2011 has shown a heightened political awareness amongst Singaporeans. Much of the critique of public services, listed companies with public accountabilities as well as politicians both new and old, have been embedded and seemingly entrenched in social media. At the very least, such voices of disdain, scepticism and critical abandon have permeated our consciousness, over a variety of different media. Of the different media, social media has perhaps shown itself as the new unaccountable voice. Is social media the real agent for change as we look towards 2012?
Is there a legitimate fear that social media will be a change agent for low risk activism in our society? Will social media, comprising facebook, twitter, online chatrooms, blog sites and the plethora of on-line commentary over different publications, graduate to becoming the catalyst for high risk activism?
I have my doubts as to whether the latter will be realizable through social media activism. In an orderly society where the Public Order Act is vigorously enforced without fear or favour, there is little risk of social media becoming a medium to bring about stirrings amongst the masses to the point where public order is compromised, and people take to the streets in protest. However other fundamental precepts such as contentment and the belief in striving for a better and improved life must also be present.
Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker has argued that social change is brought about by high risk meaningful activism, like the civil rights movement that altered the US social compact in the 1960s. Strong group identity and cohesion foster strong ties, which form the basis of a mass rebellion. Gladwell comments that social media tools promote low risk activism, and weaker ties. Facebook, according to Gladwell “succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do things people do when they’re not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”
I agree with this. We are influenced by what we read, although the more discerning amongst us will question and seek collaboration or factual confirmations, after reading a certain posting on social media. More often than not it is the medium by which activists express themselves but such expression may carry little tangible impact. Yet we remain affected by it.
The counter-view is that social media has shown itself to be an effective organising tool, and certain governments, such as China, are clearly afraid of it. An NYU academic, Clay Shirley has argued that the formation of a vibrant civil society and public sphere is a two-step process. Access to information and media is the first step. Google and other online media provide amply for this. The second step is active debate and conversations about that information. Political opinions are formed at this stage. According to Shirley, access to this information is less important that access to conversations. And in this sphere social media is a great facilitator of mass conversations. It enables many-to-many communications which facilitate synchronised action, and compel change.
The arisings that led to the downfall of the Ben Ali regime and the Mubarak government in 2011 are illustrative of how social media could play a role in galvanising mass disaffection into a coherent demonstration of political will. Yet we must understand that these changes were precipitated by mass dissatisfaction, high food prices and a dire economy. Conversations were sparked by outrage.
Gladwell has commented that social media builds networks rather than hierarchies. The Arab protests have been observed to lack hierarchy. Traditional opposition groups, like the Muslim brotherhood may have had less to do with the organization of such protests through social media, than individual activists.
In the main social networks can be used as a tool for authoritarianism or democracy. Countries such as Iran and China have come to use the internet to identify, locate and target dissidents. Other governments have chosen to engage citizenry with social media, to try to cajole a changing of minds, and better mould the pre-disposition of individuals.
We criticize public bodies, statutory boards and listed companies with public accountabilities, yet social media platforms are also owned and managed by private businesses and private interests. In time there will be more focus placed on the accountabilities and responsibilities of these bodies, in relation to their users as well as what is articulated through their platforms to the world at large. More questions will be asked but only if access is maintained to information as well as conversations. Watch for it.