The murky truth: Is social media really changing the world?

Social media is powerful enough to change the world. At least this was the attitude former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown advocated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian.

“[The Internet era] is more tumultuous than any previous economic or social revolution,” Brown said in that interview.

Dr. Rudra Sil, professor of political science and co-director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at the University of Pennsylvania, set out to counter this viewpoint in the annual McSwain-Walker Lecture, which he delivered at the College of William and Mary last Wednesday.

Sil’s presentation, “When More Becomes Less: Is the Global Diffusion of Social Media Clouding Our Vision of World Affairs?” focused on the ways social media distorts our perceptions of international issues. Sil began the lecture by critiquing Brown’s assessment of social media as completely changing global affairs.

“He is a noble person,” Sil said. “I have great respect for him as a world leader. He’s done a lot of great things, but this mode of communicating about social media — that it has fundamentally changed things, that it’s fundamentally altered the way in which groups form resistance, groups form networks, and that it has fundamentally altered the dynamics of political and social change — these are the things I’m not dismissing out of hand, but that I think we need to have a more sober approach to.”

Sil listed several implications of viewing social media as world-changing, including the idea that we can gain the truth instantly from various posts and images.

He cited the Arab Spring as an example of glorifying social media. In Sil’s opinion, many people viewed Internet media like blogs, Facebook, Twitter and even Youtube videos as the main vehicles propelling the protests, while, in fact, a variety of causes contributed to the uprisings.

“Unemployment had been rising for five years,” Sil said. “And yet, when you hear the social media story, that part seems to be kind of forgotten. It all becomes about the corrupt dictator and the people finally finding a voice to overthrow him.”

Sil argued this simplified version of the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain did not provide a full picture of what occurred.

“How we can lump these events into something called the Arab Spring is beyond me, except for the fact that social media creates this kind of euphoria, creates this kind of convergence of ideas, meshes images together in our heads, meshes stories together in our heads, and gives us this notion of one sweeping movement toward democracy, when in fact there are other things going on, some of them not so nice,” Sil said.

He emphasized that revolutions have taken place for thousands of years without the presence of social media.

“Big things have happened in history,” Sil said. “Big changes have happened in all kinds of centuries that didn’t depend on speed of communication. It depended on the bigger problem of organizing resistance, creating structures, forming organizations, parties, forming movements.”

Century Richards ’15, an international relations major who attended the lecture, agreed.

“It seems like a huge change, but in reality the same types of revolutions have occurred without relying on social media at all,”  Richards said.

Sil also discussed the 2012 Delhi gang rape in India, during which a New Delhi woman was beaten and raped while traveling on a bus. She succumbed to her injuries and died, and the case garnered worldwide attention after people around the globe expressed public outrage via social networking sites.

In this case, Sil said social media made the gang rape seem like an exclusively Indian problem. Like the attitude toward the Arab Spring, this simplified outlook did not lead many people to view the event and its consequences in a global context.

“It’s good that social media spotlighted this issue for Indians … but if we really care about rape and stopping violence against women, it’s got to be done on a global scale,” Sil said. “Here, social media essentially was pushing us in a different direction.”

Sil’s view of social media and its potential to alter the way we view world affairs, sometimes leading us to view them more simplistically, is relatively new — this was the first time he gave this lecture.

In a question-and-answer session following the talk, many audience members expressed their interest in the unique standpoint Sil presented.

“I thought he provided a really interesting perspective on the role social media plays in current events,” Richards said.

Ultimately, Sil claimed his goal in presenting this argument was to encourage people not to jump to conclusions as soon as they see a tweet, blog post or even an image on Instagram. He emphasized we shouldn’t blindly accept anything we see or read on the Internet as the truth, because most of the time international affairs can be more complicated than they seem at first glance.

“If we start completely celebrating [social media] and buying into this, we do risk sometimes rushing to judgments, rushing to impressions about what’s going on, and forgoing something we have very carefully developed over the last 200 years: a tradition of checking each other, a tradition of critique, a tradition of hunting and digging for different perspectives,” Sil said.


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