When Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook just over 10 years ago, it was originally space for Harvard students to “rate” each other’s appearance. Nine years on, and billions of likes (and dollars) and status updates later, nearly half of all the people in the world with an internet connection have Facebook – that’s 1.4 billion Facebook profiles. Zuckerberg had serendipitously made a major contribution to a new era of communication. While most are aware of the benefits open to companies who can master social media, there is something else going on in amongst all the pictures of extravagant dinners, gym visit status updates and pictures of kittens – something revolutionary was bubbling away under the surface. Let’s take a look at some of the changes in the world that social media has had a bearing on.
The Arab Spring
In 2010, The Middle East engaged in a revolutionary wave of uprisings, demonstrations and protests. Governments in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain met stiff resistance from their respective populations, and many were toppled. While one could argue that revolutions have been occurring since the dawn of imperialism, there is little doubt that these uprisings were aided and made possible by a shared and widely accessible space for communication – Twitter and Facebook. The sites allowed activists to highlight injustices, organize demonstrations, and influence and inform foreign spectators. Several countries naturally attempted to ban the sites, but largely failed. The internet proved to be a beast which not even the rich and powerful could tame.
Responses to Natural Disasters
One of the elements that make social media such a powerful tool for change, is the speed in which a message can be sent by one person and received by the masses. Traditionally the process of reporting a story would require the reader to await a printed publication – usually at best the day after an event. With the advent of the internet and social media, this created an opportunity for events to be reported on in real time. Recent natural disasters like the earthquake and ensuing tsunami which rocked Japan in 2014 were met with a speedy response from the online community, who used social media platforms to search for loved ones, donate, and keep up to date with what was happening.
The Birth of User-Generated News
Before the internet and social media came along, if you were not at an event then your only hope of getting a first-hand account would be from someone you knew who had been in attendance – or more likely the media. This created a monopolization of the narrative, stories would be told from the perspective of a mass media corporation. Somewhere in the early 2000s blogging began to grow in popularity, whereby anyone could use a simple website builder to create a blog and share their perspective with an online audience. Social media has given people an opportunity to retune that narrative. Anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection could become a news reporter, such as the shooting of unarmed Walter Scott in Carolina in March this year, for example. Scott was shot by police officer Michael Slager as he fled arrest. The officer then threw his Taser on Scott’s lifeless body as he radioed into his superiors: “Shots fired. The subject is down. He grabbed my Taser.” Unbeknown to Slager, he was being filmed by a member of the public. Undoubtedly the recording drastically shifted the narrative which would have followed and Slager found himself arrested merely days after the event.
Arguably, social media has altered the way people communicate about politics and as mentioned above, current affairs. As a result, people have been given an effective tool for organizing themselves for political purposes. Both of President Obama’s winning campaigns used social media effectively to organize supporters. But it’s not just big time politics that have benefited from social media, grass route organizations who traditionally get little media time have also been given a loud voice. Simply put, social media created a space where people could be informed instantaneously about gatherings and events, giving them an opportunity to react in real time.