Is Social Media a democratising force?

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Demonstrators shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara, March 2014. Source: Reuters

Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate, and has become a platform for discussions on diverse topics, including food, Miley Cyrus and of course politics. The only prerequisites for voicing your opinion online in Australia are access to the internet and a mobile device, and as politics student Ross Dennis so eloquently puts it, “anyone can have a say, including uneducated bigots, spastics, wankers and conservatives.”

In common discussion, uncensored access to online content is considered a necessary element of a democratic society, and social media use is often described as a democratising force. However, what power does social media really have? Lets look at a few examples of interaction between social media and the government.

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring is a necessary topic in any discussion on the power of social media. Online platforms were used to organise protest against corrupt governments, mobilising pro-democratic activists in many Arab nations. Social media is credited with enabling the revolution, as well as bringing news of what was going down to the rest of the world.

Turkey

Twitter and Youtube were blocked in Turkey earlier this year following the leaking of wiretapped conversations involving the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Labelled by Erdogan as “villainous”, the leaked content was presented by the government as a threat to national security, purportedly containing confidential military discussions. The government used this argument to justify the temporary blocking of Twitter and Youtube, which were being used to spread the leaked information.

Whilst sensitive military information could be justifiably blocked if national safety was threatened, the nature of other censored content is a little more dubious. Conversations indicating corrupt conduct were also verified as real- in one instance, the PM is heard “instructing the head of a major television news network to cut short the live broadcast of a rival politician’s speech in parliament” (CNN).

 

Both of these instances paint a similar picture- that social media:

–    Allows citizens access to the truth

–    Allows people to check government power and monitor corruption.

 

Even in a democratised nation like Australia where mass media is less likely to be censored, social media allows greater transparency and the provides a platform for people to express political dissent. Ross quotes the example of Senator Scott Ludlam’s anti- Abbott Senate speech. “It was given to an almost empty senate, one other person in the chamber, and it almost went viral- it has around 900,000 views now,” he says.

Social media also provides a means for people to express opinions and join together with those who have similar perspectives. The broadcast of the recent budget announcement hadn’t even reached completion before people were expressing their annoyance on Facebook and Twitter.

“Social media is a forum where everyone can share ideas extremely fast,” Ross says. 

 

So we’ve established that social media is used in many different political climates as a platform for political discussion. However, are we might be giving social media a little too much credit?

In the case of the Arab Spring, it was instrumental in instigating political change- but would the revolution have taken place if all the Arab people had done was sit on their couch and send a few tweets? Without the tangible actions necessary in a revolution (guerrilla warfare and changes to governmental policy), the actual changes wouldn’t have occurred, just as nobody is ousting Tony Abbott from parliament just because we’re all tweeting about how much we hate his budget.

 

“[The people of the Arab world] for sure have used Twitter to mobilise people, Facebook to share information, but it was not Facebook or Twitter that brought the revolution.” Khaled Koubaa, Arab World Internet Institute (Tunisia)

 

In the case of Turkey, social media achieved what most democratic communication platforms strive for- holding politicians to account and increasing transparency, the “watchdog” for public interest. However, it took action from the country’s high court to eradicate the ban, and Erdogan and his party remain in power.

 

Social media is indeed a champion for transparency and succeeds in providing a voice for the marginalized, however it should be regarded as one piece of a bigger puzzle. Mainstream media still plays a huge role in people’s perception of political leaders, and simply spreading information online isn’t likely to change much without the flow on actions taken by citizens.

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