Does social media really cause political change?

In a 2010 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell argued that social media does not strongly influence social change. He argues that true social activism requires strong social ties to a cause and to others fighting for that cause. Without these ties, no one will take the necessary risks. Social media, however, encourages weak ties. It allows us to be a part of a cause without actually doing anything. Therefore, it does not create social change and may actually distract from real movements.

In response to this article, the New York Times posted an online forum for discussion. Six experts weigh in on Gladwell’s assertions. Click here to read their arguments.

Some of the main points they discussed were:

  • Movements not only need serious risk takers, they also need a large group of people sympathetic to the movement.
  • It is harder for oppressive regimes to staunch online communication than the mass media.
  • The internet provides new tools to inform, persuade, and communicate.
  • Every demonstration can have a global audience. There is no mass media filter.
  • The internet does for movements now what TV did for the civil rights movement. Without images of marches and police brutality, far fewer people would support the civil rights cause.
  • One potential problem with virtual activism is that it may take the place of conventional activism which is far more involved and effective.

3 responses to “Does social media really cause political change?

  • calliemedin

    I think that the last point is especially interesting. Social media has enabled an incredible increase in awareness about global issues, but virtual activism only does so much. It is definitely important that we don’t forget about conventional activism – yes, it’s great that people are getting involved via the internet, but virtual participation is still only virtual. I think a future direction for social media expansion could be to couple internet participation with conventional activism so that we continue to expand online awareness without neglecting tangible aid efforts.

  • South Park and Social Media « ICT4D @ Tulane

    […] Anna Hamilton’s post this week, she wrote, “One potential problem with virtual activism is that it may take the place […]

  • AmeliaConrad

    I completely agree with many of these points. It reminds me of an article I read about Twitter and Hurricane Sandy in which they discussed the complacency of some people when they felt like they had “done their part” by retweeting something and then did not do anything else. I think it is important to remember that social media is ONE tool in social change movements, not an end in itself.

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