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Is Social Media the Dawn of a New Era of Political Involvement?

Today, modern society has been moulded in such a way that it is now borderline impossible for anyone to exist without having access to a form of social media. From word of mouth to Whatsapp and iMessage, social communication has transformed drastically; with social media being branded as a revolutionary force comparable to that of the first printing press in 1440. And yet, ease of communication is not without its fair share of complications. Obsessive absorption in the social media bubble, antisocial behaviour, eye strain, etc. Despite these drawbacks, however, social media can actually be seen as an incredibly powerful tool when looked at as an objective force promoting societal change.

The act of using social media to further a social or political agenda is known as ‘clicktivism’, and can be defined simply as: ‘the use of digital media for facilitating social change and activism’. Whilst this established technological tool is popular amongst many for fuelling societal change and enhancing political involvement – it isn’t without its critics. Micah White, in the ‘Guardian’, expressed her qualms towards the emerging age of social media-lead politics:

“Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing… Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change.”

These powerful words from White embody the view that the act of clicktivism can serve to simplify, or almost cheapen, the act of true political thought and debate. In this sense, using social media to gain support and momentum on political and social ideas could serve to weaken genuine political bonds.

To further this, the nature of the social media outlets ‘Twitter’, although it provides a free and open verbal platform to be used at the individual’s content, can serve to contradict itself. This is due to the fact that forms of free speech and free thought are not necessarily accepted and nurtured under the social media atmosphere – with the website itself becoming a somewhat intolerant and elitist force. Undoubtedly, the anonymity granted by social media enables the individual to voice their political opinions and express controversial thoughts without physical resistance. Yet, this anonymity risks devaluing the act of linking political ideas with identity and public visibility. Ultimately, the anonymous user’s lack of accountability can make their engagement with social and political movements appear more hollow, less serious.

Further, the use of social media as a political tool for social and democratic change, is unfortunately riddled with physical flaws. The internet, of course, is not available to the entire population of the world. In fact, it was estimated by the International Telecommunication Union in 2015 that approximately 3.2 billion people, almost half of the world’s population, would be online by the end of the year; with 2 billion users stationed in developed countries. This highlights the exclusivity of social media. As although it can be an essential tool for heightening political involvement and giving society a larger verbal platform, it only reigns effective amongst those privileged enough to have access to the technology.

Conversely, despite the inevitable flaw of the concept, the act of clicktivism can be viewed in an alternative, beneficial light. By allowing anyone with access to internet, anywhere, to impart their view on social and political matters on a public platform, social media essentially democratises the nature of the internet. With this heightened accessibility of political ideas available to most of society, comes a gradual eroding of outdated hierarchies; giving the mass of the population a voice.

When examining cases such as the Arab Spring under this lens, it can be seen that the uprising in Arabic countries was exacerbated through the presence of social media. With slow economic growth, low GDP and political complications casting hostility upon the social landscape of Arabic countries from Egypt to Lybia – the people afflicted needed a voice. Whilst this was predominantly achieved through physical means of protest and violence, the technological route of social media was also utilised. The young population, particularly, reached to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to put their voices on a public platform. Their voices were heard. With vital demonstrations being organised, and opinions being exchanged, social media exacerbated the Arab Spring uprising by opening communications from Morocco to Syria. However, the presence of anti-regime forces was not without punishment – with extremely dictatorial governments such as Libya and Syria honing in on public opposition through exile, imprisonment, and murder.

This emphasises the key role that social media can play in global communications. It’s not   just about selfies on Instagram. Social media gains its credibility through its crucial capacity to verbally free the oppressed, and provides a platform for those who have had their free speech taken away from them. Social media, in this sense, serves to empower the meaning of the self. Opposing repression through communication and freedom of thought, it enhances the voice and power of society as a collective entity.

Yet, with this ease of creating a stable and powerful public platform, comes the issue of socially unjust causes gaining momentum through the same social media channels. Alongside this, the effectiveness of social media as a political platform is also brought into question. Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post argues for this case claiming that, “…the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down the country’s Internet access over the weekend – something it can do because Internet access is still so limited – had almost no impact on the demonstrators. For all the guff being spoken about Twitter and social media, the uprising in Cairo appears to be a very old-fashioned, almost 19th-century revolution: People see other people going out on the streets and decide to join them…”. Although this is true to an extent, the essential feature of social media is that an individual can assert their presence (in this instance, against a governmental regime) without manifesting themselves in physical form. Anyone can join a movement or protest, albeit textually, behind the safety of their computer screen and home. Subsequently, this makes social media a key tool in public safety when participating in political and social movements on a large scale.

Another profound example of clicktivism’s success emerges more recently from the enhanced political involvement, particularly from the younger generations, that has spread across the internet. From Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘Corbyinistas’, Ed Miliband a.k.a ‘Millibae’, to the widely known and loved picture of Michael Gove drinking water like a fish – social media’s recent political spotlight has been an interesting one. Since the last general election in 2010, participation in digital campaigning has grown significantly. Since then, six million people in the UK have signed or started a digital petition on The British Election Study forecasted that turnout among 18–24 year-olds  in the 2015 election may have been as high as 65%.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) further shines a positive light upon clicktivism, encouraging the idea that social media can promote an increased element of democracy in modern day politics. The ERS expand upon this by outlining the “huge amount of energy and excitement around digital campaigning, which shows that the problem with falling trust in representative politics is not one of apathy. Traditional representative politics is failing to adapt fully to the modern world”.

With Clicktivism currently working alongside traditional politics, its position as a friend or foe to the old system is still under debate. But as ERS spokesman Will Brett declared:

“Digital campaigning shouldn’t be seen as a threat but as a challenge”.

Image: Sean MacEntee/flickr

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