Social networks and online media have become such an integrated part of our existence it is difficult to imagine what the political landscape would look like today in their absence. The culmination of an extraordinary leap in communicative technology, their role in faciliating dialogue between ideas, opinions, causes and fundamental beliefs has reconstructed the way we conduct our social and political lives.
In the Arab Spring we most clearly witnessed the significance of social media and the power of online networks as a catalyst of, rather than a bystander to, political change. Whereas online political activity has certainly limitations, it has nonetheless proved a formidable asset in recent social movements.
The middle man has been ousted from the prism of traditional reporting where the actions and attitudes of the political protagonist can now be fed right into the hearts and minds of bloggers, tweeters and facebookers. We are effectively entering an age where the very definition of journalism and journalist is in a flux and the boundaries of what we have traditionally considered the purpose of news, i.e. to inform and educate a largely passive audience, has been thrown into question.
The boundary between observer and actor, or writer and reader, are no less fixed; we are now presented with the opportunity to explore the dimensions of a political situation from a second-generation daughter of immigrants, a front-line activist, a humanitarian aid worker, or a long-standing academic. Those with expertise and insight can utilise online forums as a platform to express their unique opinion, and are likely to find a willing and engaged audience somewhere in the vast stretch of cyberspace.
As a result of this, the monopolies that big broadcasters and news agencies hold, along with their political biases, skewed reporting, and questionable ethics are being challenged - and rightly so. However, impartial and servitudinal they purport to be, the traditional media can and will only convey their inevitably partial view of events through the prism of their own political and social agendas (cut to 2003, and that enduring television image of Saddam Hussein's statue falling in Baghdad's Firdos square, where the cheering crowds were largely comprised of western journalists).
Many would liken, therefore, the online political activity of individuals and groups to a revolutionary act in itself - a collective space of equality, free speech, and dialogue; acting as the very epitome of free expression, enriched by the rapid exchange of ideas and knowledge only made possible in this absence of physical boundary.
The possibility of revolution without leaders, facilitated by virtual media - political flash mobs gathering in an instant on receipt of an anonymous tweet – is indeed an exciting concept. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the essence of social media lies fundamentally in its instrumental role, as a tool in resistance.
By the accounts of most political activists, change is still driven by what happens on the ground and political organisation is still characterised by parties, associations, unions, and elite institutions. It is these familiar structures that are key to mobilising social movements during the climax of simmering unrest and can avoid the shortcomings of social networking -- prohibition, exploitation and ever more subtle forms of manipulation.
While most information may be increasingly consumed through non-traditional means, it is still the large broadcasting companies and news outlets keeping ahead of these demographic changes and technological advancements, influencing what online content we consume, steering us towards particular bloggers, sites, and stories to keep us in their line of sight.
And does information from other, less familiar grassroots sources really present us, in a tweet, a blog, a Facebook post, or an online forum, with a more 'real' version of events than the traditional media? However inspirational the idea of 'la revolucion virtual' has proven to be, it is sensible to retain some caution in the fervour.
There is something highly uncomfortable, for example, with politicians assuming an online identity to court the electorate, an identity usually managed, unsurprisingly, by their researcher/advisor/intern. In this respect, social media mirrors the facelessness of government in real life; they now have at their disposal the means to present a 'personal' front to the more naive members of the citizenry. Citizens may feel as if they are now more engaged than ever in the governmental process, not confined to traditional forms of preference-expression such as voting, but government must embrace social media in a democratic frame of mind for it to play a positive role in the formal political sphere.Some online forums are characterised by the same power struggles we see in the social and political sphere, under the control of powerful political actors; the Israeli military intelligence, for instance, clocked on to the power of social media years ago, alerted by forward-thinking academics and research scientists of the potential threats posed by rapid socio-technological development. They have subsequently found increasingly surreptitious ways to keep tabs on these mass forums of political debate, establishing units with the sole purpose of monitoring social networks in the Arab world, and recruiting media-savvy individuals from advocacy groups to strategically disseminate their pro-Israel viewpoint into online conversations. The QassamCount application on Facebook which was devised back in 2008 seeks to draw sympathy towards Israeli state position in the Israel-Gaza conflict - every time a Qassam rocket would fall in Israel, the app would tweet "another rocket" and automatically change the Facebook status of those who had subscribed.
This clearly suggests that Israel perceived the spread of information to be a threat to its power, thus requiring monitoring, intervention, and control. Recognizing that social media is a platform with the potential to reach, influence, motivate, and (depending on how it is harnessed) emotionally impact a large number of people, a significant proportion of which may not normally engage with frontline dissidence, whether 'passively' via the social networking sphere, or actively on the picket line.
Even with its limitations and vulnerabilities, social media has firmly established its status as a facilitator for change, and a force to be reckoned with. I believe that the contagion of social networking has catered to our insatiable desire for instant connection and engagement with issues, causes, and arguably, values that are common to humanity, harnessed for more profound aims than their inventors would have imagined. Twitter was designed not as a platform for journalists, an organisational tool for political movements, or as a cog in the dissemination of information, but according to maker Jack Dorsey, as a place for 'short bursts of inconsequential information'. Whereas the advent of the internet may have proved the obstacles of time and space to be obsolete in the spread of information, it has saturated our senses with news, and sites such as Twitter have provided us with the perfect format to easily digest stories, opinions, and comments in bite-sized chunks, a seemingly relentless consumption.
Is social media, then, inconsequential? Clearly it has proven itself to be anything but.