Social media has become an intrinsic part of the modern world. With the rise of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, the world has become more connected than ever before. These platforms have created a massive debate on whether these are tools for the betterment of society or are in actuality harmful.
The online platforms that the internet has provided creates a space for open discussion between people from around the globe and from diverse groups of society. This led to the creation of the public sphere where people can deliberate on such topics that they may have in common or are contested in order to reach some sort of resolution. With such widespread reach of the internet comes a lot of power as the information that is shared is no longer tied to a specific city, region or even country.
As the internet became more prominent in the 21st century, people around the world have started to use it not only as a platform to interact with other people but also as a way to start social movements. This begs the question of whether social media is an emancipatory tool to society.
Prior to the widespread access and use of social media, movements and demonstrations were difficult to launch. Information was often hard to spread and due to the physical boundaries of the spread of information it was easy for anyone opposing that information to stop it. Furthermore, it is difficult to bring light to issues if the world never gets out about the situation. Following the launch of such movements that pre-dated social media spreading information was difficult and often very dangerous.
Therefore the rise of social media has led to the democratization of information.
The content is now also created by people not only formal institutions which allow people to bypass formal hierarchies that were previously necessary for large-scale movements.
Despite the drawbacks social media may present, social media can still be seen as a vital emancipatory tool in the modern world.
The debate favouring the idea of social media as an emancipatory tool has a few main arguments. Empirically speaking, the world has seen a surge in mass social movements that are historic which have been catalysed by the use of social media. Some examples are the Arab Spring and the #MeToo movement. Within 2020 itself there have been the Hong Kong, Belarus, Black Lives Matter protests to just name a few. Without the use of social media which allows people to bypass formal hierarchies such as traditional media outlets (News channels), these movements may not have received the widespread attention they needed nor even been able to spread the information to others who did not know about the problems.
Because of this, the second argument comes forth: holding authority figures responsible. By being able to report on issues in real-time and share information with a mass audience instantaneously people are no longer restricted by having to find some organization or institution to share their story. A prime example of this is the ‘live’ feature of many social media apps. Because of this people have been able to live stream their situation with the world such as in the case with racism, and police brutality especially in the United States.
Images make people more empathetic to others.
By allowing for these images and videos to be shared with the world and even going viral it allows for society to tune into the problems of others. This, as well as, whistleblowers can help with showing authority figures abusing power.
Another strength of social media is its connective action. This means that social media has now enabled people to connect with formal institutions in a unique way. Furthermore, the connective action quality allows for faster, more efficient, and more personal connection as anyone can share content instantaneously. For example, Donald Trump has harnessed the power of social media to directly interact and state his opinions through Twitter especially throughout his presidency. Prior to his presidency, most presidents relied on traditional methods such as press conferences and news outlets. Now we see many leaders in society regularly interacting on social media whether that be through live streams or regular posts.
Without these platforms, many social issues around the world may not have been picked up or reported on leaving little support for those who need it and no pressure for the authority figures to stop abusing their power. However, with such high amounts of information being shared on these platforms there are also drawbacks. These drawbacks include censorship, data mining, and surveillance. As the digital space is still quite new there are not very clear policies or morals to guide the content on the internet which has also led to harmful practices.
Nevertheless, social media, for better or for worse, has given the power to people to bring the entire world’s attention to the injustices of the world that would previously have gone unnoticed.