This commentary was also published in the Thought Section of AMPlified, A Quarterly Newsletter by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), Jan – Mar 2014, Issue 21.
“If the Internet didn’t exist, Barack Obama would not be president of the United States.”
Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org
The internet – specifically social media – has impacted our lives in so many ways, such that even the arguably most powerful man in the world seems to owe his position to it. Take a quick look at the events which have shaken the world over recent years and one can tell just how powerful social media is. From the Middle East turmoil to the charity call for disaster-stricken nations and closer to home, the recent hijab issue; the propensity to generate large numbers of people simultaneously rallying for a cause has allowed lobbying to happen quicker (just by clicking on the ‘Like’ button on Facebook, adding your name to online petition list, sharing a page, etc.) and with more impact.
In countries like Singapore, where public demonstrations are closely regulated, social media provides a platform for activists to have their voices ‘heard’ as well as garner support for their cause. Getting hundreds of thousands of people to know more about a particular cause may now happen overnight, and with the same group of people being mobilised to either create pressure on organisations or solicit for donations. In essence, social media has been utilised as a ‘megaphone’ to reach out to a wider audience and in a shorter period of time. It is hard to imagine that this does not bring about social change, because it does.
The MIT Technology Review ran an article by John Pollock dated 23 August 2011, which featured how street activists, who were spurred by cyber think tank, Takriz, managed to overthrow the President of Tunisia. The internet was seen as the only viable mode of communication for Takriz as all other media were controlled by Tunisia’s then-President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In the same light, in Egypt, the case of a young computer programmer, Khaled Said, who was beaten to death by plainclothes policemen in the streets of Alexandria in 2010, had sparked a protest rally outside the police station when pictures of his tortured body had been circulated on Facebook. The ‘We Are All Khaled Said’ page has since garnered over 3 million ‘Likes’ hence it is not hard to envisage the clout of this group.
Social media has the power to build on the social momentum as things often go viral very swiftly. But why do people participate in social activism online so extensively? I believe this is because we humans are by and large social creatures with a sense of community. Historically, revolution all over the world took place because of civil rights activism – from the abolishment of slavery and racism to gender equality. Social media is merely taking it to the next level as it allows people to easily organise and share information more.
In Singapore, we can see how social media is employed by activists to gain support from the laymen (and in the thousands at that!) and hence, uncovering a populace that is increasingly losing its fear to challenge the authorities. “Choose wisely come 2016” is being echoed time and again on Facebook, making it seem as though the larger the number people, the less fear they will feel.
The fact that social media is real-time and accessible by a large majority of the residents here also makes things more transparent – the moment somebody says or does something, someone would have done the whole point, shoot, share thing. No longer can a Minister retract what he or she had said both online and offline as his or her message would already have been shared all over Facebook and retweeted countless times. In other respects, social media also allows donors to see the efforts of the charity organisations they support and how the funds collected are disbursed.
Social media has also seen the rise of Facebook groups who are able to bring like-minded individuals together, organise events to support their agenda and such. There are also the ‘silent activists’ – those whose participation seldom go beyond clicking the ‘Like’ button, sharing or retweeting. Far from being insignificant, social media creates a larger community. Without people sharing or retweeting, word will not get around much. It is precisely because of this quick and pervasive circulation that gives power to the social activists. Effectively, it binds us all together because in one way or another, we can all become activists and participate in our ways by contributing to various causes. It could possibly be the best way to grow a movement, by pushing people from participating in an online movement to a real offline one.
Love it or hate it, social media is here to stay.
Sharifah Norashikin SSA is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in the article are her own.