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Elections: Why social media matters

Starting with the Arab Spring, social media has been the focus of many political debates and analyses. Books are written about social media and its role in social movements. Facebook and Twitter, among other platforms, have become the key focus of social and political analysts, as well as the new generation 'communication experts'.

Having followed the debates on social media very closely, I think there are two opposing 'extremist' trends among analysts, writers, intellectuals, activists and political personalities.

The first trend is the absolute glorification of social media and its achievement in social-political struggles. According to people in this category, social media has become the core engine, for example, in Arab Spring and for the mass revolts in various countries.

Some analyst went further and claimed that none of the revolts would have been possible without the social media. In various articles, the concept of political leadership (and leaders) have been replaced with a new concept called 'social media leadership'. Suddenly we have been presented with league tables of 'the most influential Twitter users' or 'the most effective Facebook pages' etc. In Egypt, socialists, activists etc. who have been politically active for many years, were listed as 'social media heroes or heroines'.

It was almost as if history was being written in 140 characters. Social revolutions were re-labelled as 'social media revolutions'.

Even a small amount of research will show that these were not 'social media revolutions' but these revolutions used social media effectively.
The second trend is the 'social media scepticism'. This is a view that rejects the role of social media in social movements and campaigns. Although - unlike the social media enthusiasts - we don't see many writings and strong arguments from the social media sceptics, their rejection shows itself as an abstention from using the social media, a complete lack of understanding and knowledge of the tools; and therefore a hidden fear of using these.

The rejection of becoming an effective social media user has almost turned into a political 'cult' where 'serious political people don't play with such toys and don't have the time'. But this is not 'cool' position to be in.

But millions of dudes out there use it...

Some people's scepticism is actually a response to the hyperactive 'social media fanatics' rather than based on a proper understanding of the technology and its social role.
Both trends have major technical, political and historical flaws and today's activists need to have a better understanding of the nature and the role of social media.

I will try to present some arguments against both views above and come to some conclusions on why we need a 'third way' in understanding and using social media.

Let's state the final argument first: Social media, when its comes to social-political activism, is just a tool (or set of tools). Nothing more, nothing less. It is a very useful and a necessary tool. Like any tool, it has no impact just by itself, independent of the purpose it is used for and the users of it. Therefore, the role of social media can only be defined by the purpose one uses it for and by the users of it. There is no isolated, standalone definition of the role of social media in social-political struggle.

Social media fanatics are wrong:
It is an absolute truth that social media has enabled millions of people to communicate much faster and much easier. But this is not the first time we avail of such tools. Mankind has used ever evolving communication tools since the famous run of Marathon. 3000 years ago Hittites were using what we know as the postal system today. During the 19th and 20th century, there were multiple postal deliveries in a day in various European cities. Then the telephone, radio, walkie-talkie, email, mobile phones etc. were invented. Each of these were "wow, isn't that amazing!" tools of their days. All of these enabled millions of people to communicate in a much better way. We don't describe revolutions in the past as 'the email revolution' or 'the text message revolution'.

It is correct to say that the social media has enabled the communication among individuals without always having the control of power centres and states. But it is not completely true to say that "there are no controls and filters on social media". Twitter / Facebook are not completely control free and we see ever increasing control of states (including banning, shutting down and traffic blocking) in various countries. Social media companies co-operate with the states and run undemocratic self-defined content control policies.

Social media has not triggered recent revolts and social movements. To claim that the anger against oppression, dictatorship, poverty and economic crises was triggered by social media is a baseless arguments that ignores the decades leading up various campaigns and revolts. Egyptians did not discover mobile phones and Twitter in the last few years and suddenly decided to fill Tahrir Square in their millions just because they have tools of social media. Workers did not tweet each other to start a strike but they used Twitter to tell everyone about their strikes.

Young people did not feel the power and courage to march on the streets because of Twitter but using Twitter they were able to tell everyone what they were doing.

Social media sceptics are terribly wrong and they are missing huge opportunities by not using the social media.
Could anyone in any political campaign actively reject using the social media? This would be like rejecting to use the postal system, mobile phones, email or any other communication channels in the past. It would be unimaginable to think that the activists of the past were not using the tools of their time. For the very same reasons it is unimaginable now, not to use social media.

The 'fear' of technology, or the "I am not technically skilled" glorification of mental laziness is inexcusable. There is also a philosophical but at the same time a practical contradiction in not using the social media: How would a revolutionary, or a progressive campainer who rejects the tools and techniques developed by the mankind (not by a few capitalists) fight for a new world that has completely different and new ways of life. Can one, for whatever reason, continue to be indifferent to new things and just be comfortable with what one knows today, based on what the current system and the society offers. The progressive or revolutionary bravery is also about being able to deal with new and unknown things. So, if social media is a new and unknown thing (and this is the case for many people) there is no excuse for not getting the hands dirty and learning how to use it. These days, one simply cannot be a 'social media conservative'.

Great campaigns are run with real people on the real streets with the real arguments against the real issues. Having the fanciest Facebook page or thousands of Twitter followers will not create great campaigns. But these great campaigns and ideas need to be communicated as well. The mainstream media will not do this. So, we have no choice but to use whatever tools available to us. A great communicator can only communicate a 'great' idea (a 'bad' idea communicated brilliantly is called advertisement and revolutions, social campaigns etc. are not advertisement campaigns). A great communicator also needs to understand the conditions of communication and the best channels to reach the audiences. Sometimes, communication must be audience centric.

In conclusion:
Election candidates must communicate in each and every way required. Excluding the deep political analysis of why one runs in elections, election campaigns, as periods of dense communication, don't have the luxury to only use what they know best for communication. There is no excuse to be stubborn when it comes to elections and communication.

The reality in Ireland is that hundreds of thousands people don't use social media while hundreds of thousands of people do use it.

Election campaigns don't have to chose between these two groups. They have to communicate with both of them.

No choice!

(Practical exercise: If you like this article, tweet it, share it on social media)

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