NATO Review - Social media: power to the people?
NATO REVIEW 2011
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Social media: power to the people?
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Social media: power to the people?
Some have portrayed recent uprisings in North Africa as the best possible advert for the power of social media. The revolutions were littered with videos, texts, blogs and other communication. But how key were they? Were they fundamental - or bit players? NATO Review looks at how much social media gives real power to the people.
Hillary Clinton's senior advisor for innovation outlines how social media can affect the way politics is done. As well as opening up new conversations, it also reflects the new profile and dynamics of voters - and it is up to politicians to respond.
There has been much coverage of the role of social media in spreading democracy. But what dangers can social media pose when in the hands of those opposed to more freedom? Can it be more effective working against democracy than for it?
There are those who see social media as a threat to their security. Not just individuals, not just companies, but also governments. Why is this? And how much of a soft underbelly do social networks present?
Does social media make political change easier? Is it true that it has already been the force behind political changes? Here, experts outline how social media has been a game changer - but also the limits it has.
Egypt and Tunisia's former rulers have been deposed. Some other governments in the region are unsure how long - or if - they will last. How much evidence is there that social media was behind these changes?
"Revolution 2.0" took place in Egypt according to some sources. Not so, argues Will Heaven. He points to compelling evidence which indicates that the West may be guilty of seeing events in Egypt through a Western prism.
Social media has made major changes says Susannah Vila. It’s importance in recent uprisings shouldn’t be underplayed. But these same events have also shown that one of social media’s strengths – being leaderless – can also prove one of its weaknesses.

Social media is no longer new. Nor are claims that it brings massive change.

Even though there is chatter about it playing a key role in the Arab spring uprisings, it was already back in 2008 that it was seen as a major game changer.

The election of Barack Obama that year was attributed in no small part to the massive organisation which went into increasing votes and support. Social media played a key part.

Social media is no longer new. Nor are claims that it brings massive change.

Even though there is chatter about it playing a key role in the Arab spring uprisings, it was already back in 2008 that it was seen as a major game changer.

The election of Barack Obama that year was attributed in no small part to the massive organisation which went into increasing votes and support. Social media played a key part. His campaign built a vast network of online supporters who organised getting out the vote, helped raise a record-breaking $600 million, and created media clips that were viewed millions of times online.

2009 was the year that saw micro-blog Twitter take off in a massive way. And later that year, Iran’s uprising (following what protesters argued was a rigged election) was declared by some to be Twitter-driven. Twitter even claimed that it had delayed scheduled downtime for maintenance because of Iranian protesters’ need for its service.

Social media clearly played a role in Iran. For example, the catching on mobile phone camera of the shooting (and death) of the young protester ‘Neda’ was circulated widely and gave the protests added impetus. The video has several million views on YouTube. Despite this, attributing social media such a key role is hard to substantiate. As Will Heaven states in an article in this edition, the low percentage of Twitter accounts presents a different picture.

This year, 2011, several mainstream media sources have asked if we are witnessing Facebook revolutions in the Middle East. NATO Review asked several experts whether this stands up to scrutiny. And the clear answer was that a brake needs to be put on the rush to give a communication technology (albeit an innovative, empowering one) such a causal effect in world changing events.

On more than one occasion while interviewing, I was reminded that there had been no social media at the end of the 1980s during the uprising in Tiannamen Square, in Central and Eastern Europe over the next couple of years and in numerous other uprisings. These revolutions had varying levels of success. But there is little evidence that their cause, or success or failure, was directly linked to communication technologies.

I’ll leave the last word to one of the interviewees, who simply said: ‘Only one thing makes revolutions: people’.

Paul King