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Social Networks

How Does Social Media Impact State Stability?

Today approximately 2 billion people use social media websites around the world and 96% of all content on these sites is from individual users, not brands or companies. These numbers exceed that of people participating in democratic elections every year.

This is a mass phenomenon, but it is unequal, remaining in urban areas. Yet, urban populations are growing. More than 52% of the global population live in cities. However, what people often forget, is that even with exponential growth, users of social media usually have their belief systems already in place.

In the 2014 Pew Internet’s 2014 study that mapped Twitter topic networks and clusters of users with polarized views, it was found that people organized according to their personalities and affinities. Social media helps users find like-minded people and organizations, and helps them collect and congregate. It does not do so much to generate new beliefs or challenge personal versions of the status quo.

“The ecosystem of social media is predicated on delivering more of what the user already likes,” says Curtis Hougland, CEO of Attentionusa.com, a global social marketing agency. “This, precisely, is the function of a Follow or Like. In this way, media coagulates rather than fragments online.”

Hougland calls communities on Facebook and Twitter “extra-national” as they are often more important to users than nationality. Say religion, or a popular cult interest, or a political goal like environmentalism. Yet, even though social media users instigate unrest, they don’t create it anew. Social media only helps amplify existing attitudes of unrest across states. Thus it is embedded in the pre-existing social fabric of the “real world”.

One of the biggest terrorist threats on the planet today is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Islamic State (IS), and the devastation it has rained on Iraq. IS used YouTube and Twitter to broadcast the beheadings of captured journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and humanitarian worker David Haines. The filming of these acts and distribution via social media is a geopolitical trend.

As a contributor to global political unrest, the way IS has used social media to broadcast and recruit is the biggest issue in the regulation of social media. The purpose of IS is not just to spread its message, but to find like-minded people. Groups like IS tap right into the sociological truths of social media and can use them to gain sympathy and funding.

Balkanization and Government Control

An interesting way to look at how extra-national communities take shape online is what Hougland calls “Balkanization”. We are at a moment in history were nation states are having a crisis of identity and many states across Africa and Asia have border issues, sectarian separations and ethnical cleavages. The current Iraq crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Ukraine crisis, the India-Pakistan conflict, tribal divisions in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolutions… examples galore! Nations are “Balkanizing”, that is, breaking into smaller nations. Social media has helped in this process

This push towards Balkanization by online communities, receives a push back by governments in the shape of bans on websites and censorship. Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA’s global surveillance operations is one example of how, through surveillance, the government pushes back at the freedom of association that social media offers.

Another example is that of Brazil wanting to nationalize its email services and store all data within Brazilian borders. This Balkanization is the incentivizing factor for governments to try to control internet communication in the wake of social-media aided populist revolts.

Most recently, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh one of the top clerics of Saudi Arabia gave a statement saying that Twitter was the “Source of all evil”. He said, “People are rushing to it thinking it's a source of credible information but it's a source of lies and falsehood.” Ironically, Saudi Arabia has the largest number of twitter users in the world and the statement has led to a fast polarisation of views on Twitter with those who support the Sheikh, Tweeting their support.

The End Of An Era?

The famous online protester Wael Ghonim, who created the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page didn’t initiate the protests in Egypt. In fact, he waited until he had 100,000 followers or “fans” before he announced and coordinated the protests on January 28 in 2011 against the Egyptian Government.

Social media does not hold full responsibility for the massive rise in attendance protests, but there is a strong correlation between the amount of social media pressure and the motivation and protest involvement. This was seen especially in the Egyptian Revolution. The risk is not that these revolutionary actions happen, but that they can happen in months rather than years now.

Malcolm Gladwell puts the whole debate about the rise of social media as a political tool in its place. He writes in the New Yorker, “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone….People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

When governments try to ban websites, it amounts to shooting the messenger and ignoring the message. Historian Pankaj Mishra says in the Bloomberg View, “Few people in 1900 expected centuries-old empires — Qing, Hapsburg, Ottoman — to collapse by 1918.” The fact is that the way states and governments are constructed has evolved over time.

 

Saadia Gardezi is a Political Scientist from Pakistan

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Saadia Gardezi

Saadia Gardezi is a political scientist from Pakistan

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