Small steps, big changes: how social media contributes to social transformation

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Gee Manoharan is a young Tamil man who was deported to Sri Lanka from Northern Ireland in February 2013. He had spent a year in Derry and Belfast and volunteered for various civil society groups. When he was detained by the Home Office, friends started a petition on social media to demand his release. Within 48 hours, nearly 2,000 people had signed it. So what was the value of those signatures?

It was Manoharan’s courage and determination to appeal after appeal that ultimately secured his release and the right to stay in Northern Ireland. But in a process where people are under massive emotional pressure by a disorienting and inhumane asylum system, he says he has drawn great strength and support from social media.

“The online campaign has really helped me through emotionally difficult circumstances,” he told me in a recent interview. “All the while, all those wishes and voices kept me from giving up and made me feel closer to the people who were on the outside trying to lend me a hand.

“After the massive and heartwarming response from the online campaign, I personally felt that my friends, friends of friends and supporters were walking by my side to get me through this difficult time.”

After his release, Manoharan continued his voluntary work – both helping the local community and highlighting the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. On 21 September 2013, the United Nations International Day of Peace, he received a Community Inspiration Medal in a ceremony at Belfast City Hall. Community relations charity Springboard described him as “a perfect Northern Ireland ambassador for peace”.

This case shows that it is not the dissemination of information alone that has the potential for transformation, but the very nature of social media: the sharing and interaction between peers that allows people to feel connected and Act in consequence.

In a 2010 New Yorker article titled “Small Change”, writer Malcolm Gladwell argued that if a movement is to be strong enough to achieve long-term change in society, it must build strong personal connections among participants. . Drawing on accounts from the civil rights movement in the United States, he argued that high-risk activism – of the kind seen in the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960, when African-American students engaged in civil disobedience to protest segregation – is rarely the result of the “weak ties” that characterize social media relationships. Facebook activism, he concluded, is “far from Greensboro’s lunch counters.”

Gladwell’s analysis is shared by many who dismiss social media activism as “clicktivism” – lazy, self-righteous and ineffective. But the debate over online activism is much more nuanced than that. Not everyone involved in the civil rights movement engaged in dangerous activity at the level of these students who refused to budge from separate food counters.

Some people donated money, while others drove cars to support actions like the Montgomery Bus Boycott – helping to sustain a public transport boycott for over a year and marking a significant victory against segregation . Some challenged black disenfranchisement by voting, some spoke to family and friends for support, and some made posters and flyers – for the 1968 March on Washington for example. An even larger network of people across the United States have engaged in the struggle for civil rights, not through direct organizing, but by turning their hearts and minds against segregation policies in their own daily activities. .

In this way, social media facilitates varying degrees of involvement in political action. By lowering the barriers to activism, they empower more people to take small steps as part of a larger movement. When expressed on social media in far greater numbers, public opinion has the potential to sway those in power and provide an emotional boost to those like Manoharan on the front lines of a struggle.

If social media had existed in the 1960s, I think the civil rights movement would have used it, just as Arab Spring activists also used it. It is clear that social media did not overthrow Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or any other leader in the region – the Egyptian people did. The Arab Spring has more to do with human rights abuses, repressive dictatorships, poverty and corruption than with social media.

But dismissing social media as merely a communication tool ignores the profound influence technology can have on shaping politics and culture. The invention of the printing press, for example, not only changed the speed and scope of information, but the type of information that spread. Once the copying of books was taken out of the hands of the church, clerics found it much more difficult to control and censor what was written.

Culturally, communication technologies can change our perception of the world and alter our behavior. If it wasn’t, advertising wouldn’t be the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. Of course, it’s not as simple as “like” and “share” to save the world, but social change is always a multi-step, long-term process in which social media can play an important role.

In a recent conversation with me, Fra Hughes, director of the Belfast-based charity Palestine Aid, put it this way:

“People work forty hours a week; having young families, aging parents, mortgages to worry about. Not everyone can devote the time and energy that I do. Social media is important for raising awareness and conveying knowledge and information in the public domain that will encourage a change of narrative and allow people to come to their own conclusions about their contribution to making the world more humane, honest and just.”

Although he’s always had an interest in the Middle East, Hughes credits social media as the main motivation for starting his organization in 2010. Joining Facebook, he told me, allowed him to connect with like-minded people, access more information, and gain a better understanding of the conflict and the kinds of support that might be needed.

“It’s not that I didn’t trust the information from the mainstream media,” he told me, “it’s that the information wasn’t to
mainstream media [at all].”

Palestine Aid has funded scholarships in law and counseling at the Islamic University of Gaza, and is about to raise enough money to install solar panels at the Al-Amal orphanage, also in Gaza – which should remedy the regular power shortages.

Hughes has traveled to Gaza several times to visit projects like these. On one occasion in 2013, he was refused entry and forced to travel to Cairo to plan his trip. As he roamed the city looking for accommodation, he found himself in Tahrir Square. There he was approached by a man speaking Arabic and holding a sign with the photo of another, much younger man.

“He’s his son,” said a passerby. “He was shot in the head by police snipers on the roof there. He died three days later. He was a twin. »

Hughes asked what he could do to help.

“He wants you to tell your world what happened to his son.”

In my book, that’s no small change.