Special Feature: Social Media Activism – Beyond Tweets & Likes. But Does It Bring Real Change?

In a few days 2011 will come to an end and this is the perfect time to stop for a few minutes and look back at the events that transpired during the course of the year.

Social media has been at the forefront on numerous occasions during 2011. What was considered primarily as a platform to market, promote or connect was in the news for serving a totally different purpose. Social media activism and online activism came into the fore in 2011 and generated a lot of debate. It made indelible changes in the world’s geopolitical and sociopolitical structure, which even a year back seemed impossible and change which no political commentator could have predicted.

We have all read about, watched television footage of and shared our views online regarding the Arab Spring movement and the Jasmine Revolution. No one could have predicted that Twitter would be the primary tool for the protesters on the street in the Arab world. Yet that is exactly what happened and authoritarian regimes, which had ruled for decades in Tunisia and Egypt, were brought down and free and fair elections took place recently in Egypt, for the first time in nearly four decades.

The largest and most vibrant democracy in the world, India, had its own tryst with social media activism. The anti corruption movement and the call for a strong Lokpal built up steam on traditional media, but made a real impact when thousands of Indians took to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to voice their opinions and generate support for a civic society movement against the parliament. Terms like ‘Anna Hazare’, ‘Lokpal’ and ‘Ramlila Maidan’ were trending on Twitter for a number of days. The movement has now reached its crescendo and once again an online campaign called ‘Jail Bharo Andolan’ is creating social media buzz.

The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement is another example, which demonstrated what social media activism can achieve. What started as a small gathering at Zucotti Park, mushroomed into similar gatherings all overUSAand in other parts of the world. Burma, Thailand and China have all witnessed social media activism, but in these countries authoritarian governments threatened or even charged the activists.

Yes, social media has provided people with the power to express their opinions and also to fight against governments and social causes, which they felt strongly about. But, has it brought real change on the ground. Or was Malcolm Gladwell correct when he said that social media activism is basically ‘Slacktivism’?

Let’s take the example of Egypt. When the protests atTahrir Squarebegan the people were all tied together by one objective; to overthrow the autocratic regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Social media played an important role of galvanizing the people and the movement created enough momentum to finally achieve its objective. At the end of the movement the various groups who had fought together realized that the desire to overthrow Gaddafi was the only thing common between them. Free and fair elections took place at the end of November 2011, yet the situation still remains volatile. There is no consensus among the various stakeholders about the form of the new Egyptian government. Social media activism has brought the country from the proverbial fire to the frying pan.

A medium like Twitter is all about ‘trending topics’, ‘hashtags’ and ‘buzz’. When was the last time a trend lasted for more than a few days? Similarly social media activism cannot last long unless it goes beyond tweets, retweets, status updates, etc. Recently at the “Freedom Online” Conference, held at the Foreign Ministry in The Hague on 9th December, Syrian blogger Amjad Baiazy said (in regard to social media), “It has turned every citizen into a journalist. Every citizen can use Twitter to broadcast”. This is the perfect role for social media. It can democratize journalism and news and become the preferred medium to seek news updates. But Twitter cannot be the primary tool for activism.

Social activism is a full-time job and spending a few minutes online and clicking ‘like’ does not equal to activism. It also undermines the efforts of people like Amjad Baiazy or Chiranuch Premchaiporn (A Thai blogger and social media activist), who have put their life on the line to speak out and bring change.

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