Overplaying the power of Social Media

by / Wednesday, 02 February 2011 / Published in Blog

Watching the media over the last few weeks you’d be forgiven for assuming that world events were being dictated by the activities of various groups on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The recent upheavals in Tunisia that lead to the toppling of the President and the more recent protests in Egypt are the two obvious examples where much talk has centred on the role that social media played in those events. But is it valid?

Throughout the history of communication much influence has been attributed to the latest means of technical dissemination. During the Second World War the Nazis relied heavily on the use of radio to try to undermine the allies’ will to fight on, after Axis forces overran Western Europe. It didn’t work.

The Nazis also weren’t averse to trying to bend mass media, dominated by cinema at the time, to drive the agenda and generate propaganda. They did a line in documentaries intended to dehumanise Jews and to promote their vision of a future world order.

In the 1950s there were claims that the growing popularity of kids’ comics would lead to anti-social behaviour. As far as we can tell it didn’t. Then in the 1980s there were concerns that so-called video-nasties would do something similar.

The point here is that as each new technology has emerged, there have been those ready to attribute far more influence to it than the evidence would seem to merit.

People talk. Given the means to do so we will email, call, write, Skype… you name it. That’s the fundamental nature of our species. So when the internet saw the emergence of social media services such as Twitter, Flickr and Facebook, is it any wonder that these have emerged as popular hubs? They do, after all, permit that most human of traits… communication.

But it seems that the pundits on 24 hour rolling news TV are always looking for causes for the latest upheaval (to fill that airtime) and often fall into the typical trap of attributing events to the latest technologies. Rather than seeing Facebook as a massive modern day message board, the concept of which has been around since the late 1970s, the suggestion seems to be that this service and other of its ilk somehow played a pivotal part in making the protests happen.

That’s doubtful. How then would we explain the Tiananmen Square protests in China or the various popular revolts in Eastern Europe and elsewhere? Many happened well before social media claimed its place at the communications table.

The fact is that political unrest and dissatisfaction will be expressed through whatever means is available at the time.  In Egypt dissatisfaction with the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak has been simmering and repressed for years. Social media may have played a role in helping people communicate more effectively and certainly faster than older or informal channels, but to suggest that recent events wouldn’t have emerged without social media’s assistance is just naïve.

It ignores the wealth of historical examples that suggest that popular revolts have gone on since the start of recorded history and will likely do so as long as people can congregate and communicate – be it by bits and bytes or by plain old hot air.


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