New Communication Technologies and Political Mobilization

Egypt_Tahrir Square after_Mubarak

Introduction

Beginning with the widely referred Arab Spring, to the Spanish Indignados Movement, and London Riots, political and social mobilizations have been considered a handiwork of new communication technologies. The question is did new communication technology play a decisive role, a causal role or just acted as an instrument in facilitating the process. The study aims at analyzing the role of social media in bringing the masses to the streets for protests and demonstrations in significantly large numbers. It also explores the possibility of mobilization of masses in Pakistan with the help of new technologies.

Objectives

The study aims at developing an understanding of the role played by new communication technologies particularly social media in political and social activism around the world. It also aims at exploring the potential of a digital revolution in Pakistan and how can these technologies be utilized in Pakistan.

 Narrative

The means of communication have seen a lot of innovation in recent years. Technology has contributed in making communication easier and faster. Old tools have been replaced by new tools and means. One such tool is social networking sites (SNS).

The social media helps people communicate, participate and exchange. It has changed the way people connect, interact and collaborate with each other. The people share a variety of content such as text, images and videos through these social networks. The examples of social media are Social Networking Sites (SNS) such as Facebook; blogs such as WordPress and Twitter; videosharing and photosharing sites such as Youtube and Flickr; wikis; and collaborative tagging etc.

Social networking is playing a role in mobilization of masses. Hitherto politically inactive, discontented, and dissatisfied people are increasingly becoming mobilized. People who are infuriated with the governments or the social, political and economic systems are provided with an opportunity, to let out their anger. Driven by various causes, people become active first on digital media, express their outrage on various online platforms – Facebook, Twitter – and then organize collective action. This mobilization has been observed around the world.

The Arab Spring

The wave of unrest that engulfed the region of North Africa and Middle East took everyone by surprise. Mass and sustained public demonstrations had been an alien thing in the region. This led many to conclude the decisive role played by social media.

The news of self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi on 17th December, 2010 spread through blogs and text messages in Tunisia. In a short period of time an online campaign was organized garnering support for uprising in Sidi Bouzid. By early January 2011, the domino effect had hit the other states in the region. Egyptians also turned to social media to organize protests. In a few days’ time, more than 70,000 people agreed to join the protest on Facebook. Asma Mehfouz through a video log asked the young men to take to the streets and protest beside her.

Indignados Movement in Spain

In May 2011, a wave of protests broke out in Spain across fifty cities just a week before the general and municipal elections. People demanded “Real Democracy Now”. The protests were not organized by any political party or trade union or any other formal organization. Thus the absence of traditional organizations, lack of leadership, low media coverage and unanimity of demand let thousands of people came out on the streets. It was organized by online networking. More than 400 organizations came together online on one central online platform “Real Democracy Now”.

Blackberry Riots in London

England was also shaken up by a series of riots in early August 2011. Thousands of people rioted and indulged in looting, vandalism and arson. Investigative panel on exploring the causes of the riots concluded that social media such as Facebook and Twitter and TV coverage made the riots worse. Social media helped organize the riots. The most powerful instrument was Blackberry Messenger. It is not only the most preferred choice of smartphones among British youth but also helps evade tracing down by the government.

Thus, the mobilization of people became possible through interaction of old and new media. The news made its way to the satellite channels and reached a far greater number of people than it did before. Social media does not play a causal role to these uprisings, riots and protests. These are instruments through which people networked and organized collective action.

Possibility of a Digital Revolution in Pakistan

A glance at key statistics reveals the level of technological ingress in Pakistan. There are 30 million internet users in Pakistan. Internet penetration in the country has reached 16 percent while broadband subscribers have more than doubled in the last two years. As much as 15 million people access internet through their mobile phones. There are 120 million mobile subscribers. The number of Social Media users remains limited.

Pakistan is among the bottom three countries in terms of use of social media in Asia. Half of the Facebook users are between the ages of 18-24 indicating social networking sites are mostly used by youth. Nearly 30 million Facebook users are university graduates. More than half of these users come from country’s richest 10 percent of households. Facebook use is highly concentrated in young and affluent segment of society.

Political Mobilization in Pakistan through Social Media

The use of internet was seen noticeably during last general elections in Pakistan. Political candidates availed all available methods during the election campaign to gain votes using the most popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Some political parties have made their pages on social networking web sites to target youth. Some politicians tweeted regularly to increase political support. The adverse effects of a challenging security environment were offset by the social media as politicians remained connected with supporters.

 Conclusion

Despite the emphasis laid on the power of social media in recent developments around the world, the social media remains merely a tool in facilitating the mobilization of the masses. It has enabled people to challenge the status-quo through online activities first at individual level and then collective level. However, it was not because of the social media that people took to the streets, the causes of mobilization remained dissatisfaction with either the political, economic and social systems in their respective countries. It just provided a channel to the masses to vent out their anger and dissatisfaction. Social media does not have a deterministic character in bringing a change. Therefore, it is naïve to expect that social media can bring a change on its own. Furthermore, the interaction of social media or the new communication technology with the old technology was essential in mobilizing the masses.

In Pakistan only 16 per cent of the total population uses internet. The number of social network users such as Youtube, Facebook and Twitter remains limited. The social media is highly concentrated in Pakistan in educated and rich section of the society. The media, both print and electronic, remains by far the main instrument of social and political articulation in Pakistan. Like all other things, social media also has its pros and cons. Social media can also be used in a negative manner. For instance, hate speech can also be propagated through social media. Moreover, the potential of usage of social media for a negative agenda must not be overlooked by the government.

Recommendations

Communication

—  Availability of social media allows people to address domestic and international audience with much ease. The social network services can be used as international platforms for development and for networking with global civil society.

Spreading a Word

—  Social media can be used to spread awareness that can make positive contribution to nation-building. It can help begin and support campaigns, organize peaceful protests.

—  It can be used to raise voice over issues of national concern such as drone strikes.

—  The social networking web sites can be used to educate and provide awareness to common people of the country about their right to vote.

Resource Mobilization

—   Social media can be used to raise funds for social causes such as relief services in the aftermath of a calamity.

Community Services

—  Social networks provide opportunities for community-building, civic engagement, education, activism, and development.

—  Healthcare consultancy can be extended through social media.

Change in Social and Political Culture

  • Political culture in any society can change through integration, technological innovation and globalization. By being closely related to all three aspects, social media can bring a significant change in social and political culture of the society.

Monitoring by the Government

  • While it is difficult to regulate online activity, the governments need to monitor the activity on social media and keep a close watch on hate speech, extremist and terrorist activitiy. In this regard new softwares have been launched to monitor social media activity such as ‘Radian 6’ and ‘Repknight softwares’. The Government of Pakistan can also use these softwares for monitoring purposes.
  • The governments should also launch awareness campaigns indicating the adverse activities on social media.

 

Disclaimer

The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of IPRI.

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About the Author

Maria Syed is a researcher at IPRI

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