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Social Media Reigns In a Changed World Order

16 January 2015 04:33 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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In what would go down in history as one of democracy’s toughest tests, Sri Lankans overwhelmingly stood up to be counted for the power of the ballot in the recently concluded presidential election. We, as a country, held the world’s attention for all the right reasons last week; little Sri Lanka shone as an example of how democracy works and how in the end, despite the hiccups, the power of the people triumphed over all adversity.

Heralding in Sri Lankan Spring
In the final run up to what was an election completely dominated by the then state-run machinery, the then opposition and the citizens standing up for democracy truly understood - and engaged on - the power of social media. If Facebook and Twitter helped herald in theArab Spring amidst terror, it could be said that social media played a similar, perhaps a greater role in heralding in the Sri Lankan Spring.


In her dissertation on ‘The Role of Social Media in Political Mobilisation: a Case Study of the January 2011 Egyptian Uprising’, Madeline Storck of the University of St Andrews Scotland, asserts that the role of political activism on the Internet has been taken on by those who have chosen to stand up to dictatorship and voice their dissent online because they believe they have had enough.


The founders of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not create their products with the intent of starting revolutions and ousting dictators and t hough t hey may feel t hey have played a role in the process by providing these vehicles for change, these revolutions begin in the minds and imaginations of those driving them. They choose their tools and their mediums for communication, whether it is print, radio, blogging or just word of mouth but the strength of a movement lies ultimately in the will for activism, she adds.


The Sri Lankan scenario was very much in line with what talks about. Social media served as a platform for the websites that had been banned under the previous regime. Social media was also where citizen journalists came out with their scoops and street journalism; there were stories posted by brave citizens exposing illegal election practices displaying cut-outs that did the rounds. There were stories of encouragement and empowerment, enabling everyone to feel hopeful and become a part of a game-changing election where people reigned supreme.


Increased social participation
Contrary to the popularly held belief that the village had no access to independent information, the likes of which were shared in real time on social media, they did get a glimpse. Almost every village family has youth employed in Colombo and other major cities; more often than not, the youth are in possession of a smartphone on which they easily access social media. It could easily be assumed that the youth served as a conduit between the freshly pressed information and exposures on social media and the village elders back home.


The power of social media is that it is not governed by a singular entity. Some citizens chose to form independent Facebook pages that kept track of what was going on. They kept feeding information both in the run up to the election, during the election and post-election as well. Even now, social media continues to update on various developments.


From a people’s perspective, social media is an excellent choice because not only do you get to know what’s happening but you also get to have a say in it via comments. That kind of social participation empowers people directly and indirectly to give feedback – it would take a smart politician to be able to read the comments in response to a Facebook post and grasp the mood of the people. The power of the interactive nature of social media can be indeed used for the good of the nation, if so chosen.


Technology empowering leadership
Increasingly, global political leaders and heads of state such as the British Prime Minster, President of the US and even the Queen, have found social media to be a platform to reach the people; technology has empowered both the leadership and the people to be able to have a fruitful interaction on what is going on. In turn, it has definitely changed how leaders are perceived and their behaviour towards being more accountable to the people.


So what does this tell us? How should we respond to a changed world order in which citizens have the power to expose a crime, film VIPs breaking the law and keep the world informed of abuses of power with one simple sentence? What lessons do social media teach countries that increasingly are looking at different ways of doing things?


The current government and the future governments to come would do well to take note of the mood of the people expressed on social media. Ministers could dip into public sentiment on Twitter feeds and Facebook threads. To our credit, we Lankans are very much in the know when it comes to what is important. Even though the election is over, people on Facebook are watchful and the Facebook pages that played vigilant roles during the election are continuing to expose those who have abused state power and resources. Power indeed is now in the hands of the people – our hope is that it will stay there.
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