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From tweeting a positive comment about a presidential candidate to liking the Facebook page of a local nonprofit, citizens are constantly using social media in civic-minded ways. But can this new form of communication substantively improve government or transform it entirely?
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation faculty members explored the rise of social media and its impact on government and social movements at an IDEASpHERE session entitled “A Revolution in Politics? Social Media in China, Egypt, and the U.S.” featuring Ash Center Director Tony Saich; Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship; and Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy.
“In the early days of the internet, there was this idea that everyone would become a broadcaster and that organizations would become irrelevant,” said Fung. “But this hasn’t happened.” Instead social media has spurred new forms of political mobilization, including what Fung describes as “dynamic viral engagement.” He cited the controversy surrounding the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to end funding for Planned Parenthood as an example.
In January 2012, Planned Parenthood tweeted to their followers that Komen was cutting off funding for their women’s health programs. A wildfire of twitter activity ensued and spread to mainstream media channels. Komen reacted swiftly. They renewed Planned Parenthood’s grant three days after the tweet was posted and the board member who approved the cut resigned.
Fung described other examples of social media driving public engagement and media scrutiny to an issue, including the Kony 2012 campaign and the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, which prompted a national debate about racial profiling and 'stand your ground' laws. “Viral engagement can be good for democracy,” says Fung. “It allows information to spread quickly, and lets individuals tap into authenticities in the population that are not yet in the political system.”
Waves of digital mobilization, of course, are also occurring abroad – leading to many questions about social media’s role in non-democratic countries.
Saich spoke of social media “opening up doors for cynicism and parody” in China where the media-controlled state is grappling with the rise of internet communities. Saich described the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003 when the Chinese government sought to limit public knowledge of the highly contagious and possibly fatal respiratory condition. Mobile technology was instrumental in providing citizens with news about the health crisis.
According to Saich, Chinese citizens are also using social media to expose government corruption. He cited a recent blogger’s campaign showcasing state officials wearing luxury watches they couldn’t possibly afford on a public sector salary. People reacted angrily to the images, voicing their disapproval across social media channels. During subsequent investigations, one high-profile, Rolex-wearing official lost his job. “The party is right to be concerned,” said Saich. “Social media can mobilize citizens in ways that can impact policy.”
But what about the ability of social media to propel large social movements— to galvanize the masses, overthrow authoritarian regimes, and advance democracy? Masoud addressed this possibility in relation to the Arab Spring. “The image of revolution across the Middle East is of photogenic young people waging successful uprisings and unseating dictators, and many believe it’s all because of this guy,” said Masoud pointing to a picture of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
Over the past several months, Masoud and his collaborators have been trying to test the hypothesis that the Arab Spring was catalyzed by social media. Analyzing social media usage across Egypt, they are trying to determine whether increased Twitter activity in particular locales can be used to predict protests or identify them after they’ve happened. “It turns out that it’s hard to do it,” said Masoud. “There is, so far, little empirical evidence to support the idea that social media propels protests.” Instead, Masoud noted that spikes in usage seem to be more often related to popular television programs (such as the Arab version of “American Idol”) than to political or social protests.
Moreover, looking more broadly across the Middle East, Masoud suggests that there is actually an inverse relationship between internet usage and revolution. In 2011, the year Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power, fewer than 12 percent of Egyptians reported using the internet at all. Meanwhile, countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—which have not experienced revolution—all feature much higher rates of internet penetration and social media usage.
The limited role of social media—and of the liberal young people who deployed it— in generating the so-called “Arab Spring,” also helps explain why the revolutions haven’t panned out the way we thought they would. According to Masoud, it is the most organized forces that generally emerge triumphant in any political opening. In countries like Egypt, he says, that means actors who can deploy “real” social networks rather than “virtual” ones—specifically, religious parties, armies, and tribal groups. “In the end, the activists" newfangled technologies of Twitter and Facebook were no match for the more tried and tested technologies of gun and mosque,” Masoud said.
Digital networks alone, however, are no substitute for traditional organizational frameworks – be they Islamic-based NGO’s in Egypt, or civil rights demonstrators in the U.S. Fung explained, “Social media can be bad for organized progress because it makes mobilization too easy. It used to be that you had to get organized before you mobilized. When mobilization comes first, it seems that it can be difficult to build popular organizations afterward.” The presence of energized and engaged citizens can constitute a powerful moment in time, the speakers suggested — but without organization, 140 characters cannot alone drive revolution.