In the wake of the Paris shootings, it seems the entire world underwent a conflict of several consciences: security, ideology and religion were all factors which were incriminated in the successive discussions. News channels were flaming with updates and survivors’ stories, western politicians launched emergency meetings about defences, Brussels, only nine days later, went into lockdown for fear of an imminent attack.
Nowhere, however, were the attacks so well mapped as over social media. All media coverage and associated emotion were stripped down and exhibited in their rawest forms through vacuums such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, from the French flags adorning Facebook profile pictures to fierce Twitter debates about the lack of knowledge regarding recent attacks in Lebanon, Beirut and Nigeria.
This disaster is one of many in which social media has jumped straight to its aid; progressing from a budding phenomenon in the early twenty-first century, it is now one of the most lucrative internet markets of the past decade. However, social media’s success cannot simply be measured in economic nor even technological terms. This recent usage demonstrates its power as a fierce media mechanism, revolutionising the nature of politics and freedom of speech for the foreseeable future. For initial users of websites such as Facebook and Instagram, the function was simple.
The entire concept could essentially be boiled down to one profitable idea: the user. It was a virtual ego paradise revolving solely around they, their lives and all people associated. Perhaps it is this more egocentric underpinning which is what has made social media such a powerful political tool. Far from prohibiting it, British and American politicians have embraced the phenomenon; Nick Clegg became a somewhat unlikely user of the gay dating app, Grindr as part of his 2015 election campaign, Barack Obama’s Instagram account flicks from climate change to health care while debates between the 2016 presidential candidates are as much a feature of Twitter as they are CNN.
Over the twentieth century, numerous tactics have been developed to ease the fission between politicians and the public. With social media, however, there finally emerges an accessibility, not to the masses, nor even to the community, but to the individual, be they pyjama-clad with a mouth full of toast.
However, aside from this potentially more sinister political marketing which social media allows, it also acts as a platform for political defiance. In more extreme cases, social media has acted as a revolutionary spark, arguably playing a crucial role in the Arab Spring (2010-2011).
In more extreme cases, social media has acted as a revolutionary spark
As a vehicle which largely surpassed the limitations of governmental censorship, social media was integral in helping to co-ordinate and execute protests, only triggering further rebellion in January, 2011 when Egyptian authorities shut down internet and mobile networks. However, if not as a revolutionary tool, social media has facilitated the freedom to not only criticise politics but attempt to shape their policies. Only this year, British women took to Facebook to voice their anger regarding the tampon tax whilst in 2014, the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ hashtag mounted pressure on the Nigerian government in the war against Boko Haram.
Indeed, more authoritarian cultures have utilised social media as an integral resource for rebellion, defying the censorship and governmental oppression which riddles their political systems. In 2012, the escape of Chen Guangcheng from under house arrest sparked its own social media rebellion as expressions of support attempted to supersede rigid Chinese censorship. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, social media has become a powerful channel through which opposition is voiced as with the ‘Mugabe Falls’ hashtag earlier this year which, (although more comical on the outset) was used by many civilians to satirise his obstinate hold on power.
Yet, social media’s power does not simply extend to political criticism but as a potent journalistic tool. In numerous countries, this usage is in stark contrast with a heavily censored press, acting to fill the void left by an inefficient and oppressed media. A 2013 study by Microsoft Research has suggested that this is particularly true of Mexico which, in 2010, was ranked as the most dangerous Latin American country for journalists. The study found that Mexican Twitter users were instrumental as information sources regarding the drugs war which – due to the dangers posed by drugs cartels – is often neglected by mainstream media outlets.
Likewise, civilians’ use of social media has been one of the main sources of documentation of the Syrian Civil War as the threat to foreign journalists has limited the level of coverage which many outlets can utilise. Social media’s function has proved itself not merely as a news channel, but as a network, providing a vaster scope of information be it from professionals at the BBC or civilians with a pixelated camera phone.
Of course, such benefits are all too often riddled by a double-edged sword; for every critical tweet there is the risk of a censor to slam them down, with all YouTube documentations there arises questions regarding its validity. Indeed, social media’s benefits have not gone unnoticed by terrorist groups and trafficking rings who have exploited its abilities for recruitment and marketing.
However, it is the sheer scale of social media which defends it from the risk of contamination. Social media has enabled the development of an international network which is, bit by bit, wearing down any authoritarian notions of oppression. For every criminal, politician or censor who attempts to eliminate any voice of dissent, there are a thousand more voices ready and waiting over their keyboards.