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“Social media” as a phrase has almost become blasé even though it’s literally just a few years old. As an idea, it has only recently been introduced to the world, though as an entity it has existed ever since the first cave paintings in Africa and smoke signals from a rocky mountain top.
The telephone can be considered the first modern social media tool, and today we have Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a multitude of other platforms. Suddenly you knew what was happening all over the world. People started to connect much easier, ideas floated around and hey presto soon enough you have a revolution (pun not intended). Here is a list, some good some bad, of some of the revolutionary, scary, uplifting and interesting impacts social media has had:
1. Arab Spring
Undoubtedly the most impressive and most remembered of all social media impacts was during the Arab Spring. Social media was never the cause of revolution in the region, but did fuel and assist, and is seen as a major catalyst. Ever since the WikiLeaks publications of diplomatic cables, the knowledge of government corruption, absolute monarchy and human rights violations came to the fore. Arab citizens revolted and using social media as a communication tool and a collective war effort was organised via social media instead of in the war room. The size and effects of this impact are impressive: more than 15 countries were affected, four rulers forced from power, two new countries formed and it spanned the entire Arab world from Mauritania to Syria and Oman.
Julian Assange, whistle-blower supremo, decided that through the use of the internet and social media, he would publicise sensitive and secret government material about corruption, human rights violations and the underhanded dealings of governments. The effect of this publication has been two-sided however: a lot of red faces in governments, and even more stringent secrecy bills implemented. Yet, this caused a lot of change as mentioned above in many parts of the world. In retrospect this is not a once-off event, but can be seen more as an ongoing endeavour.
After a magnitude 8.9 quake and one of the most devastating tsunamis in history, Japan’s telecommunications infrastructure was left battered and bruised. Unknowingly and without plan, social media came to the forefront with a combination of internet savvy and simple humanitarianism. With congested telephone lines, the humble mobile phone stepped up to the plate with SMS and video chat feeds as to what was happening. Victims, families and friends had instant access to information. Twitter and Facebook proved an invaluable tool for those involved in relief efforts, posting up to the minute reports on tsunami alerts, altered train schedules, emergency numbers and shelters. YouTube users uploaded more than 15 000 videos to show the magnitude of what has happened.
Under the dictatorial rule of former president Zine el-Abidine, Tunisian citizens had no voice. Almost all forms of social media were politically taboo, with some social platforms having been blocked completely. Blogs were monitored, and anyone who wrote political commentaries was harassed. This type of censorship was fuel to the fire and Tunisians found any way possible to remain online. Social networks were invaluable in raising awareness and activism among Tunisians, giving them a venue to discuss political issues and push for freedom of speech.
5. Twestival (or Twitter-Festival)
Twestivals were organised globally, using the power of social media to organize offline events, mobilizing local communities in support of a local cause. The idea is that if local communities were able to collaborate on an international scale, spectacular results can be achieved. Since 2009 over US$1.75-million has been raised for various community causes. Twestival Global collaborates with Twestival Local, which in turn directly impacts their own community. Local events are coordinated by volunteers and all funds raised directly support these individual causes.
Often seen as criminals, hackers are not always associated with good deeds. Anonymous is a collective of hackers, with no leader or superior group, which chooses targets randomly. Step up child pornography. In October of 2011, Anonymous started attacking various child pornography websites, shutting down more than 40 websites and publishing the account details of 1 569 paedophiles online. While not using the standard form of open social media, these hacker groups take an undercover route in the deep dark spaces of the “darknet” to implement moral and social change.
During the London riots, BBM was used extensively by looters to organise looting activities and send reports on police activity. As an text-based service BBM was perfectly suited for this as it is gives users the ability to connect immediately to individuals or groups. Unfortunately this is an example of how the social network can have a negative influence, but at the same time police counteracted this by using the same system for defence.
Ushahidi, an open source social media platform used for crisis map creation, was used extensively during the Haiti earthquake disaster. First responders to the disaster used cell phones to create, to date, the largest worldwide crisis management map. Social media platforms like Skype and Twitter contributed to the information needed, relaying reports on food aid, shelters, road closures and cell phone recharging stations. The Red Cross also used their own Twitter account to relay information to volunteers and victims.
On 17 September 2011, protesters marched down to lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, sparking numerous other protests across the US. Even though it did not receive much media attention before the time, the three weeks that Wall Street was occupied showed the dissent of people all over the US with the growing inequality between the very wealthy (the one percent) and the working and middle class (the 99%).
10. Save the rhino
Rhino poaching has gone largely unnoticed for many years. Since the advent of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, it has been able to garner massive support. The general public got involved, information was more easily obtainable and several citizens’ arrests were made, whether personally or by contacting the police. Updates on statistics are now daily. Instead of just one cause dedicated to it, several different causes are linked together, showing the growing interest social media has lead to.