Is Social Media Really All That?

Throughout the semester, we have discussed the capabilities and reach of social media and what the Internet has to offer.  From local campaigns to global social movements, we have learned that social media and the Internet can provide a reliable means of communication and rallying, and even have the potential of creating a completely digital society.  The Arab Spring movement offers an example of how the Internet can provide a way of establishing and growing a social revolution, as we’ve learned, however this week’s authors provide an alternate view as to the effectiveness of social media in this realm.  In his piece, “Does Egypt Need Twitter?”, Malcolm Gladwell offers insight into the history of revolutions and their use of social media, or lack thereof, and questions the reliance and trust that today’s society places on Internet communications.  In “Social Media and the Activist Toolkit”, Youmans discusses the misuse and restraints that can come with social media reliance.  He argues, that “social media can provide the tools for organized dissent yet can constrain collective action” (316).  Architectural changes to the structure of social networking sites have, over time, changed the way in which different groups use social media, causing them to lose their effectiveness.  Both authors convey that social media is a means for starting a revolution or informing the public, but the actual act of the revolution comes from far more than a Tweet or Facebook post.

Gladwell offers an interesting perspective in arguing against the efficacy of social media in revolutionary movements today.  He states that “we now believe that the ‘how’ of a communicative act is of huge importance”, which was not the case in situations past (2).  Gladwell argues that real social activism requires “deep roots and strong ties” and does not necessarily have to do with who used which new media tool (2).  The action is what drives the change, not protests via Facebook, which Gladwell might categorize as Slacktivism.  He argues that historically, movements have still been able to take down their governments or instill change without Facebook, or even so much as a phone. 

Youmans offers similar insight, and discusses how some people label the Arab Spring a “Facebook revolution”, while others point more toward its core causes of unemployment and state repression.  As Gladwell would agree, Youmans offers the third viewpoint of too much emphasis being placed on social media, causing people to “ignore the deeper historical roots of rebellion in the pre-Internet era” (316).  However, Youmans also points to the changes in social media and who uses them, causing them to be less effective in the long run.  Such changes in social media and the structures of their platforms have introduced or expanded constraints to activist users, thus risking the effectiveness of their campaigns (317).  Through his study, he was able to portray how “prohibitions on anonymity and certain content types, and the use of community policing of offensive material and greater infiltration by government agents can lessen social media’s utility” (318). 

Our generation has been brought up with and exposed to social media and the Internet as a norm.  It is easy to understand the positive implications they can have on day-to-day life or even more large-scale causes.  However, it is not as easy to see the negative, harmful, or unnecessary implications they can have.  Would you agree the authors by saying that social media should not play as large a role as it does in today’s means of activism?  Can social media and the Internet still be considered reliable means of communicating or do we place too much emphasis on their capabilities?  Are their capabilities really as successful as we have been brought up to believe?

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5 Responses to Is Social Media Really All That?

  1. John D'Adamo says:

    I agree in part with Youmans in that social media is only one part of the equation in terms of successful revolution- militaries play a role, and the will of the people to wage a successful revolution in the wake of pushback. Social media, however, was a way to raise awareness of the issues of people who are normally ignorant, and this alone played a very important role in the Arab Spring. Morozov talks about how local victories should be focused on, rather than focusing too much on the big picture. We’ll talk more about this in our group presentation on Wednesday! #RememberTheSpringtime

  2. I believe it depends on the context of where social media is playing a role of whether or not it should have as large of a role as it does in today’s “activism.” I do agree that only protesting online or writing about something that individuals believe should change is not enough and that actual in-person action needs to take place, like Youmans talked about, capturing and holding public spheres. But, at the same time, social media sites and the Internet are so integrated in today’s society, it is almost pointless to say they should not play such a big role in activism. Some people do not even get information from more traditional outlets like television, radio, or print today, so Internet can be very essential in reaching them. Internet and social media seem to be reliable for communicating in countries that allow users to use them freely like here in the United States, but countries that have highly monitored Internet use by government like some of the countries in the Arab world, it might not be as reliable. Though it might not be as reliable in those more repressed countries, that does not mean it still isn’t an important way to communicate, especially because it can reach so many people so quickly. We do place a lot of emphasis on these new digital technologies for the success of certain events, but with reason because many protests and events today could not be possible without some use of these things and in some cases, have helped catapult and spread support for certain events.

  3. cwcullen says:

    It is really interesting to hear arguments rejecting the notion that social media played a strong role in the Arab Spring considering the fact that people were calling it a Facebook revolution and thanking social media sites for their role in the revolts. When you do look back at history and see all of the examples of successful revolutions that occurred way before the invention of the Internet, it is hard not to think that maybe things haven’t changed much from the past. It seems that the motivational factors driving people to act are more significant than the tools they use to transmit their messages.

  4. gkornblau says:

    While I undoubtedly believe that social media played a large part in the Arab Spring, I agree with Youman’s point that there have been a ton of successful revolutions throughout history prior to the time of social media. Therefore, it is difficult to claim that social media is the sole enabler of these revolutions, and without social media these revolutions would cease to exist. I do believe, though, that social media has played a more integral part in the revolution than Youman gives it credit for. In an era that is dominated by social media, people neglect to use other forms of communication such as newspapers, magazines, and even sometimes the news. Had social media stepped back during these times of revolution, a significant amount of people would have been uninformed about the happenings around them. Additionally, I would argue that much of the information conveyed by those traditional news sources was gathered from social media and digital sources. As mentioned, social media gave citizen the opportunity to act as journalists. Traditional media companies which, due to autocratic regimes, may not have had a great deal of power and ability to find information, were able to utilize social media to obtain the details of what was really going on in their society and publish it for those who were interested in traditional media. Social media should not be considered the primary factor in the Arab Spring, however it is important to measure its widespread impact on all aspects of the revolution.

  5. Pingback: Skeptical Media | Christian's Chronicles

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