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Social media power

C Gopinath | Updated on September 22, 2020 Published on September 22, 2020

Creating aspirations, they bring change

The ‘Arab Spring’ was aimed at repressive governments. The people imploded spontaneously with limited organisation but enormous passion saying enough is enough. To the extent that they were successful in making themselves heard, social media made a significant contribution.

Social media broadly encompasses ways by which text and images are instantly exchanged with large numbers of people directly. Several reports suggested how in Egypt, for example, the protest organisers would use various messaging services to let their followers know where to gather, what areas to avoid, and where medical or other help was available. The messages also kept the spirits up by sharing the common grievances that the people had, and collating their frustrations into protests.

The relevance of social media is, of course, seen in areas beyond protests. While it is great to broadcast a message seeking assistance in finding the lost puppy, it has also become important as a medium to foment trouble. Mischief makers work hard to circulate convincing stories that get your angst up about how someone is discriminating against your religion.

Thus, it is no surprise that this darling of the people is a bugbear of governments. Some, like China, want to keep a tight control on the content of what is exchanged. They have built an elaborate infrastructure to censor content, and have the regulatory framework in place to make the organisations running the networks to hand over data when asked for without a murmur. Freer countries like the US also want to control the media although, with more individual freedoms in place, they have to rely on national security reasons to get access.

Most other governments would also like some kind of control and censorship and are struggling with a hodgepodge of rules, such as requiring data to be maintained within the country, access to information about those who post messages, and limits on forwarding messages.

But there is another interesting and important aspect of social media that we need to recognise. Its ability to create aspirations that cannot be controlled and is the real troublemaker.

This influence is different from the aspirations created by images seen in films and television. Sure, in the latter one saw the slopes of Kashmir and Switzerland, and nurtures a secret desire to visit those places. But if you are living in a one-room apartment without running water and are able to exchange messages and see the pictures of someone with more comforts, you begin to wonder how come I don’t have that and how can I get it.

Those aspirations are kept alive and grow due to the instantaneous and real time nature of the conversation.

Path to freedom

That is troublesome in the political arena. The young people of Thailand are now stirring. They have been marinated in social media from when they were born and are now beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. They recognise that the political and military nexus in their country has created a feudal society.

They see their environment as being incongruous in the 21st Century and are protesting like the people of Egypt. If you can express yourself freely on social media away from the glare of state propaganda, how can you accept a culture that requires unquestioned submission to authority?

Aspirations are formed in the mind based on the interactions between the reality of the images one sees and one’s present conditions. And social media, without much editing or censorship is as real as it gets. It is impossible for governments to control aspirations. They may try to influence and regulate what is seen, but the medium often allows the user to find an alternative path to freedom.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

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Published on September 22, 2020
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