Social Media and Revolution

It is undisputed that the social media, unlike newspapers, radio, telephone and television makes many-to-many communication possible. And therefore, it is more democratic. But the technology that social media rides on – the Internet and telephony – are grids that needs to be laid out. The discussions, and the contentious issues now, are no more whether the medium is allowing for democratic participation or not, but rather that of access.

We need to be acutely aware of the fact that access to this powerful and apparently democratic social media needs large amounts of investment in fiber optic cables, satellites, transponders, antennas, servers, technologists, software’s, steel and land. Through out the first, second and third world, these investments are largely made by private corporation supported and facilitated by respective governments through their taxation and subsidy policies, land allocation rules and even immigration policies to set up these information and communication infrastructure. And since this is the case, profit remains at the center of such endeavors, and the purpose and objective is not to foster protest or social movements. The corporations and governments only invest in technology where it suits its needs and agendas. Therefore, it is not surprising that Egypt can and did shut down Internet access for a week during the recent revolution and that China has the most stringent control over Internet access in the world.

In India, the lack of access or the digital divide is the result of general poverty and the traditional rich-poor, urban-rural divide. India has more than 790 million cell phone subscribers as of Feb 2011 but only 100 million internet users (only 11.4 million of those have access to broadband). Though India is the third largest Internet user in the world (but then everything in India, with 1.2 billion people living there, can very easily be in the top ten charts of nearly anything) it is only 8.4% of its population. Yes, Internet is mostly accessed through cell phones and 40% of Internet users in India do so from their phones. But India is largely a 2G country making accessing internet over mobile phones painfully slow, not to mention hurtfully expensive. So, it will be a long time before more than 800 million people in India can drag themselves out of the internet black hole.

They key to conflict resolution and peace building, I believe, is listening, and not, contrary to popular belief, talking. Definitely not chatter. What FB offers is a ready group of ‘friends’ and ‘likers’ who we may perceive to be listening to us. Our posts and tweets being commented on or re-tweeted, or our status being liked, or we being poked, gives us a sense of belonging and being cared for. There is no denying that there is instant, if not deep, gratification to be had from plastering our inanities on the great wall of Facebook. I will not be surprised if, in the near future, shrinks (who we pay to listen to us) may go out of business. Or if a new breed of shrinks will make millions for weaning us of our net-addictions.

Can social media create a movement or revolution? Good question. To me the answer is no. Revolution is created by radicalized communities who are tired of, and extremely angry at, the established power structures or regimes or policies or even attitudes. So, to that extent the ‘creation’ of movements comes from the hearts of living human beings who are not afraid to challenge and oppose. From their aspiration and desire to change and transform their immediate future for themselves. Social media, however, plays a crucial role in organizing and sometimes strategizing, and definitely a great role in publicizing and galvanizing. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did just that in Egypt. According to one Cairo activist : “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” It is rather interesting to note that there is nothing about passion, oppression, desire, change, future in this articulation, which is crucial and center-stage for revolution. But, what it does have is ‘management’. And there is a big difference between managing and creating.

What can create social movements is people’s right and freedom to voice so that they can be heard unadulterated and unmediated. Their ability to participate in the decision- making processes of matters that govern their lives and future. Voice is a funny thing –it is simple to understand (and some of us take it for granted) yet it is not as simple too. For a vast section of Indian population voice is denied to if you happen to be the wrong caste, wrong religion, wrong region, wrong class or wrong gender. And at times, you may have a strong voice but you are so far away from those whose ears matter, that it is as good as not having a voice. This is the case with many indigenous peoples in India merely because they live in very ‘remote’ places or have been pushed back into remoter areas with successive development projects. Some communities, like Dalits, have traditionally no voice in their village administrations. This scenario is fast changing because of Dalit assertion and affirmative actions (known as ‘reservations’ in India). But such assertions almost always come at a very high price. The cost can be an arm, a leg, a nose or your dear life. In such a scenarios, which unfortunately are not limited to India, there is a need for empowering voices and sometime to build voice-bridges.

Here’s where my work at Video Volunteers comes in, where we work with the most disadvantaged communities and empower their voices and teach them how to use the power and potential of video, audio, internet, discussions, debates, story telling etc to connect to the world and force it to listen. More about that on VV’s website.

Perhaps the most important role of social media, and which it has proven to do very successfully in some cases, is distribution. Viral has a different connotation in today’s social media era. It does not, unlike a few years back, evoke images of a sick and feverish person. Instead it now means a cause or campaign hitting feverish pitch. Campaigners would give their left arm if their cause went ‘viral’ – which is, all who came in its way would be infected and will happily pass on the infection to hundreds more, and they to thousands more. Since social media enables many to many, which is a radical shift from the traditional one to many, a relevant piece of information or story has the potential to be circulated ‘virally’ by thousands of connectors. And since the world is increasingly shrinking, at least for some of us, these connectors are not, and need not be, from the same country or cultures. It is this fact that makes every company, even those in the business of transporting news and information like news media, to very prominently display two logos, and unwittingly advertize the two respective private companies – Facebook and Twitter.

With 500 million active Facebook users and 75 million (as of Jan 2010) Twitter users, with liking, un-liking, friending, tweeting, re-tweeting etc become part of every day lingo, the conventional media giants have no other option but to ask their readers, listeners and viewers to ‘follow’ them on Facebook and Twitter. They are all gearing for the eventuality that the future eyeballs will all be on computer screens and smart phones and tablets. They realize that ‘mainstream’ media, as we understood that word till 10 years back, is dead or nearly dead. And with that mainstream news and content creation or mainstream journalism too is on its deathbed. But then, that’s another blog.

The future is and should be what the industry calls user-generated content or consumer-generated-media and what I call community created content. The community video producers, the community journalists and community radio reporters I am working with are doing just that. They are radicalized individuals rooted in their communities, not fearful of questioning the established powers, challenging norms, revealing uncomfortable facts, not afraid of putting their hearts out, with cameras and recorders, sharing their stories of triumph and loss, piercing our very short-spanned attentions and inspiring us to take action for a better world.

– This article is an edited version of a lecture on Social Media and Revolution I gave at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, on 28th April 2011.


~ by stalink on April 28, 2011.

4 Responses to “Social Media and Revolution”

  1. Very inspirational and thought-provoking. I think we all have to be agents of positive change and the community volunteers are like media warriors. My only concern is, are they placing themselves at a lot of risk because of the work they do and how are they trained to protect themselves if necessary? Or is it just left as something that comes with the territory of being a community volunteer?

    All the best. Please keep up the great work.

  2. a creative feature full of information.. thanks

  3. jerrold…

    […]Social Media and Revolution « Stalin K.[…]…

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