The politicisation of social media

“Conflicts are inherent in social relationships. Where social relationships thrive, so will dissent. Where dissent is present, a cause will rise — either to strengthen dissent or attempt to crush it.”

Social media has already been one of last year’s major buzz, with companies eager to make their presence felt in a network thriving robustly in their absence. But last week saw social media catapulted to the global scene, hugging the headlines not because of the corporate, but the political. What was once a vague concept for many, now started to assume a more concrete form. And what was once thought of only as a cool way of broadcasting ones breakfast platter, now unravelled its radical potential to the public.

Twitter made the primetime news in many countries, including the Netherlands when the electoral turmoil in Iran broke out. Major TV networks were already covering the Iranian elections, but the cries of discontent were heard first and more loudly on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Social media was first to deliver stories of dissent that was snowballing into a movement.

Traditional media was criticised for not giving enough coverage to the protests not until it exploded in social media spaces, with #iranelection shooting up as the #1 trending topic on Twitter. “While word of riots in the streets of Tehran spread like wildfire on Twitter, CNN stayed largely silent on the story, surprising and dismaying many.” Users expressed their consternation by posting on Twitter’s #cnnfail. Even CNN saw the need to explain its actions — or inaction — in the eyes of many digizens.

Many people worldwide would probably remember this event as the moment when social networks morphed into political movements on a global scale. You know the threshold’s been crossed when even the U.S. State Department asked Twitter to delay their network upgrade. For some, this might even be the event that politicises their own usage of social media: where status updates become a form of real-time citizen news reporting, and are aggregated to produce the loudest shout-out ever.

The social is political
The growing role of social media in advancing political issues is not a new phenomenon. We are all mediated by political events as individuals, groups, networks and nations. Our personal digital spaces, which have given birth to social media venues, are crafted and bounded by the political. Think privacy laws, anti-piracy policies, right to information and expression, and information governance, production and distribution.

Conflicts are inherent in social relationships. Where social relationships thrive, so will dissent. Where dissent is present, a cause will rise — either to strengthen dissent or attempt to crush it. The digital technology behind social media makes it possible for causes to grow within networks. The habit of sharing thoughts can easily cross over to sharing opinions. As Clay Shirky described in his book, ‘Here Comes Everybody’, the open nature of most social networks, the simplicity of use, and the minimum amount of participation needed, allow groups of people to progress more easily from sharing to cooperation, collaboration and collectivism. The relationship between users and networks may be ad hoc and casual in the beginning, but with each phase, the amount of coordination increases.

Whereas traditional media function as sources of information, interactive social media are also means of coordination. A tool like Twitter with its open APIs and ‘half-baked’ development allows users to gather in different virtual networks and share APIs, content and scripts. Accessible not only via the website, but also 3rd party applications and SMS; and also decoupled from organisational constraints, Twitter managed to lower the barriers to access to and distribution of news. Equally important, users were able to co-own both the cause and the means of production and distribution, while sharing the product of their labour. Individual autonomy is maintained, but each little action by individuals is aggregated, with the results bearing an impact greater than the sum of its parts. Here lies social media’s radical potential.

As Shirky opined in a TED interview:

“Reading personal messages from individuals on the ground prompts a whole other sense of involvement. We’re seeing everyone desperate to do something to show solidarity like wear green — and suddenly the community figures out that it can actually offer secure web proxies, or persuade Twitter to delay an engineering upgrade — we can help keep the medium open.”

After the shout-out
So what happens after you’ve added your voice and shown solidarity to a cause? It’s great for buzz and awareness creation, but how else can a cause advance?

Specifically for political cases such as the Iranian electoral fall-out, the general community would benefit from collaborative efforts on how to avoid censorship, or at least be ready with an alternative plan of action.

In general, a political cause can be treated like any other commercial campaign. Different cross-media channels (online and offline) should be explored for different purposes. Twitter, for example, may provide real-time breaking news coverage, but a blog is a better venue for analysis. Regular eyeball sessions for supporters in Facebook can extend and sustain interest on the cause allowing online activism to take root offline.

As social media becomes more entrenched in politics, users will be more inclined to challenge and shift existing perspectives, demand even more transparency and be more critical of causes. Online causes need to be more matured and preferably integrated with offline channels, and must be able to clearly present and distinguish its message to avoid creating ‘cause fatigue’.

Similar to the corporate world’s concern on the ROI of utilising social media in their business, there may still be a lot of criticism for the real impact of social media on activism. But social media’s direct impact of on a cause is not the only relevant means to measure its success. The number of supporters, tweets, shared content or posts are good conversion measures, but in the long run, it revolves around sustaining awareness in a network’s consciousness, and building and sustaining a relationship with different networks.

Users may engage now with a cause, and then later disengage, but the seeds of awareness have been planted, a connection made, and a relationship created that can be leveraged in the future.

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