don’t know whether their system will effectively engage and mobilize its intended users.  Morozov notes, “Being able to ask the right technological questions requires a good grasp of the sociopolitical context in which a given technology is supposed to be used (…) It is irresponsible to apply more technology to social and political problems that are not technological in nature.”  If it is not completely thought out and used correctly, technology will only lead to further problems like it did for the Iranians whose Tweets were tracked by the government during the revolution. 

Morozov claims, “it is easy to lose sight of real-world dynamics when one is so enthralled by the supposed brilliance of a technological fix.”  This being said, it seems crucial that before more and more government agencies begin to make the same switch that the IIP has, that they consider whether social media truly suits their needs or if they are merely conforming to what they feel they “should” do or “it is time” to do.  Youmans and York point out that “by placing too much emphasis on the role of social media, popular commentaries both mystify its effects and ignore the deeper historical roots of rebellion in the pre-Internet era.”  Do you agree with Youmans/York/Morozov and believe that we have largely overemphasized the effects of social media?  If the government, the most powerful organization in existence, is beginning to turn to it as a means of disseminating information, does that mean that it is destined to be the future for all organizations?

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One Response to Worshiping Social Media

  1. I certainly hope that we are not leaving the dissemination of important information to social media websites, but I know there is a large proportion of people who wouldn’t mind it. The reason Youmans and York seemed to think that we largely overemphasize it is due to our connotation with social media being positive. We like to think that joining groups and supporting politicians and ideas that we like is making the future better–but in reality many social media companies are concerned with revenue (and avoiding making other countries and targetable demographics upset). I would almost argue that we’re underemphasizing the potentially terrifying possibility that standing with an idea on the internet or being tagged in a photo online could lead directly to censorship–or worse, physical persecution.

    Like Morozov, I don’t believe that technology is the magical solution to collective action problems–he’s stated numerous times that protests have existed long before Facebook. But I certainly believe that technology makes it easier to disguise repression, filter out important information, and perhaps give suppressive regimes more surveillance power and control than we can imagine. Thanks! Great post.

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