Global spread of social media has enabled increased access to information and education to millions of people, which empowered them to become part of political processes in their societies. Voices that could not be heard in governmental and other mainstream media are suddenly given a chance to address wide audiences. Even people not keen on active political participation have become political actors by supporting and sharing those newly empowered voices on social media. This new dynamic puts unprecedented pressure on all governments for democratisation, transparency, and accountability. Social media offers infrastructure to citizen’s initiatives to act, where governments fail, and for governments to work more efficiently with the help of their citizens, may it be on eradicating poverty, fight against corruption, protection of human rights, etc.
With its wide and instant reach, social media is a catalyst of social unrest everywhere where a government is unable or unwilling to listen to its citizens. It can even take down long-lasting authoritarian regimes, as we could see with the incredibly fast spread of Arab spring revolution (starting in Tunisia in December 2010). Victories of perceived underdogs Barack Husein Obama and Donald Trump in US presidential elections in 2008 and 2016 showed us the impact of an organised and targeted campaign on social media can have on political processes in stable democracies as well. In the case of the latter even in total opposition of a vast majority of mainstream media.
Does social media have the power to change the world? (devschooluea)
Newfound space for political influence, however, brings to us substantial risks of political misinformation and abuse in social media as well. We receive crazy amounts of news via social media and it is impossible to reflect on the quality of so much information. All social media is new, so there is little chance to check long term credibility of the source. Such an environment is prone to exposure to misleading and even completely false information – “fake news”, sensationalism and with it populism. With no authority to trust on what is true and what fake, we are inclined to believe the information that is closest to our way of thinking.
In a big chunk of the world freedom of speech is still limited and that counts for social media as well. In China, the state imposed the so-called “Great China Wall”, which does not allow you to seek information on free Tibet, Tiananmen square massacre,… on social media. In many countries (from Turkey to North Korea) any social media is blocked at least from time to time, so the impact of them on societal changes is limited accordingly.