Social Media Gets Serious

On Friday, a bomb went off at the UN compound in Abuja, Nigeria. In the aftermath, some Nigerians turned to Twitter to request people come forward to donate blood in the city’s hospital. This is not the first time Twitter, originally maligned as a tool for  broadcasting what you ate for breakfast, has played a role in events of international significance. Since the Arab Spring started earlier this year, there has been an energetic debate as to what role Twitter — and all social media — played in the pro-democracy movement. While individuals have posited both that social media was the driving force behind the movement and that it played no role at all, the consensus now is more in the middle. This week, Aaron Bady eloquently argued that while social media might not have caused the Arab Spring, it certainly played a role:

To “like” Hosni Mubarak would be to endorse a leader—the leader, in fact—but the extremely visible leaderlessness of “We are all Khalid Said” seems to be exactly the point. In other words, instead of the personality cult by which Presidents-for-life like Ben Ali and Mubarak have ruled for decades, the masses of nameless Cairenes and Tunisians—assembled on Facebook and in the street—represents a kind of anti-personality cult. When everyone is “Khaled Said” (or “Mohamed Bouazizi” in Tunisia), after all, the story being told is not only about that the nation is united, but that it is united by the common experience of having suffered at the hands of the state. In this sense, instead of “leaderless revolutions,” perhaps we might think about how Facebook helped facilitate a “revolution of leaderlessness”

For a long time, social media companies (particularly Twitter) have resisted getting involved in global politics. However, in the wake of widespread attention over their role in the Arab Spring and digital human rights, the companies have recently gotten the message: if you don’t play politics, politics plays you. Yesterday, Twitter announced that it had hired Colin Crowell as its new head of global public policy, a move no doubt intended to strengthen the company’s ability to handle the political implications of events like Arab Spring. Social media is not going anywhere, but neither is politics. Over the last year the discussion has been centered around whether the former can effect the latter, and the answer is certaintly yes — to a point. However, now we must ask ourselves a more important question: How can we use social media to change the world? And, what change do we want to see? Those are likely much more difficult, but more rewarding, questions.