Overhyping the power of social media

It’s almost hard to imagine what life would be like if we couldn’t click that login button on the Facebook homepage and be instantly connected to our entire world. Its ability to spread information while inspiring growth and involvement made its usages almost limitless.

It was still a surprise that it came as an influential instrument of revolutionary change. As the year 2011 came into full gear, we were confronted with a multitude of uprisings, launched at lightening speed that shook the foundations of 20-, 30- and even 50-year regimes. As the world avidly watched these countries’ citizens spill into the streets, we applauded social media tools as impressive mechanisms that birthed these rebellions into actuality and played a strong hand in their success. Instead of the old-fashioned, stone-throwing citizens, we are instead looking at the new face of mutiny: the ordinary citizen behind a computer screen.

Individuals who wouldn’t normally watch the news or care to know what was happening outside their city walls were shouting in support of Tusnia, Egpyt and Libya, created a clamoring that brought dictators to their knees.

Facebook played a practical role, with certain pages providing information to demonstrators on the status, location, time and other practical information on rallies and gatherings. YouTube was essential for spreading eyewitness reports while demonstrating the violent responses of government forces.

In an effort organized by Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive originally from Egypt, hundred of thousands of users accessed information on both the location and time for demonstrations, as well as links to YouTube videos revealing government atrocities against the public.

Although I do agree that social networks have a power of its own in their far reaching scope, I do have to mention one important thing: these mediums are not creating change. They propel, aid and quicken the speed at which these revolutions occur. It takes much more than a few days of Twitter posts and Facebook fan pages for a country to react against the government they grew up with and, essentially, all they know. Social media isn’t what holds these rebellions together, nor the only way a revolution can operate.

It is important to remember the fragility of social media among the praise and revere of these internet-based programs. The fact that social media is open to everyone for usage is the very weakness that lies in its power to mobilize change. It is easy for those in fumbling dictatorships to use these networks for manipulation and influence in their favour.

For instance, on Facebook, hundreds of Ethiopians have changed their profile picture to posters that have the Ahmaric word, “enough” while several groups are calling for nationwide protests on May 28, 20 years after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came into power. Uganda’s Communications Commission has since ordered telecom companies to block access to social networking websites and have since proved they can intercept messages in order to suppress the uprisings.

So although social media is a device against the most powerful weapon of oppression — misinformation — these sites do not substitute content. It is a way to share that anger, frustration and need for change with others while avoiding being a substitute for education.

Social media has been vitally important in organizing these past revolutions, yet it is essential to remember that social media remains a tool and was not the inventor of courage. It has helped — but not led — these revolutions to success. The credit is due to the people of these countries — for speaking up and risking it all for the opportunity to save their own countries from oppression.

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