Social Media Social Change

April 17th, 2013

camera phone

The rise of social media is every bit as important as the invention of the printing press.

JFK said this about the printing press and if he was alive today I’m sure he would feel the same way about social media,

And so it is to the printing press–to the recorder of man’s deeds, the keeper of his conscience, the courier of his news– that we look for strength and assistance, confident that with your help man will be what he was born to be: free and independent.

Technology itself never grants freedom but it makes freedom possible. In 1450, as long as you could read and afford books, you had amazing access to information never known before. And it took the church over 100 years to trust people with this freedom, outlawing the printing of the Bible in English until the 1600’s.

Censorship never works for ever. People power prevails, eventually. Ordinary people find a way, via technology, to gain access to information. No matter how much dictators, or religions, try to control the spread of information, the drive of people to find out the truth is irrepressible. This is what I think will happen (is happening) in North Korea.

With the arrival of the world wide web in 1991 and maybe more importantly the advent of Web 2.0 in 1999, people power had an amazing new resource. Now we not only have access to phenomenal amounts of information, but we have the ability to interact with it, help shape it, share it in unprecedented ways and quickly and discuss it in diverse groups.

Now there are over a billion people on Facebook, with nearly two thirds using Facebook on their mobile phones, a billion people on You Tube, 200 million on twitter, and even 80 million farmers on Farmville. The numbers are staggering and still growing rapidly.

Think about some of the ways that social media has been part of incredible social change.

When Super Storm Sandy hit last year, New York officials used a massive and well organized social media campaign to save lives. After the Boston Bombing, people used social media to track down loved ones and share details. When Osama bin Laden was killed, the news broke on twitter accounts of Pakistani citizens well before President Obama had finished writing his announcement speech.

In Tunisia, people organized a successful overthrow of an oppressive regime partly through social media and camera phones. The revolution may still have happened without social media, but there is no way it would have happened as quickly as it did, with amazing grassroots mobilization of protestors,  event coordination, propaganda busting, analysis of government policies, video sharing of protests etc etc.

As tech entrepreneur Bryce Roberts said, “mobile devices are the Gutenberg presses of our generation.”

Then in Egypt, when Mubarak closed access to the internet, Egyptian protestors hit the streets in massive numbers, driven by the act of extreme censorship. People power will always prevail eventually.

What about China and North Korea with their giant firewalls of censorship? Apparently in North Korea, the few people with access to the internet only have access to a handful of carefully controlled sites. It has a long way to go, but the example of China is fascinating.

China is a BRIC nation (along with Brazil, Russia, and India), the emerging economies driving global growth. It is also one of the SICK nations (along with Syrian, Iran and North Korea) where people have no access to Facebook. So China is a SICK BRIC. But the story of the internet in China is fascinating with over 500 million internet users, the largest in the world.

People power in China has created all of its own copycat social media channels. Where the west has Google, they have baidu. Where we have Facebook, they have renren. Where we have You Tube, they have youku. And where we have Twitter, they have weibu.

There are over 300 million microbloggers in China, the entire population of the US. The other fascinating thing is that each Chinese character says so much more than an English Character. So our 140 character Twitter limit is more like several sentences on weibu.

One story I heard really stood out in regards to the power of social media in China. Pollution in Beijing is obviously a huge issue. Government officials censor the information to convince people to go about their business. The American Embassy reports more accurate readings, and tweets these readings sometimes telling people NOT to go outside. Chinese officials don’t like this but can’t control it. The problem is that no one in China gets the tweets. A Chinese billionaire, Mr Pan, gained access to the tweets and started posting to his weibu account where he has 15 million followers. The power of people to access information  is irrepressible. People will find a way to beat the great firewalls of censorship.

The role of social media in North Korea is already important, and will become more so. A group of western journalists in China and South Korea recently held a Google Plus forum to share their interactions around North Korea. They reported that ordinary people in both China and South Korea are calling for diplomatic solutions to the North Korea problem. Leaders can’t ignore this sort of grassroots pressure for long.

Social Media is not perfect. There is inaccurate information spread, like the inevitable hoax pictures spread after tragedies, people trying to profit from disaster, and an overload of gruesome images. But there is no perfect technology. It’s up to all of us to choose how we use the technology for good.

The bottom line is that censorship doesn’t work for long, and social media makes censorship more difficult to enforce.

Social media is the latest, and greatest tool in the service of easy and efficient spread of information. Used in the service of people power, it is an irrepressible force for social change.

I’m going to end with the words from the last scene of The Matrix,

You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world … without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

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