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The Power of Social Media: A Façade or Reality?

The Power of Social Media: A Façade or Reality?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Anne Delmar. Originally submitted for Communications at University of Pennsylvania, with lecturer Kenneth Winneg in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Anne Delmar. Originally submitted for Communications at University of Pennsylvania, with lecturer Kenneth Winneg in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
1The Power of Social Media: A Façade or Reality?The advent of the Internet has led to the rise of a new media regime that blurs variousboundaries in modern society. This boundary spanning covers an enormous range of categories,from the distinction between consumers and producers, to the separation between news andentertainment, and so forth. In particular, the Internet, filled with promises of interactivity,democracy, equality, and more, offers the potential for many improvements in media systemsaround the world. Many refute these supposed advantages, claiming that the Internet providesnumerous pitfalls for democracy. Some of the problems noted by the opposition include limitedparticipation and mobilization, a lack of interactivity, an
d Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that
socialmedia augment the efficiency of those in control rather than empowering dissidents.Paradoxically, even though the Internet generally increases access to information, it creates achasm between socioeconomic groups and generations. Unsurprisingly, many feel torn about therole of social media and its ability to affect widespread change, particularly in regards to recentactivism around the world. The uprisings in Iran, in Egypt, and across the United States (withOccupy Wall Street) over the past decade have sparked a heated debate about the importance of these online social tools and networks. Regardless of whether or not these new technologieschampioned the revolutions in Iran, Egypt, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, they certainlyhelped to accelerate and amplify them.Malcolm Gladwell spearheaded this issue when he published an article in the New
Yorker titled, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.”
In this piece,Gladwell argues that on
line organizing “tap
s weak relationships and cannot create the level of 
solidarity needed” and that “social media are antithetical to hierarchy and discipline, which arenecessary for successful activism” (Brandzel).
Howard Rheingold further critiques online
 
2
organizing, noting how “the fact that we need computer networks to recapture the sense of 
cooperative spirit that so many people seemed to lose when we gained all this technology is a
 painful irony.”
Others, such as Clay Shirky, disagree with these perspectives by highlighting howthe Internet has only helped in positive ways that should be applauded. For instance, he notesspecifically how online organizing has given weak groups the ability to coordinate their actionsagainst strong ones. Furthermore, Shirky emphasizes the ease and speed with which groups canbe mobilized, due to the cost-effectiveness of the Internet, its availability to everyone, and itsinstant delivery of information. When analyzing the role that social media played in Iran, Egypt,and the Occupy Wall Street movement, all of these differing viewpoints must be taken intoaccount.With the revolution in Iran, the role of social media cannot be objectively determinedwithout an examination of the context of the movement. An entry on Joho the Blog stresses thisidea
, asserting how, “if we want to understand an event, we have to understand it within itshistory.”
 
In “Twitter Free Iran,” Burns and Eltham note that
the catalyst of the street protests andcivil disobedience was incumbent
 president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in the election on
June 12, 2009 (299). Despite the fact that the polls experienced a high voter turnout during thiselection (PBS NewsHour), the Iranian state news agency announced merely two hours after thepolls had closed that Ahmadinejad had won the election (New York Times) with 62.63 percentof the vote (CNN).
In fact, “the timing alone provoked deep
suspicion here, because theauthorities have never before announced election results until the following morning
” (New
York Times). Other accusations of corruption began to surface, with Mousavi, one of the mainopponents, claiming that some of his campaign offices were attacked, his web sites were shutdown, and there were a lack of ballots in many areas. Various studies after the election validated
 
3these suspicions, noting the many problems with the data from the election. The University of St.Andrews, for example, issued research that revealed how a turnout of more than 100 percent wasrecorded in two conservative provinces, how Ahmadinejad won in numerous rural areas (wherehe was markedly unpopular), and so forth.Following the announcement
of Ahmadinejad’s win
, the protests began. On June 13,
“angry crowds in Iran’s capital broke into shops, tore down signs, a
nd started fires as theyprotested the re-
election of Ahmadinejad” (CNN).
Numerous protests occurred over thesubsequent months, with many people relaying their activities in the demonstrations overTwitter. Gladwell boldly asserts that,
“the people tweeti
ng about demonstrations in Iran were
almost all in the west” and that “there was no Twitter revolution inside Iran.”
Evgeny Morozovmostly
supports Gladwell’s point of view with his analysis of the role of Twitter in the Iranian
election protests. He notes
that, “
these digital tools are simply, well, tools, and social changecontinues to involve many painstaking, longer-term efforts to engage with political institutions
and reform movements.”
On the other hand, many others believe that Twitter and social media played a muchmore critical role than these pessimists assume that they did
. Burns and Eltham assert how “the
consensus among journalists at The New York Times, the Washington Post, Businessweek, andTime was that Twitter represented a new and influential medium for social movements andinternational
 politics” (299).
More importantly, citizen activists took advantage of Twitter tovoice their opinions and concerns globally. Twitter offered a new platform for frustrated peopleto continue their protest efforts, which explains why an entire sub-movement relating to theIranian protests started on Twitter itself. Numerous Twitter users altered their profile photos witha green tint (the designated color of the movement), a campaign that ended up gathering 160,000

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