Facebook, Twitter and YouTube services have become indispensable tools in the worlds of politics and protest.
During the past year, social media have taken on an important role for revolutionaries in the Middle East, protesters here at home and politicians across the world.
The Arab Spring’s explosive growth would have been largely impossible without the use of social media. Protesters looking to overthrow dictators and install democracies organized on Facebook and Twitter and shared YouTube videos of brutal crackdowns. Their actions online made it easier to mobilize, but governments would not have fallen without acts of courage, said Timothy Boudreau, Associate Professor of Journalism.
“Social media helped the protesters communicate and organize much more effectively, but the protesters posed a real threat only when they took to the streets and put their lives on the line,” Boudreau said.
Many countries have threatened to arrest bloggers who are accused of spreading “malicious rumors,” according to a report by Reuters examining the impact of social media. Twitter announced in late January it will allow for country-specific censorship, sparking outrage from internet users across the world.
Here in the United States, social media are also having an enormous impact on the political landscape.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has used social media to organize and mobilize thousands of protesters around the country, and eventually around the world, in a similar way to the Arab Spring protesters. This has allowed OWS to spread around the globe at a pace previously unimaginable.
Internet users have also had an impact on lawmakers on Capitol Hill. After websites like Wikipedia and Reddit shut down for a whole day to protest the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act on Jan. 18, the number of opponents to the bill in Congress more than tripled from 31 to 101, according to ProPublica.org. The bill has since been shelved.
As the 2012 elections heat up, social media will continue to leave its mark on American politics.
“I think candidates are using all available tools, including social media, to reach voters,” said Orlando Perez, political science professor and department chairman. “Studies have shown that repeated personal contact with the voters is the most effective way of getting people to support a candidate.”
President Barack Obama, who was the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media in a presidential campaign, recently held a question-and-answer session via YouTube and Google+ with a group of people, showing the appeal of directly speaking to voters without the use of traditional news outlets.
“Obama’s campaign seems more adept at using social media, but that might be because his supporters tend to skew younger than the GOP’s,” Boudreau said.