I’ve been using social media as long as it’s been around, and thinking more about how powerful it is since Egypt. Here’s a mythical overview of the Arab Spring:
Once upon a time, there were people at the top of various countries who kept their power because they had the resources to control whole populations in the form of money, guns, and other tools such as state religions. These were old men who had held power for a long time, and jailed and sometimes killed people who opposed them. Perhaps some even thought they were doing good with their power, by keeping order. But the majority of their population, who were largely younger, disagreed. While they didn’t have power, they had communication. And they discovered what to do with it….
This is relevant because I think this could become the world’s story. No, I’m not an anarchist, and yes, I know the tale of the Arab Spring doesn’t yet have a happy ending, and might never. But this week, my attention was drawn to more social-media induced news. Two Mexican citizens were murdered, and a sign hung on them proclaiming that the same thing would happen to others who posted on social media. Let’s try this one out:
Once upon a time, Mexico was ruled by drug warlords who kept their power because they had the resources to control their population in the form of money, guns, and other tools such as fear. These were wholly bad men, but they had nearly iron control over the people of the border states because they killed regularly and often. Then the Mexican people began to fight back using anonymous communication tools. Some of them were brutally murdered, but that had been happening even without social media. So they kept fighting the drug lords….
On a less dramatic note, I believe that American politicians are currently not aligned with the will of the people. Facebook and Twitter are both inundated with complaints, and the tweets I post that are political in nature (such as pointing to good essays on political topics) get re-tweeted and discussed on Facebook more than any other type of information I post. I don’t know that we’ll have a social-media revolution in America – I guess that depends on how far away from us our politicians get. I already think I can barely see their backsides these days, but not everyone in the system is corrupt, nor is it a benevolent (or not) dictatorship like the recently-deposed in many of the Arab countries. We still have at least the appearance of democracy. Nevertheless, I’ll be watching closely to see how social media plays out at all levels in the next American election.
People occasionally pay me to talk to them about the future. But I missed this entirely, and so did most of the other futurists I know. Heck, most of us didn’t get the Internet’s power until we saw Mosaic. I’m beginning to think we’re still underestimating the size of the change wrought by social media.
Let me tell you one more story. On my way up to Australia’s Blue Mountains by train a few days ago, I met an older gentleman from Queensland. He was a great seat-mate and we talked quite a bit about the green policies in Australia (which is way ahead of us, but that’s a different blog post). Green talk flowed to governments in general, and the idea that we may need some form of world co-operation or even governance to handle climate change. Which got to ideas that sound like communism, which we had to admit failed utterly. China may be avoiding its own Arab Spring by allowing bits of free commerce to sneak in and strengthen the country, and there aren’t a lot of other communist success stories. But the idea that some challenges aren’t easily fixed in a consumerist milieu occupied a lot of our two-hour train ride. Maybe social media can help with problems that can only be solved by swimming upstream against the flow of power and money.
Note that governments are flopping about trying to figure out how to fight back. San Francisco’s BART riots and the riots in England both showed both sides of the bout have capabilities. China is a case study with its firewall. And I suspect that to the extent that social media is used for ill (such as to organize looting), governments will have a legitimate leg to stand on when they try to suppress it. But to the extent social media is used to organize peaceful demonstrations or votes, or to show honest Federales how to catch drug lords, it stands a chance to be the best tool the “people” have ever had in their arsenal.
A very real power of social media is to shine light on bad behavior by those in power. Governments. Corporations. Drug lords.
The last year has shown the fists inside Twitter and Facebook.
Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!