Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Power of Social Media to do good #2 A Better Life

English: Hosni Mubarak facing the Tunisian dom...
English: Hosni Mubarak facing the Tunisian domino effect Français : Hosni Moubarak faisant face à l'effet domino tunisien. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone has heard about how social media helped bring about change in the Arab world over the past few years. But technology has been changing the way we are governed for a lot longer than that.
If you consider text messaging as social media then the overthrow in January 2001 of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, must go down as one of the first major political movements created by social media.
Loyalists in the Philippine Congress had voted to set aside evidence against Estrada. Within a few hours thousands of angry Filipinos held a demonstration in Manila. The demonstration was set up by text message and over the next few days a million people gathered to demonstrate in the capital city. By the end of January 2001 Estrada had resigned and the age of social media being used for political good had well and truly started. 
Now before I go on, I must say that I am no utopian when it comes to the impact of social media. I am well aware that social media is no more than a tool and that violently repressive regimes who are willing to murder their own citizens are not going to let any tool stand in their way.
And I also know that the final results on what will happen in the Arab world, as a result of the recent series of regime changing movements, is far from clear.
But despite all of that I am still a long term optimist. The invention of the printing press led to the mass distribution of the Bible, the Reformation and huge technological progress in the West and eventually throughout the world. Then the invention of television brought war into our living rooms and drove global peace movements.
Now social media allows us to talk directly to people all over the world. The people who wish to deny us our freedoms will have to work harder than ever to achieve their goals. 
Although there are critics of the impact of social media on the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya it is certainly true that social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter, allowed people to express their dissatisfaction in ways that wouldn’t have been possible previously.
For me, social media is also as much an instrument of change as radio was in the 2nd world war. It is a means of mass communication - a some-to-many communication system where about 10% of users create about 90% of the content.
As for creating social change, the facts are that during the week President Mubarak of Egypt resigned the number of tweets about political change increased ten fold in that country. This fact was taken from a study by a Professor Howard at the University of Washington.
In addition videos featuring protest and politics were watched over 5 million times and the amount of online content about the political situation increased dramatically at that time.
And at the time of the Tunisian revolution 20% of blogs were discussing the president, Ben Ali.
Waves of communication about social change spread throughout the region creating movements in a wide variety of Arab countries. Governments tried to crack down on social media in the region, but that seems only to have created a greater urge for information.
Now, it is true that we do not know how the new governments of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt will perform in the long run for their citizens, but to deny that social media acted as a communication tool, which aided change, seems wilfully blind to me.
Before this period despotic governments in Arab countries seemed immovable. Today many people in the region know that social change is possible. Social media helped to make that a reality.
But it is true that the hard work of demanding change still has to be done and it’s as dirty and murderously difficult as it ever was to effect social change in totalitarian societies. None of that can be argued with.
And communications media can equally be used to suppress dissent, and there are many examples of it, but social media is changing too, evolving as we speak. The cracks in the system may be constantly being papered over, but there are cracks when none previously existed. That is a step in the right direction.
I would certainly prefer to have cracks than none at all.
There were people who dismissed the printing press and its role in disseminating knowledge as neither as swift nor as complete as its proponents imagined, but the positive effects, over decades and centuries were real and unstoppable despite what the nay-sayers put forward.
One area of easy to identify impact, which I haven’t discussed so far, is the impact of social media on giving. One example of this is, a site which allows you to support causes you pick through social media. has 170 million members and has raised over $40 million dollars for member-defined causes. allows you to create your own “cause” project and to seek donations from your social media community.
Social media is being embraced by the charity sector. A survey in late 2011 revealed that 17% of US charities were investing $10,000 or more on social media services.
I expect the long term impact of social media to be significant and unstoppable in each of these areas. But we may not truly notice that impact for another ten years or more. I hope we all see the positive effects happen quickly. It will be the biggest change in communications in our lifetime. 
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