Do Social Media Platforms Promote or Limit Individual Liberty?
When Iranian dissidents took to the streets to protest irregularities in the 2009 election, some observers dubbed it the “Twitter revolution” for the role the social networking site played in coordinating the demonstrations. The State department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance to ensure that pro-democracy activists in Iran would have uninterrupted access. Thousands of Western supporters turned their Twitter icons green in solidarity with the “green revolution.”
These protests failed to bring down the Iranian regime. And the next year, Malcolm Gladwell took to the pages of the New Yorker to pour cold water on the idea that social media had the potential to transform societies. He pointed out that for all their apparent decentralization and spontaneity, the most effective social movements tend to operate according to a carefully designed plan and to be put into action by intensely committed volunteers. The sit-ins and bus boycotts of the civil rights movement, for example, were carefully orchestrated from NAACP headquarters in New York. “The civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion,” Gladwell wrote.
And that, he said, makes it unlikely that social media will become a major catalyst for social change. Successful social movements need “strong ties”—people who know and trust each other thanks to years of face-to-face interactions. By itself, getting a million people to “like” your Facebook page dedicated to saving the whales isn’t going to save any whales. At some point, a critical mass of people needs to stick their flesh-and-blood necks out for the cause.
Gladwell obviously has a point. Social media isn’t going to change society all by itself. But when a movement’s most committed activists do take to the streets, it matters whether the broader population is sympathetic to their cause. And social media can be a powerful tool for increasing public awareness and support.