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Emerging Socio-political Power of Social media

Update: 2017-07-01 04:56:32
Emerging Socio-political Power of Social media Symbolic image (collected)

by Dr Mahfuz Parvez 

Social media differ from paper-based media (e.g. magazines and newspapers) or traditional electronic media such as TV broadcasting in many ways, including quality, reach, frequency, usability, immediacy, and permanence. 

Social media operate in a dialogic transmission system (many sources to many receivers). This is in contrast to traditional media which operates under a monologic transmission model (one source to many receivers), such as a paper newspaper which is delivered to many subscribers or a radio station which broadcasts the same programs to an entire city. 

Some of the most popular social media websites are Baidu Tieba, Facebook (and its associated Facebook Messenger), Gab, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Viber, WeChat, Weibo, WhatsApp, and YouTube. These social media websites have more than 100,000,000 registered users.

Social media are computer-mediated that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks. The variety of stand-alone and built-in social media services currently available introduces challenges of definition; however, there are some common features, such as Social media are interactive Web 2.0 Internet-based applications. 

User-generated content, such as text posts or comments, digital photos or videos, and data generated through all online interactions, are the lifeblood of social media. Users create service-specific profiles for the website or app that are designed and maintained by the social media organization. Social media facilitate the development of online social networks by connecting a user's profile with those of other individuals or groups.
Social media use web-based technologies, desktop computers and mobile technologies (e.g. smart phones and tablet computers) to create highly interactive platforms through which individuals, communities and organizations can share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content or pre-made content posted online. They introduce substantial and pervasive changes to communication between businesses, organizations, communities and individuals. 

Social media changes the way individuals and large organizations communicate. These changes are the focus of the emerging field of techno self studies.

In America, a survey reported that 84 percent of adolescents in America have a Facebook account. Over 60% of 13 to 17-year-olds have at least one profile on social media, with many spending more than two hours a day on social networking sites. Internet users continue to spend more time on social media sites than on any other type of site. At the same time, the total time spent on social media sites in the U.S. across PCs as well as on mobile devices increased by 99 percent to 121 billion minutes in July 2012 compared to 66 billion minutes in July 2011. 

For content contributors, the benefits of participating in social media have gone beyond simply social sharing to building a reputation and bringing in career opportunities and monetary income. 

Social media technologies take many different forms including blogs, business networks, enterprise social networks, forums, micro blogs, photo sharing, products/services review, social bookmarking, social gaming, social networks, video sharing, and virtual worlds. 

The development of social media started off with simple platforms such as  Unlike instant messaging clients such as ICQ and AOL's AIM, or chat clients like IRC, iChat or Chat Television, was the first online business that was created for real people, using their real names. However, the first social networks were short-lived because their users lost interest. 

The Social Network Revolution has led to the rise of the networking sites. Research shows that the audience spends 22 percent of their time on social networking sites, thus proving how popular social media platforms have become. This increase is because of the smart phones that are now in the daily lives of most humans. 

Social media has been at the core not only of US presidential campaigns, but also major protests and social movements across the globe. The year 2011 has been defined by the Social media democracy. Digital tools, such as Facebook, Twitter etc. define the social movements by giving rise to a new generation of activism. Revolutionaries and social activists are being empowered more with the countries being connected online. 

The Egyptian revolution or Arab Spring of 2011, overthrowing the reign of Hosni Mubarak, is a glaring example of this phenomenon.  In South Asia too, the web revolution has gained momentum in the last less than ten years. The Social media fever has caught the region like storm, especially amongst the youth.     

Considering the media situation, political or social movements can be viewed as collective enterprises to establish a new order of life. They have their inception in the condition of unrest, and derive their motive power on one hand from dissatisfaction with the current form of life, and on the other hand, from wishes and hopes for a new scheme or system of living. 

Our region was a witness to extreme radicalism, resulting in corruption, crime, degradation of women and other social evils under the previous regime. In the case of India, the 2012 Delhi gang rape case was condemned by the people in India and abroad. Social activist, Anna Hazare launched a crusade against corruption and the entire nation joined him. These discrete happenings in India required a concerted movement to change the entire psyche of the country.  

It is well known that both the colossal protests of 2012 (Anti corruption movement by Anna Hazare and outrage following Nirbhaya gang rape case) were channelized through the social media like Facebook and Twitter.  It is recollected that government machinery in India had come to a standstill and the events garnered immense national and global headlines, and got the common man involved. 

Even political parties are beginning to realize the influence of the social media. Mini-swings in vote banks of 3 to 4 % increasingly decide the winner, and this is where the influence of social media, particularly in urban constituencies where the penetration of social media and Internet is higher, becomes a very significant factor. This age profile of new voters coincides with those among the population who tend to ‘live and breathe’ social media, accessing it almost every hour of their day, 7 days a week. 

The role of social media behind the formation of Gonojagoron Mancha in Dhaka was another significant example of emerging political force. 

However, debates about the role of the social media in political mobilization became increasingly polarized in 2008 Presidential election campaign of Barak Obama’s and the supposed “Twitter rebellion” in Iran in 2009. Increasingly, the proponents of new technologies were labeled “cyber utopians”, arguing against the dinosaurs that still held to outmoded forms of organization. Policymakers create digital keywords to help draw attention to their issues and events, hoping they’ll live on in the Twitter verse. They place signs advertising the hash tags on lecterns and platforms so they make camera shots. But social media also can limit a politician’s messaging: Once something is posted, the conversation belongs to social media’s users and can take on a life of its own. 

The power of truth and the reach of social networks can be a threatening combination for those with something to hide. In China, the government of President Xi Jinping has expressed concern about the real power that social media has to spread information. Hundreds of bloggers across the country have been detained and intimidation tactics have ramped up. Microbloggers have been threatened with three years' jail time for posting ‘false’ information that is viewed at least 5,000 times. 

Meanwhile, society is dynamic and is undergoing transformation at different levels- more so during the 21st century which has witnessed a remarkable development in the field of technology. The rapid transformation has ridden on the back of social movements and has been triggered by social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, E-mails, SMS and Blogs have become very popular and are widely being used by the policy makers and persons wielding influence to communicate with the mass. The activists find it easy to connect and organize themselves through these tools. The youth of today is very much addicted to them which influence their thoughts and decisions. 

Therefore, social media is a tool of liberation and empowerment. In countries where traditional media is a tool of control, these new social channels have the power to radically change the world drastically. The growth of social media is equally impressive. The revolution called social media has actually taken the world by storm and its growth has been exponential; where radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users, television took 14 years to achieve the same target, the internet got there in just 4 years; furthermore iPod took 3 years for the same whereas Facebook added 100 million users in less than 9 months. This site grew from 150 million users in January 2009 to over 500 million today in 2017.

In contemporary period, technological changes have been seen as strong evolutionary force but the advent of social media and the internet has affected all spheres of human life - personal, professional, social, economical as well as political. The internet has made the world a smaller place in which democracy and the market was certain to flourish. Significant benefits have been drawn from social media and internet as a tool for connection and communication.

Internet users who visit social networking sites or any blogging site comprise of two-third of the world’s internet users consuming about 10% of the whole time spent on internet ( and accounts for 65% of internet usage ( Expert Robert Alan Silverstein has rightly quoted thus, ‘Although the Internet can be a maze of information overload, this social networking tool is also being used to inspire and organize an emerging global movement for a better world.’  

On the other hand, regarding social media, Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of eBay and publisher and CEO of First Look Media also commented in his article: ‘In my eyes, social media is one of the most important global leaps forward in recent human history. It provides for self-expression and promotes mutual understanding. It enables rapid formation of networks and demonstrates our common humanity across cultural differences. It connects people, their ideas and values, like never before.’ 

He further added, ‘I've seen firsthand the power of human connections online forming communities of interest. They are self-monitoring, with their own norms and expectations. From the printing press to the telephone to the Internet, each of these tools has been a way to organize and activate -- to give people the voice they want and deserve. Forward-thinking governments will listen to those voices and empower them. Others will be fearful of the voice of the people and remain on the losing side of history.’

The scope of social media in political campaign is not only important but it is also an opportunity to be in touch with large numbers of voters instantly and at a very low cost. With the speed of communications and the numbers of people engaged in it especially the youth, the impact has to be significant because politically active people are subscribing to the candidates on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Blogs. 

Hence, it can be concluded that this decade has been observed as an explosion of debate, blogging, hype and theorizing around the role of social media and internet in social movements and for political campaigning. 

Social media is also playing an important new role in election and democratic process. The global connectivity has increased to a great degree today. The best way to define social networking sites is to say that they give an opportunity to interact with people through texts, pictures and videos. All this by just a click on your electronic device - be it personal computers, laptops, tablets or mobiles. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube which facilitate the creation and exchange of user-created content have been identified as keys to events as diverse as the rise of student protests in Britain at the end of 2010 and the outbreak of revolution in the Arab world.

Observers have noted a range of positive and negative impacts of social media use. Social media can help to improve individuals' sense of connectedness with real or online communities and social media can be an effective communication (or marketing) tool for corporations, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations, including advocacy groups and political parties and governments. 

At the same time, concerns have been raised about possible links between heavy social media use and depression, and even the issues of cyber bullying, online harassment and "trolling". Currently, about half of young adults have been cyber bullied and of those, 20 percent said that they have been cyber bullied regularly. 

Another survey was carried out among 7th grade students in America which is known as the Precaution Process Adoption Model. According to this study, 69 percent of 7th grade students claim to have experienced cyber bullying and they also said that it is worse than face to face bullying. 

Global trends have shown an overall increase in the use of Web technology in the recent past. This is especially true for the Middle East and Far East countries. The Facebook penetration in the developing and African countries has overtaken the developed world. 

Indian politicians from the three national parties, namely the Congress, BJP and AAP have followed the footsteps of Obama, who extensively used social media as a strategy to win his 2012 elections in America. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first Indian politicians to set up his personal website, and has created accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Google+ and most of the other social media channels.  The Congress party's undeclared candidate for PM, Rahul Gandhi is not so much active on social media. Anti-corruption campaigner-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal is also very active on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ and YouTube. 

Hence, we see that today every political party is actively involved in social networking sites to seek out upcoming new voters at a very low cost, and this is a great way to generate mass support. Social media is the best place for political party to attract first time voters and improve their chances of winning elections. Politicians are taking part in Google+ Hangouts, televised interviews organized by Facebook and using the Facebook- owned smart phone messaging app WhatsApp to connect with millions of tech-savvy urban voters. 

Although Internet penetration in India continues to remain low, it is estimated that out of a population of 1.2 billion, around 150 million people in India are online active users of the various social media and email platforms (71 million Facebook users and 20 million Twitter account holders). Each of these acts as a socio-political influencer on three to five adults on an average.  This makes the size of the social media influence networks to be a minimum of 300 million voters, not a small number at all. 

It can thus be concluded that social media has played and will continue to play a significant role in political campaigns.

The writer is a professor at Department of Political Science, University of Chittagong and can be reached at [email protected]

BDST: 1457 HRS, JUL 01, 2017

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