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The Political Power of Social Media


Throughout history, ordinary people have been coming together and fighting against political powers that oppress them. From the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, through to the Civil Rights movement in the United States throughout the 1950s and 60s, up until this very day, mass mobilization of people and large-scale demonstration have been used to fight the governing authorities who abuse rights, deny basic needs and ignore calls for change. Ultimately, the plight of activists is connected to their desire for rights which have been diminished or denied, rights which they inherently deserve.

The nature of mass mobilisation has undeniably changed with the development of new technology and, in particular, with the rise of social media. Whilst the end result - i.e. people pouring onto the streets with placards - remains much the same, the way in which activists organise has changed entirely. The last decade saw social media being harnessed by activists to spread their message, raise awareness and create networks that could ultimately coordinate huge numbers onto the streets. In recent years this has been on an unprecedented international scale.

The 2011 Egyptian Revolution was largely fuelled by the sharing of anti-government content on Facebook and Twitter, such as the 'We Are All Khaled Said' Facebook page dedicated to a man who was beaten to death by police after he shared a video on YouTube which exposed the Egyptian police using the drugs they had just seized in a raid. This page had amassed around 400,000 followers when it called for its members to protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo on the 25th January 2011. When the day finally came, millions of people gathered in the square. Consequently, by February, the then-President, Hosini Mubarack, was forced to resign. Whilst this was not the end of the struggles faced by the Egyptian people and the political issues of the country persisted, it was a clear sign that social media could be used by activists to rise up against authoritarian regimes and bring about some degree of change.

"...this content can be manipulated to the extent that it threatens the legitimacy of the democratic system."

But we can’t be too quick to praise the positive power of social media. There is a dark side to these platforms that is becoming increasingly apparent as their position in society strengthens.  Beyond the issues of trolling, cyber-bullying and general nastiness online - issues which have recently been the subject of public debate - social media can also be used as a political tool in a decidedly negative manner. Going back to the example of the Egyptian Revolution, we must keep in mind that it was almost ten years ago, back when the true political power of social media was underestimated. In response to the protests, the Egyptian Government blocked internet access for five days. Unsurprisingly, this had little impact on the momentum of the protests and many people found simple ways to circumvent the block. It didn’t take long for governments around the world to not only realise the power of social media in the political context, but to begin using it for their benefit.

The 2016 United States Presidential Election and alleged Russian involvement shed a stark light on the impact that content can have on people’s political views and how they choose to vote, and how this content can be manipulated to the extent that it threatens the legitimacy of the democratic system. Reports shed light on how Russian agents had managed to “hack” the election through targeting specific political propaganda and inciting far-right views in regard to racism and gender.

"We must hope, however, that greater regulation does not simultaneously limit people’s ability to come together and take a stand against authorities."

These reports shook many people to their core because this was arguably the first time social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter had been used as a political weapon at such a high level, and furthermore had been used to influence a national election with an external actor at the helm. What was equally terrifying is, unlike a complete internet ban - such as in Egypt - or the censorship of anti-political content often seen around the world, the Russian involvement in the 2016 election, and the simultaneous rise in ‘fake news’ (or at least the awareness of such a phenomenon), was silent and creeping and calculated, challenging our expectations of what technological warfare might look like. It highlighted how social media platforms could be used to manipulate and divide people, and that this could be used as a political tool, without people even realising it was happening to them.

In response to the Russian meddling in the election, the big tech companies were faced with a significant amount of political scrutiny (we can all visualise Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing in the Senate, and the memes that came along with it). But in terms of concrete change, there has been relatively little. So where does that leave us? Social media can certainly still be an important mobilisation tool for activists, and it has been used very successfully very recently, such as through the organisation of the “Fridays For Future” climate strikes that were attended by millions around the world. But at the same time, there are always the underlying dangers of external control, misinformation and manipulation.

Is the answer perhaps to just delete all our accounts and boycott social media completely? For many, social media is simply so deeply ingrained in their daily lives that this would be impossible. And it would make activism, particularly for the young, harder to pursue. So perhaps the answer lies with greater regulation of social media platforms. It was recently reported that Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, would have more power over social media and a greater degree of regulation over the content posted online. This is perhaps a step in the right direction, but it is too soon to see whether this will have any real impact, particularly when it comes to political actions. We must hope, however, that greater regulation does not simultaneously limit people’s ability to come together and take a stand against authorities. It is also important to consider that wanting to protect the ability to stand up against oppressors and promote worthy causes means protecting those who promote ideas based on hate and discrimination.

It is also crucial to note that the internet and social media are truly global entities. Will regulation in only a few countries be enough? And in whose best interests are governments and the big tech companies working? It may not be ours.

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