Notes on social media and political change
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Notes on social media and political change

(Below are my thoughts as I prepared for the World Bloggers and Social Media Summit which started today here in Kuala Lumpur. I will share some of these in the summit’s panel discussion 4 titled “Using social media on the campaign trail: Blogs for the ballot” which happens tomorrow.)

The internet and social media have emerged as powerful tools to bring political, social, economic and cultural change in many parts of the world. 

Yes, they are new tools, new media and new channels. We have seen their potency in the Arab Spring which ousted longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and the similarly lamentable leader of Tunisia. They are providing pro-democracy activists in many parts of the Middle East powerful tools, media and channels to expose, challenge and bring change to their governments and social systems. We ought to support the grassroots  components of these movements.

But that’s not a complete picture. 

We have to realize that there are big parts of the world that have no or limited access to the internet. In those areas, people do not derive any of the positives brought about by the interne and social media, especially in the political sphere. Access remains a big challenge, and those of us enjoying this new tool, media and challenge ought to do everything within our power to championn the cause of these disenfranchised.

We should also mention the role of governments and telcos in the situation. sometime, governments shuffle between extreme positions on internet access and social media use. Meanwhile, at the end of every day, telcos put profits first before anything else, including pretensions of corporate social responsibility. It is important to remind telcos that while we respect their right to exist and their contributions to progress, telecommunications is first and foremost a public service and a public utility imbued with public trust.

There also remain repressive or deceptively repressive governments across the world. Internet and social media are available in those areas but firewalls and all sorts of restrictions on their use thwart people there from making full use of these nee technologies. A number of them are in our region, and they have included the internet and social media in the horrific list of what they seek to control and to censor. 

Elsewhere, the internet and social media thrives but due to factors such as apathy, indifference, and cynicism, citizens do not dare take hold of them as tools, media and channels for political and social change. In most of those areas, political institutions are corrupt, weak or both. Political parties there are actually groups of the same economic and political warlords that wish to continue to deny their citizens full and substantive democracy, and the benefits that accrue from them. 

In places where we witnessed successes, it is rather clear that the internet and social media played big and crucial roles. But we cannot generalize and say that the use of the internet and social media would instantly guarantee success in other countries. Indeed, we cannot irresponsibly generalize. 

The internet and social media assume progressive and even revolutionary character only and only if citizens grant them that function. Technology is, at its core, value-free and it is up to us, citizens and our rganizations and parties, to wield technology for whatever purpose we deem fit. If the content is proper, acceptable to most, sparks conversation, interaction and action, chances are we would attain success.

The use of the internet and social media to introduce and effect political change should accompany the actual building and setting up of organizations, parties and movements capable to leading the charge in our pursuit of political and social change. Political and social systems contain many parts and have its own tools. They could also use the internet and social media. For instance, many branches of the US government, including the powerful US military, already have their own social media handbooks and strategies to influent national, transnational and global opinion. Forces for change know the power of the web and the social web, but we ought to remember that the same tools are also fast becoming available to and being mastered by those who wish to keep the rotten status quo in many parts of the world. We may see in the near future the deceptive use of technology to thwart or deny the cause of political change.

In the Philippines, access to the internet and social media use are exploding exponentially. The President and many agencies of government are on the social web. But problems such as the denial of genuine land reform to farmers, large-scale corruption, and the jobless economic growth continue to afflict the country. The social webs provide a medium for the internet-connected to express themselves, but it is not yet positioned to pave way for drastic and profound changes.

Last year, 11 Filipino bloggers wrote history by becoming the first social media practitioners to obtain media accreditation to cover the national elections. We are proud of such initiatives such as Blogwatch, which was able to interview most presidential candidates, face-to-face and broadcast via livestream, and to lead the formation of #juanvote – the Philippines’first social media-powered citizens’ coverage of those elections. Maybe in the future, we would be able to not just cover the elections, but also help influence the public to check the accuracy of the automated elections, to expose political dynasties and political warlords who mock our elections, champion progressive legislation and so forth

Moving forward, with all of us maturing in the social webs, and deriving lessons from outstanding test cases worldwide, we ought to crystallize what we have learned and do even better.

The challenges now to technology-powered political and social change are many but not impossible to overcome. 

1. Universal access

2. Political and social repression

3. The counteroffensive of foes of change

4. Social and political apathy, cynicism and indifference

5. The readiness of forces of change to turn their ideas into reality

6. Roles of citizens, governments and telcos

Maraming salamat po.