Free media has for long been a cornerstone of democracy. In recent times, social media has rapidly expanded its importance as a forum for political engagement by providing greater avenues for participatory citizenship and political information sharing (McCombs, Shaw & Weaver, 2013). In so doing, social media has played a pivotal role in influencing political discourse. Due to its ability to reach a lot of people within a short period at very low costs, social media podiums such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been utilized to stimulate political engagement by the citizens. The Arab Spring in 2011 is a proof of the impact of networked digital connectivity leading to political action. Social media plays a significant role in politics as a watchdog, campaign stage, forum for public debate and education which strengthens democracy and political action (McCombs, Shaw & Weaver, 2013). It also provides room for faster communication to citizens in a more targeted manner. Additionally, social media leads to the generation of political reactions through debates generated online. This essay explores the use and impact of social media and its implications on politics.
Social media had a significant impact on the Arab politics during the uprising. Social media was used to create collective activism (Dewey et al. 2012). Most of the protests took place in high internet use areas such as Bahrain where 88% of the people had access to the web in 2011. Also, the use of social media doubled during the protests. Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were used to achieve collective intelligence by educating citizens on the need for collaboration in overthrowing the political regimes. This led to a consensus leading to participatory mass activity supporting a collective action to provoke a political change. A study done by Howard et al. (2011) discovered that social media played a central part during the Arab spring. The findings proved that social media was widely used for political conversations during the revolutions. Nine out of ten citizens claimed to organize or spread awareness on protest areas using Facebook and Twitter. Facebook pages were used to create awareness of the alleged police brutality and crimes against humanity committed by the ruling regime (Howard et al., 2011). Therefore, social media promoted communication and coordination of activities between the various activist groups. Additionally, social media played helped the spread of the insurgency beyond international borders.
Therefore, social media managed to reshape political discourse and reaction in the Arab countries. Its influence on the Arab Spring was extensive in terms of quantitative spread and intensive regarding the qualitative impact it had. The agenda setting theory holds that news media can influence the weight given to various topics on the public agenda (McCombs, Shaw & Weaver, 2013). The more frequent a particular agenda is covered, the more the audience will regard it as important. During the Arab spring, social media was continuously used to place emphasis on the need for a revolution to change the leadership regimes in the countries of the Arab League (Hussain & Howard, 2013). Most political conversations took place in social media platforms. Individuals used Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to put pressure to action against the government. Therefore, social media selectively amplified the need for a political change setting an agenda for a change of regime (McCombs, Shaw & Weaver, 2013). Additionally, it promoted citizen journalism by highlighting the issue affecting each citizen pushing for the mass action to seek for solutions which later culminated to violent and peaceful demonstrations. Social media, therefore, has the power to augment the messages broadcasted by traditional media making a particular political issue salient for many to drive change.
A study conducted by Hussain & Howard (2013), scrutinized several tweets and YouTube contents and thousands of blogs to find out whether social media played any role in shaping Arab politics during the uprising. The study discovered that numerous conversations about revolution preceded major events. According to Hussain & Howard (2013), social media conveyed messages on democracy that helped to create prospects and optimism for the success of a civil revolution. The citizens who shared an interest in freedom created an extensive social network which created a stage for communication of the intended political actions. In Egypt, a week before President Hosni Mubaraks resignation, the study estimated that tweet about political commentary rose from 2300 to 230, 000 per day (Hussain & Howard, 2013). It also discovered that videos featuring protests garnered over 5.5 million views. This dramatic increase in social media use offers clear evidence of its importance in orchestrating democratic conversations that lead to revolutions. Therefore, social media is a critical part of political communication leading to improved democracy and freedom.
An article by Pierre Omidyar (2014), questions whether social media is a state enemy or power of the people. It cites social media as a tool for liberation and democracy through empowerment of the citizens. It grants people the power to communicate openly and honestly about the issue affecting them counteracting the effect of traditional media. Therefore, states that use traditional media as a tool of control are disadvantaged as social media has the power to alter the knowledge of the people radically. During the Arab uprising, social media was used to circumvent state-run media channels that offered biased information to feed the interests of the ruling political elite. According to Omidyar (2014), social media ensured self-expression leading to the rapid spread of factual information and the formation of networks against the ruling government. Additionally, social media helped young people in the Arab nations gunner support from other countries such as the United States in their fight for democracy.
A report by Dewey et al. (2012) explained the effect of social media on the social turbulence experienced during the Arab Uprising. The authors proved the hypothesis that social media outlets played a significant role leading to the outbreak of riots in MENA region. The findings highlighted that underlying political and economic served as drivers for unrest. However, contrary to the other studies, the authors did not find a consistent correlation between social media use and mass protests. They suggested that social media is a useful in promoting political change but not a tool for protest in itself. The analysis of data also proved that social media can serve similar functions as civil societies especially in countries where government repression limits expression (Dewey et al., 2012). Therefore, underlying political oppression is the primary driver for mass unrest and protests with social media acting as a catalyst to the spread of information.
In conclusion, the emergence of social media social media has changed structures and methods of political communication and actions. It has improved communication between citizens to create a network of like-minded individuals with a common goal. Social media also helps in setting political agendas by stressing on the main administrative factors. In so doing, social media creates an urgent tone by selectively amplifies individual political schemes to promotes mass action. Additionally, social media promotes democracy by advocating for the conferment of power in the citizens who choose their leaders. Politicians cannot control the conversations in the social media, thus, preventing biased information state-run media from corrupting the people. Finally, social media plays a major role in creating major revolution such as that witnessed during the Arab spring. It empowers citizens to take political control through the collective activism it creates.
Dewey, T., Kaden, J., Matsushima, S., Zhu, B., & Marks, M. (2012). The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring | Public Policy Program. Publicpolicy.stanford.edu. Retrieved 8 May 2016, from https://publicpolicy.stanford.edu/publications/impact-social-media-social-unrest-arab-spring
Howard, P., Duffy, A., Freelon, D., Hussain, M., Mari, W., & Mazaid, M. (2011). Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?. SSRN Electronic Journal. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2595096
Hussain, M. & Howard, P. (2013). What Best Explains Successful Protest Cascades? ICTs and the Fuzzy Causes of the Arab Spring. Int Stud Rev, 15(1), 48-66. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/misr.12020
McCombs, M., Shaw, D. & Weaver, D. (2013). Communication and Democracy Exploring the Intellectual Frontiers in Agenda-setting theory. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
Omidyar, P. (2014). Social Media: Enemy of the State or Power to the People? The Huffington Post. Retrieved 8 May 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pierre-omidyar/social-media-enemy-of-the_b_4867421.html
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