Within just a few years it has become difficult for many of us to imagine a life without social media. All around the globe more and more people are signing up to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pintrest and other platforms every day, sharing details of their lives and their opinions with their virtual communities. The question is, however, how social are social media? Have social media changed societies for the better? Have they helped to empower ordinary citizens by giving them a voice to reach millions of people? Or are social media a wolf in sheep’s clothing, facilitating large scale surveillance of unprecedented proportions, making George Orwell’s Big Brother a reality?
The short answer is: both.
The rise of social media was coupled with a general euphoria about endless possibilities these new forms of communication and networking would bring. And indeed, the power of social media has been demonstrated numerous times. Uprisings in Iran in 2009 and Egypt in 2011 represent two of the most striking examples, of how information and mobilization through social media facilitated mass protests which ultimately led to the overturn of governments.
Through social media, individuals now have the opportunity to communicate their thoughts and opinions to a mass audience. Social media are forums of free speech, arenas for social and political criticism. However, it is important that social media are examined in a more critical manner. The overly enthusiastic discourse of technology optimists has increasingly come under scrutiny and been replaced with a more nuanced analysis of social media. Still, Dencik & Leistert in their book Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest argue that the social media debate is often apolitical and not critical enough in terms of different social contexts and when it comes to the technologies and companies enabling the use of social media.
Egyptian Internet Activist Wael Ghonim’s provides an interesting and critical analysis of social media during and after the Egyptian revolution in his TED Talk Let’s design social media that drives real change. Ghonim also questions the type of communication taking place on social media (i.e. fast paced, limited amount of space, etc.), causing people to talk at each other as opposed to with each other.
Especially in connection to protest, and generally the expression of critical views, measures of police control, repression, prosecution, and punishment have steadily increased. In many political protests such as the Occupy Movement, social media have been used to identify and prosecute protesters based on their social media activities. Social media have therefore not only been a means for protesters to express themselves and connect with like-minded people, but for police and governments to monitor and sometimes restrict their activities.
Controlling and regulating technologies are embedded into social media platforms, which also confines user activities. Most social media companies, for example, control content feeds based on a user’s past online behavior and are thereby manipulating what users see in their news feeds.
Citizen empowerment and emancipation have to be seriously questioned under these circumstances. How freely social media users can express themselves is questionable and also depends on their geographical location. Dencik & Leistert (2015) argue, that social media “strengthen the ability for institutions of power to harness social control by promoting a technology-centered illusion of citizen empowerment and opportunity for realizing genuinely emancipatory ideals” (p. 10). The latest example for this dynamic comes from China, where an influential businessman with more than 37 Million followers had his social media accounts shut down after criticizing the government, sparking a new debate about state censorship of social media.
When examining the very term ‘social media’ the question of how social they really are has to be asked. The term ultimately refers to services provided by large, usually listed corporations. These companies are first and foremost commercial entities, predominantly geared towards maximizing profits – a fact that cannot be neglected when discussing social media. In addition, surveillance is inherent to the workings of social media platforms – a business model. At a user level, the surveillance of each other’s activities, and at a higher level, through selling data and user generated content to third parties. All of this goes against the very nature of sociality.
The power relations in and around social media prevent truly social, free and neutral networks that empower citizens. While this does not mean that social media cannot play an important role in social change processes, we need to be aware of the limitations and dynamics at play.