New Delhi: Some years ago during a private visit to Iran, Jared Cohen, an advisor in the US government and later the head of Google ideas realized that the young people were busy exchanging messages on their smart phones away from the prying eyes of the religious police. Cohen thought that it was possible to usher change in an authoritarian and Islamic society like Iran through social media. In 2009, when Iranians stepped out to protest against President Ahmadinejad, Twitter was given credit for the robust turnout in Tehran. Cohen is believed to have delayed the maintenance of Twitter on the day the protest was to take place so that people could message each other and organise the protest. Pompously, it was declared as the Twitter revolution.
It is a different matter all together that Iranian police crushed the protest and sent the leaders behind the bars. Happenings in Iran and subsequently in other countries that saw Arab Spring proved that the impact of social media in political mobilisation and street protest was highly overrated. A study by the United States Institute of Peace titled ‘Blogs and Bullets’ revealed that the “new media …did not appear to play a significant role in either in-country collective action or regional diffusion during this period.”
This report could prove to be a dampener for social media enthusiasts who have been vesting enormous power on to facebook and twitter to bring about social change. The anti- corruption and anti-gang rape agitation in India and the Shahbagh movement in Bangladesh have been credited to the bloggers and social media activists.
A recent report by IRIS knowledge foundation in India suggests that social media could impact 160 parliamentary constituencies. This assertion is premised on the fact that there are more than 10 percent facebook users in each of these parliamentary constituencies so they could be influenced by political messages. The foundation further believes that by the time the elections take place in 2014, internet and smart phone penetration that uses social media would balloon to 80 million, which is so small in a coutnry of 1.2 billion people. Hence it would allow political parties and candidates to reach out to their voters with greater ease. Will the ease of disseminating message to the voters through social media impact elections? It is a question that suffers from the same infirmities as found in the case of those who believed that social media could trigger a revolution.
The expectation of change is based on the assumption that social media not only changes an individual, but also group behaviour. Arab Spring has provided ample examples where the anger against the regime on the issues of governance has been rather uniform. That does not really mean that such an attitude would not have existed if the social media was not there. The USIP report is categorical that people who stepped out to protest did not do on the basis of reading a message on Twitter or facebook, but they saw it on Al Jazeera TV or saw the demonstration from their own window. Here again it needs to be stressed that the social media penetration was really minimal in these Arab societies and did not really stir things up as being claimed by their supporters.
Another dramatic finding of this report, which would chasten the cyber enthusiast in India also, involves Egypt. “During January and February of 2011, hundreds of thousands joined dedicated activists to bring down Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But over the following year, a hard-core group of Egyptian activists continued to take to the streets and call for “millions” to join them in denouncing the transitional military leadership. However, only a few thousand typically joined in these later protests. The results of the March constitutional referendum (where activists urged a no, 82 percent voted yes) and of parliamentary elections (where Islamists swept the voting while activists and liberals scored extremely poorly) exposed the profound gap between activists and mainstream Egyptian society.
What has been really proved is that the mass movement and large demonstrations do not take place without active political and social mobilisation. CANVAS, a Belgrade based organisation that trains people from different countries in non-violent protest came to the conclusion about inadequacy of social media to make people step out of their homes much earlier. CANVAS played a role in training some of the leaders of Tahrir square long before it erupted.
Egyptian society in many ways is little different from any other country I ferment and the difference in what the social media activists want and what is the outcome is truly huge. In a democracy like India, the challenge for social media activists is to translate the excitement for change on twitter and facebook into votes. So is all the excitement about social media generated by face-off between the BJP leader Narendra bhai Modi and Rahul Gandhi cosmetic or real? What about the hashtags: #Feku (windbag)and # Pappu (immature) that have been coined for the Modi and Gandhi respectively? Would they influence voter choice during the elections in 2014? What happens to those leaders who do not take recourse to social media to spread their message? Would they be impacted by their absence in the social media space? People like the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan, for instance, who remains quite popular without have to be either # Feku or a # Pappu.
Social media facilitates regional diffusion of a message. It globalises the happenings in a manner not seen before. If Arab Spring or even the Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement is anything to go by then the social media helped in connecting these developments with an international community. Many of the protestors who showed up at Jantar Mantar in Delhi or Tahrir square in Cairo or Shahbagh in Bangladesh did not have a clue what facebook or Twitter was all about. In Tahrir square only 13 percent had known of Twitter. In India, it could be the same percentage.
In real terms, social media serves as a tool for conventional media. It garners reports from the ground, which can be spread through news TV or newspaper. Some people believe that social media is used in manipulating the reporting of conventional media like TV and newspapers. Case in point is Syria where dubious videos allegedly from the ground have contributed in managing the perception of the world community towards the government in Damascus. Here again TV channels gave legitimacy to such YouTube Videos. In South Asia, too, there are more that rely on news channels to get information than other mediums.
India’s democratic experience suggests that people have voted out governments whenever they felt that it was not doing any good. Whether people have had internet or not, they have displayed firm views about politics and state of the nation and punished those who have been perceived to be anti-people. Even in the next general elections in India or even in Bangladesh, it is unlikely that social media would make as great an impact as suggested in some of the recent reports.
Sanjay Kapoor is the Editor of Delhi based Hardnews Magazine (www.hardnewsmedia.com). Hardnews is also the South Asian partner of Paris based publication, Le Monde Diplomatique.