Social Networks, Political Weapons

Social Networks, Political Weapons

The Current Discussion: Egypt has detained a number of its citizens for using the social networking site Facebook to organize anti-government protests. What online sites are most effective in influencing politics — and is the impact positive?

Nobody can diminish the power of the new media, especially social networking sites, in setting and driving political agenda. Just examine how heavily two U.S. Democratic presidential candidates – Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – have been using them to run their campaigns.

On the home pages of their official campaign web sites are links to personal pages on major social networking sites, including Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube. These pages are acting as recruiting, fundraising and policy articulation platforms. It’s here that they’re socializing with their most passionate supporters, especially youth.

And by all measures, they’ve been very effective and successful in doing so. On Obama’s Facebook page, for instance, about 850,000 supporters have signed up and more are enlisting as he moves to clinch the Democratic Party nomination. On his MySpace page, the scenario is the same. He has built an army of young supporters, by the way, not only from the U.S. but the rest of the world.

To further reinforce the pivotal role social networking sites are playing in politics, the New York Times yesterday reported how Hillary Clinton used the social networking site Twitter to rally supporters in Oregon and Kentucky to vote for her. She complained that the mainstream media had ignored her.
One would attribute the effectiveness of social networking sites as tools for political activism in the U.S. to the existence of democratic culture where the government doesn’t muzzle free speech. Security agencies don’t poke their noses to what people are doing online: there’s virtually no policing of individuals using the net for political activities.

Additionally, it’s highly convenient to use the internet for political advocacy owing to its availability and accessibility. It’s estimated that internet penetration in the U.S. stands at 42 per cent, the highest in the entire world. This is compared to a paltry 4.7 per cent in Africa. .

With all this buzz of social networking sites playing a central role in political campaigns, totalitarian regimes, such as the one in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (where a blogger was recently incarcerated for four months for “threatening state security”) have every reason to feel paranoid about young people falling onto the internet for political expression. They’ll interpret this as a threat to their power. They’d therefore like to tighten the noose around anybody intent of using the net for political expression.

The million-dollar question, now, is whether this heavy-handedness on net users will force them to acquiesce. Personally, I doubt they will. The net police, as they’re called in repressive countries, will have to emasculate every web-savvy youngster for their net censorship campaign to succeed. Their efforts will fail because real mobilization can take place beyond the geographical locations where censorship actually takes place.

Already, there are thousands of web-based activist organizations championing such causes as the war in Darfur and the pro-independence movement in Tibet. There’s a Students for a Free Tibet Facebook page with about 8,000 fans. Students, especially in the U.S., have been using Facebook to raise money for victims of Darfur violence and raising awareness about the atrocities going on there.

There is no doubt social networking sites will continue to become magnets for political activism in both democratic and less democratic countries.