At the turn of the century, the Internet was a fledgling technology. It had just 361 million users. To put that into context, that’s barely a third of the current number of Facebook users and dwarfed by the 3.4 billion people who use it today – a figure which represents an 840% increase in just 15 years. The exponential growth has facilitated greater interconnectivity and the emergence of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter which, in turn, now have the potential to act as extraordinarily powerful tools of communication.
Social media is transforming our societies and nowhere is this more evident than in the field of politics. From organising protest movements to directing election campaigns to influencing public policy – social media and the Internet provide an unprecedented platform for communication and participation for both citizens and governments.
The proliferation of communicative channels has acted as the backbone of many protest movements in the past decade. Whilst social media may not initiate or invoke widespread dissent, they frequently intensify and facilitate participation on a much greater scale than could otherwise be achieved. Access to social media facilitates organisation, mobilisation and coordination of movements and demonstrations and is vital in supplying information in areas where such evidence is restricted. The Arab Spring was perhaps the first time when the use of social media became distinctly noticeable. Facebook and Twitter were not only used to communicate valuable information for the citizens of the countries affected but they also generated a contagion effect and helped to deepen worldwide interest in the uprisings and engender a response. Social media has also bolstered other recent instances of civil unrest such as the Maidan protests in Ukraine or the global Occupy movement.
In this sense, social media has enabled political movements to become more reactionary – it has created a more fluid political atmosphere and has enabled a global society to emerge from below. The impersonal nature of the Internet is important too as it provides a veil of class, wealth and income making collaboration somewhat more straightforward. Although the ephemeral nature of the protests means that they can fade as quickly as they emerged and their success hinges on popularity, it is difficult to contradict the increasingly important role of social media in providing a platform for movements to utilise.
In a similar sense, participation from the bottom-up is also evident with the emergence of online petitions which can influence the formation and shape of public policy. The ease with which one can offer support through a digital signature, means that online campaigns can garner far more support than before. Despite critics labelling this as hollow support or ‘slacktivism’, it cannot be denied that awareness is raised which campaigns utilise to their advantage. The degree with which the influence of online petitions has increased is evidenced by certain petitions achieving sufficient signatures to be debated in the UK parliament – perhaps most notoriously that which called for Donald Trump to be banned from the UK.
In fact, it’s Donald Trump who has shown that social media has not simply become a tool for the citizenry of the global society – it is an immensely useful tool for politicians as well. Social media, for Mr Trump, has been an intrinsic part of his involvement in politics. Before he was elected it served as a ballast to support his campaign for the Republican nomination – he even tweeted in March 2016 “How do you fight millions of dollars of fraudulent commercials pushing for crooked politicians? I will be using Facebook and Twitter. Watch!”. Whether it was Twitter that propelled Mr Trump to the Presidency is questionable but the President continues to utilise the platform to disseminate his thoughts, provoke reaction and generate headlines. Within seconds of sending a Tweet, it can be retweeted and rapidly circulated at unprecedented speeds and capacities. In a sense, social media has a dual purpose for politicians – it can be used to target voters, exploiting algorithms to generate directed advertising in a more efficient way than sending letters or campaigning on foot, as well as giving representatives a virtual voice expediting swift diffusion of key messages or policies.
Politics, especially during election campaigns, is becoming ever more data-driven and new methods of engagement are appearing year-on-year. Before the 2015 UK election, a survey conducted by ipsos-mori claimed that “a third of young people think social media will influence their vote”. Whilst this is perhaps worrying that the younger generation can be so easily swayed, it underlines the importance that the online, virtual election campaigns have in the twenty-first century and emphasises the extent to which politics is being re-shaped towards the virtual world.
Despite this, the increased access to the Internet coupled with a rise in the number of platforms available for people to express their opinions has also enabled authoritarian governments to root out dissent. Investment in web infrastructure by various states has dramatically increased in recent years as governments look to bolster their regulation of social media and stifle unwanted communication.
Whilst it would appear that the Internet and social media has given the global citizenry a greater voice, it has also provided governments with the tools to strengthen their channels of scrutiny and garner even greater control over the population. It has also, however, also given rise to what has been termed the “Dictator’s Dilemma” – that is, the decision between restricting the Internet, which could harm economic development, and leaving it unregulated, which could undermine governmental power and authority.
Political life thus finds itself in a transitional period. A period where traditional procedures confronts contemporary methods, with each striving to gain purchase. The fluid nature of societies in the twenty-first century means that the Internet and social media have become ever more important and politics has become ever more uncertain. Although the Internet gives the global populace a greater voice, it also enables greater governmental scrutiny and control, thus it is difficult to determine who the beneficiaries really are in this complex and evolving arrangement. However, it is undeniable that change is ensuing and politics is being transformed – only through embracing this change will citizens or indeed governments successfully adapt to the embryonic, virtually-infused societies.
(Adapted from article published on 05/04/16 at geostudentcommentator.wordpress.com by the same author).