Ask anyone about the effect social media has had on politics and you will usually hear the phrases “massive shift” and “game changer”, among others. People can name prominent examples off the top of their heads: The Arab Spring and the “Twitter Revolution” in Egypt; Kony 2012; and most recently, the Idle No More movement in Canada.

However, with all these events, and many more, social media can rarely be shown to have sustained long-term political pressure. It cannot take credit as a medium that has sustained movements, ideas or campaigns. In all of these scenarios – some more than others – social media was the catalyst; the rallying call; the battle hymn. Online campaigns thrust ideas to the forefront of our collective consciousness, and into the mainstream media, but very few if any political movements have been able to sustain themselves online.

The influence of social media on political movements has, in short, been underwhelming and overhyped. Most instances of real, long-term political change are still sustained by traditional media – not social media or the online community as many would claim. And while many movements credit social media with their ‘inception’, it is quite possible that these campaigns have in fact been limited by the medium more than they have been enabled.

Social Networking

The medium & limitations

The Egyptian revolution is arguably the largest ‘social media success story’ in terms of creating political change. However, this is a case where social media literally helped create a mob mentality (for good reason – not arguing the justification) but then showed its impotence in sustaining that change. In order for the movement to be effective, it had to boil its message down to 140 characters, or more regularly, a #hashtag. The result was a message that spread quickly, and created immense political pressure. However, the articulated goal was so simplified and narrow that it did not articulate any kind of long-term vision. The idea of “Overthrowing Mubarak” was powerful, but it was necessarily limited by the platform that made it so successful: Twitter.

If one buys (to some degree) that the medium is the message, then social media’s message is one of fleeting interest; a powerful spike in a person’s interest but for a visibly short amount of time. In order for these ideas to create tangible political change, they must be distilled into something very specific. In Egypt, once the simple objective of overthrowing Mubarak was achieved, a general ‘anti-Mubarak’ sentiment remained, but little else. Very little on the future of the country. Very little to create a long-term political movement.

Competing information & attention deficit

One central problem in using social media to create long-term political change has become one of attention. In our day and age, the hectic nature of many people’s lives combines with information overload to make sustained interest in one cause or idea, unlikely. There is a very real “oh, this was popular yesterday” attitude about many ideas or campaigns that creates a challenge for activists or organizations. Unless something “new” happens, attention quickly fades. And while has always happened in media cycles, it would often take much longer to fade, giving time for more meaningful dialogue to occur, and broader societal movements to form. Now, we are bombarded with ‘new and interesting’ material all the time, and spending time on something that we’ve already read about or watched a video on? Forget about it!

When sharing = helping

The second problem surrounding a lot of these issues is the idea that ‘sharing is helping’. Many videos – Kony 2012 being a good example – finish with “share this message and help spread the word”. While this is good for many public awareness campaigns, real political change comes not just from sharing a message, but getting people engaged and passionate about an issue. We are entering an era where I talk with people who say “Yeah I shared that Kony video – hopefully that helps”. The problem is that when you combine with this “sharing = helping” mentality with the information overload previously discussed, people share things in cyberspace and then wash their hands, saying “I’ve made a difference”. It is getting harder and harder for actitivist groups to physically get people to events or get them to send something more substantial than a tweet. This is problematic because a tweet or a Facebook post is something you will do thousands of other times; it is not a valued commodity in our minds. At the point where that is the way people express their outrage, it becomes just that: outrage. It doesn’t require an investment or a real show of passion like traditional protests, and politicians can sense that.

Journalist Arrest, Occupy Wall Street One Year Later (37 of 39)

So what does this mean?

All of this is to say that when people talk about how social media has ‘revolutionized’ politics, it may be less positive or certain than many would claim. These critiques do not necessarily extend to organized political campaigns, but they might. More important, these comments identify some major problems that citizens not directly involved in the political system (external actors) will face in creating long-term, sustainable political change. Whether we are talking about Egypt and the twitter revolution, Kony 2012, Idle No More or thousands of other causes, social media and its many mediums are inherently limiting and simplifying. Furthermore, the information overload is not set to diminish any time soon, and this will present even more problems for many political movements, as they seek to keep people interested in the long term, and create real political change – not just armchair activism.