Since its inception in 2007, social media has grown, and more people are turning to social media to get information and news. Social media has also emerged as a platform for political discussion and debates and at times, a platform to engage the masses on civic related issues. One of the most recent prominent examples of the power of online activism has been the Black Lives matter movement that brings attention to police brutality and the Me-Too Movement that aimed to raise awareness about sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workplace (Kavada, 2015:18). Social movements have been used in recent times through social media to mobilize a large group of people on behalf of a particular course more than the traditional media has been able to do.
The prominence of social media in the dynamics of politics and protest movements has led experts to suggest that social media has become a vital tool for a functioning healthy society and a democratic sphere in the public arena which holds people in power accountable. What is interesting about these social movements is the fact that they drive mobilization with an absence of involvement, organization and formal political groupings. Social media has a massive audience for inflows of political content and can be used as an important tool to mobilize, organize, inform and promote public debate as well as be used as a source of alternative media where collective identities form to counter a public sphere. This essay examines the role that social media has in political engagement and looks further looks at examples where social media has been effective as a tool for political engagement and where it has failed.
The Case for Social Media as a Tool for Political Engagement
` Social media has been used to highlight and organize campaigns around social issues to affect political change. The ease with which people engage in political engagements and campaigns is regarded as slacktivism and clicktivism where with the click of a button, a simple like with limited effort has proved to be significant in producing political change. Findings from several studies have shown that online forums are increasingly becoming important in expressing political identity. Studies undertaken in the US, Australia and the UK have demonstrated that the young population, expressing their views through social media has formed an element of the political identity and this mode of engagement has become networked in democracies across the world (Kavada, 2015:876). These forms of engagements have been framed by twin logic of networking collectively and personalization. Furthermore, these online political engagements can translate into offline political engagements as seen by the Black Lives Matter protests across cities in the US. However, some researchers do question the sustainability of these engagements.
How Social movements form Political Engagement
In the context of social movements in political engagements as it relates to digital activism is the relational linkages that are based on homophily, where we associate alike with a like. The capacity of social activism to create links in political organizations due to their potential to mobilize public interest through constant engagements via their trusted social networks (POTSANGBAM, 2016:16). These networks then become powerful outlets to potential exposure to international audiences enabling civil society to extend their activism that has been limited in the mainstream broadcast.
Social media activism groups have created easily shareable content that enables sharing of content across multiple social media networks with a click on the share button. They have also managed the art of using emotive imagery that has helped in shaping public image on the issue that is being discussed (Zald, 2017:13). Using this method, the sharable content created is framed in such a way that is sympathetic to the objectives of the campaign at hand. The content also has embedded functionality where people new to the content can enact a connection that is relational creating a loose latent organizational structure that can be activated during the focussed and intense periods of the campaign.
Another notable feature of social-political activism through social media is the use of social media to facilitate embodied and co-present forms of political engagement. The internet here is used to create an online and offline engagement as a spectrum of participation where each medium reciprocates the other and are mutually exclusive. These campaigns use hyperlinks to acknowledge each other and as a symbol for communication that is representational.
When hyperlinks are assigned, the network takes shape. Hyperlinking positions certain organizations within the network which enables their identification within and with the broader network. As campaigns with more links rank higher, they create a status through the in links in a concept known as hyperlink capital (Zulqarnain & ul Hassan, 2016:36). The visibility of several numeric analytics including friends, likes, retweets, views achieved through hyperlink capital creates a sense of authority, a greater standing and significance within the online community. Therefore, online positioning of a campaign is indicative of the campaign’s capacity to influence political action and policy.
Civil society groups and interested groups in a campaign can use social media for political campaigning through connectivity to create a narrative and to campaign and to influence policy and catalyse mobilization. They use relational properties that social media has to create latent social movements that enhance the potential of the public to engage in political issues through connectivity. This means that personal channels and social media accounts of supporters of political discourse can be used as campaign channels in social media networks. Social media can, therefore, be used to create a narrative that shapes how policy and issues are perceived and presented to the public. The online to offline participation transfer provides novel opportunities for political mobilization and digital activism.
Through the use of social movements, there has been a tremendous change in issues affecting people in different nations, thanks to social media platforms. Some of them, most other movements include the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring. Others include the anti-globalisation movement which had an aim of resisting change and also civil rights, movements which have used social media to express themselves and have their political voices listened to. Social movements have been able to change not just political ideologies, but also environmental and health issues across the globe (POTSANGBAM, 2016:10).
The Shift to Social Media as a Tool for Civic Engagement
The rise of social media has coincided with a shift in digital democracy which has moved from a model with a virtual public sphere of rationalized formalized deliberations to a culturally situated model of public engagement that centres on a self-actualized network of citizens who are engaged in identity and lifestyle politics. Social media websites integrate politically themed expressions into a broader sociocultural interaction that is also characterized by peer socializing activities, status seeking and entertainment. A new set of civic cultures have emerged that bring citizens into contact with politics in a new empowering way (Zulqarnain & ul Hassan, 2016:36). The sense of community shored up within the social media spaces serves as the first step by individuals towards activism that is organised. Then, the symbolic social media participation socializes the masses to participate in public engagements which allow citizens to cultivate a civil identity. This according to experts points that social media interactions should be recognized and its definition expanded in political participation.
Culturalist scholars frame social media as an identity-building step to a future organized political participation space while other scholars suggest that citizen level engagement can be instrumental when it takes a persuasive character like in social activists’ campaigns. Social media, therefore, has become one of the most potent weapons for social movements due to their capacities to circulate alternative messages that have the capability of influencing public opinion (Domingues, 2016:19). Through the production and circulation of persuasive messages, social media campaigns have curated their messages to slowly won over the minds and hearts of people which is in contrast to the traditional ways of influencing public servants through petitioning and lobbying. Social media campaigns are also ideal for the young generation who have grown up with access to the internet who may be more inclined to participate in efforts through the internet rather than traditional means.
Social media has also been used for mediated visibility for social acceptance of marginalised groups like the LGBTQ community who may not get the attention they deserve from mainstream media. This form of campaigns multiplies opportunities for people to display their political identities and attachments publicly in a manner that proliferates a particular agenda through visual articulations of political affiliation.
Weaknesses of Social media use for Political Activism
However, such approaches of political discourse through social media have come under criticism because most of the campaigns focus on symbolic artefacts sharing that is susceptible to slacktivism a critique that points to their inadequacy in political efficacy. These, therefore, means that the low effort requires incapable of furthering future ambitions and political goals as effectively as traditional means of participation. The slacktivists are seen as people who are afraid to put in more effort and get their hands dirty to achieve the goal of the campaign. Furthermore, they may detract the traditional forms of political action by providing self-satisfying and easy alternatives. Social media political participation also distorts the masses’ understanding of what collective action entails through reinforcing an idea that it is as easy as joining a social network group (Zulqarnain & ul Hassan, 2016:36). There is very little information also of what motivates people to participate in social media political campaigns and how much information people have about the campaign.
With regards to the use of social media for political activism, it is evident that lies or hashtags do not always result from changing. In most cases, it takes more than social media hashtags to ensure that there is a change in the political setting or to pass a message. This includes cases of demonstrating against bad governance or campaigning for a candidate amongst many other cases. Another weakness of social media with regards to political activism is the fact that through these platforms unreliable information may get shared. There have been very many cases which fake information has been used in the platform to lure people into believing about an issue or a specific person to tarnish an opponent’s name and make them lose (Domingues, 2016:336).
A company by the name Cambridge Analytica, for example, was accused of using social media to push for specific fake narrative s in the case of Brexit and Donald Trump votes, a factor that made them win. This is a major weakness for the platform since they peddle lies and make the users believe in the lies and end up making wrong political decisions (Zald, 2017:56). There also have been a systematic issue which has risen from hashtags, where some are created by influencers, to drive narrative which may not be politically correct but leaves the users believing in such narratives.
Relationship between Online and Offline Social Movements
There seems to be an increase in numbers and statistics with regards to online movements. However, the online movements still depend of the offline movements where they mirror the offline objectives and take advantage of the high population of people using social media platforms and the interests of the majority of the users to see positive changes in the society though have no ability to make a physical presence. Many people on social media platforms want to be a part of something or to get informed about developing trends. The sharing options on social media make it easy for individuals to be made conversant with the happenings in the society where they consequently get to contribute through views and opinions and as a result, lead to ultimate success on the goals of the social, movement (Zulqarnain & ul Hassan, 2016:36). Internet in most cases hence reinforces what is already taking place in the offline world. For example in the Catalonia referendum, the internet was used to emphasize an already a pre-existing interest of the people on the ground, where it made the interests a success ultimately.
It is apparent that online social movements are highly likely to gain more popularity than the off-line movements over time since the online ones do not require physical presence, but just emotional attachment and willingness to fight for a course even in absentia (Kavada, 2015:880). Most emerging online social movements in most cases have two key features which include having strong coordination, whereas at the same time fostering pre-existed affiliation and the growth of the online members because of the trend.
Online movements tend to be related to the offline ones, in that in most cases they foster people who are already engaged and those with a political orientation which match the core ideas. The advantage of the web is that it can coordinate messages, protests and also the connection between individuals on the social media platforms (Escobar, et al., 2018:11). These platforms make it easier to create awareness of an existing issue on the ground such as corruption, case of environmental degradation or sexual harassment and discrimination amongst many other current issues. Social platforms assist already interested individuals to be even more involved and participate more in the movement and in undertaking the best actions. People who are already affiliated to a movement will hence feel more safeguarded in finding a strong online community, which will consequently contribute to more development of this, the movement even more.
To make physical movements more popular therefore requires kore trends on social media platforms to attract people of similar views and opinions. This is since; the online presence enlarges the sphere of the influence thanks to the global priority agenda. Being on the trend does not necessarily mean just being visible o the online platforms, but rather having a strong connection with the happenings of the offline world (Escobar, et al., 2018:17). Sharing of posts, trending of hashtags, news and also fostering of new movements mirrors the offline sentiments of people on the ground, where it is a representation of a pre-existing affiliation ad public opinion sentiments.
It is apparent that Online Social activism has in the most recent times gained momentum thanks to the growth of social media. Social media platforms have played a huge role in social and political activism. Many political and movement s have shifted from the normal activism and to use of hashtags and movements on social media platforms more so on Twitter and Facebook, where many users get to support issues that were previously not discussed in the mainstream media. Some of the most popular occasions which social media had been greatly used in movements such as #Metoo movements in the US where cases of sexual harassment by senior persons were uncovered. Egypt also used social media platforms to oust its leader and the entire government for bad governance. These are just a few examples of the many global movements that have been made stronger and more effective through the use of social media. Issues that were previously not discussed by mainstream media such as LGBTQ rights, among others have also gotten a chance of getting global discussion and recognition, leading to changes in perception of the minority communities and also kore inclusivism in several nations across the nations. Online Social movements are in linked to the offline movements in that there has to be a physical and offline concern, which results in online activism. The online movements hence help in advancing the agenda and ensuring that people are conversant with the happenings. However, there have been several cons and weaknesses associated with social media. Some influencers and politicians have adopted the platform to spread false information, more so to spread an agenda. In some of these cases, unknowing viewers have found themselves buying this information and making wrong choices or comments without knowing the real truth of a matter. Hashtags on Twitter, for example, may have been used inappropriately in some cases as a result of the negative influence of fake sources or paid influencers. Nevertheless, it is evident that social media has a great role to play in society if genuinely used for social and political engagement.