The Shift of Power in Activism: Social Media’s Influence

Throughout the decades, the role and importance of activism has changed drastically. Companies, corporations, and organizations have grown to realize the importance of image, and above all, the relationship they maintain with the public. The image conveyed and what the cause is meant to represent has become a strong asset in our visual society. One of the largest booms in the online digital world has to be the growth of social media. Millions of people across the globe have integrated its use to raise their voices, awareness, and create revolutionary movements. Never before has there been a tool to reach worldwide masses at once and all with the click of a button. This advancement has changed the role of the average citizen.

Organizations have a new way of communicating to target markets, but the question is how these advances have effected and moved to change parts of the world. It seems now more than ever, audiences are also using this tool to go against traditional moulds and framing. Specifically in the cases of the revolution in Egypt, we see a prime example of mass media communication theory in practice. This example shows how the public have learnt to move away from the standard message framed to them traditionally by media, and use social media tools at their disposals to spark their own revolution for change.

Not only have the advances in today’s modern technology changed the role of the activist, but the real innovation comes from the public’s role within the online world. Never before has the everyday person been able to communicate and have their message to be heard. We can look at cases such as the Boston Marathon Bombings of 2013 or perhaps the Michael Brown shootings of 2014 as examples of the mass public providing coverage for major news outlets as they were using personal live tweets from witnesses and the average citizen during the incidents. The most recent Women’s March on Washington was rallied solely through social media. This is a prime example of the role of the public in this vital movement. By taking advantage of the ease of social media and the masses they will reach in a short time, this general public who had come together in a time of crisis, had created awareness and, because of that, major media outlets were using this information as public news broadcasts (Bowen et al, Mastering Public Relations, 2012). Corporations have now realized how strong the voice of the people can be, and how far they can get to communicate by the only way we are connected through a global reach: social media and the internet. Based on the 2011 study featured in the article “How Public Relations Executives Perceive and Measure the Impact of Social Media in Their Organizations,” 77% of executives feel social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are vital for their organizations (Wright et al, 2011). The drive towards corporations moving to different social media platforms comes from their goal of reaching their target publics:

“To communicate effectively, organizations must go to where their stakeholders are. In fact, as one participant stated, the greatest risk is to “ignore social media and to allow conversations to happen without awareness or participation, (Wright, et al, 2011).”

Small charities with little cash, can now market for free, using the tools of social media. The lower the acquisition cost, the less a business spends to attract new donations, and the less it spends to keep existing ones. Social media helps spread awareness the fastest and easiest way possible.

Case Studies

Social media’s true effects have been seen over the years thanks to some big platforms. From Facebook to Twitter hundreds of millions of people are able to communicate on a daily basis and voice their opinions on a countless variety of subjects. The Barack Obama campaign in 2008 was sparked with his “Yes, We Can” campaign. A fairly simple idea to use world known celebrities to publicly acknowledge that his agenda was the one to vote for, helped push him further than his opponents (Cogburn, et al, 2011). Use of the hashtag #YesWeCan, Facebook pages and videos that went viral, and his own personal twitter account allowed Obama to become one of the first Presidents to truly integrate social media use to the masses. Social media has the power to transform public perception, even to the point of starting political movements and calling for reformation of traditional structures. We have seen social media do this specifically during the Arab spring, which sparked in 2011. With Tunisia gaining their independence and successfully overthrowing their regime, Egypt came next. With Egypt, a viral campaign in the form of a Facebook event, informed millions of young adolescents to come join each other in Tahrir Square in January, resulting with millions going to protest (Eltantawy et al, 2011). After three weeks of protests, police brutality, and heavy reform, the revolution was achieve, all through Facebook as the platform that helped start this movement. The social media warrior was also used for foreign reporters’ to communicate with families and other outside resources, due to the safety risk of being in the city at the time. Other social media outlets were also used to allow news networks to communicate with normal civilians on the ground of Tahreer Square. Whether it was through Facebook or Twitter, the news was able to get properly and accurately reported, based on true and up to date posts and tweets (Eltantawy et al, 2011).

Social media has also been seen as a way for people to communicate and see beyond what biased media might be informing the mass public. Framing is a common issue in media and the news we see, hear, and read. Image use and representation, sounds, and preconceived ideas are consistently at the root of most news media messages (Bowen, 2012). The world or print and traditional news telling is slowly deteriorating and being replaced by the easily accessible handheld option of the web. It allows independent news sources to report and inform the people with real news when some networks might be forced to report in a certain tone. Till this very day more than three years have passed since that revolution. A new president, Mohammed Morsi came into office in mid-2012, and his regime was toppled as well a year later in mid-2013. A new president was elected afterwards, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and since he came into office, the political scene has fired up (CNN, 2013). It seems since the Arab Spring began in 2011, Egypt’s political situation has not really changed. Despite this, social media is a huge factor for why this continues to happen. Large groups of people are able to form groups with similar political motives and ideologies helping to start protesting and make change.

As effective as it was with toppling some regimes, certain dictators ran to blocking social media as effectively as possible in their regions. This was seen with Bashar Al-Assad, and what he did in Syria. With Syria however they got ahead of the curve. They knew that social media would help lead to people’s voices combining, and this would eventually lead to protests and requests regime change. Assad began blocking Facebook as early as 2007, with the idea of political activist groups forming, and not abiding to control by the government, all of which scared the regime (Youmans, et al, 2012). Four years later in Egypt, this scare was proven worthy for worry, as every dictator within the region could risk being overthrown or a countries possible revolution. Other countries such as China, have worked towards blocking and filtering social media as well (Youmans, 2012).

“What results is a social model of public relations in which traditional public relations responsibilities are distributed to social media users, and which depends on interactivity, legitimacy, and a user’s social stake,” (Smith, 2010).

As well, it was in the events of the Earthquakes in Haiti of 2010, that we see an example of non-organized publics integrate social media and create a discussion based on relief efforts. Due to this ongoing discussion and the communication that spread from it, organizations across the world came to attention, thus completing a vital public relations effort of raising awareness and communication on an incident. Smith believes this power shift has allowed for regular and everyday public to stem the responsibilities of communication from traditional activism forms (Smith, 2010).

This event shows how the use of social media can eventually benefit organizations, and may be vital in reconstructing the role of the activist in today’s modern society. Social media will continue to dominate the platform for activism and will only get stronger. Based on these specific historic examples of revolutionary movements by the public society, we see the traditional forms of communication are being met with modern advances. We can only learn and integrate these effective tools, and as these events have taught us, great change and social impact are possible with the proper communication.




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