Can Social Media Bring Peace On Earth In 2011?

Is it possible that in 2011 social media could help bring peace on earth, goodwill toward men (and women)? I’m enough of an optimist to hope so but enough of a realist to appreciate how naive that sounds. Still, I believe there are encouraging signs that social media can have a positive impact on the world — but only if it first has a positive impact on each of us.

If I predict that social media will bring peace to the world and am subsequently proven wrong, at least I’d be in good company. History is full of examples of technical advances that carried the promise of beneficial change but delivered something less. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, a more stable version of nitroglycerin, to make mining safer; he eventually used his wealth to establish the Nobel Prizes after reading an erroneously printed obituary that called him “the merchant of death” for “finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” 

Cable television also once was seen as a force for positive change. A 1973 report from the National Science Foundation predicted cable television would “become a medium for local action instead of a distributor of prepackaged mass-consumption programs to a passive audience.” Alas, Bruce Springsteen accurately summed up cable television’s present and future when he sung almost 20 years ago that “There was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on.”

If innovative technologies failed to bring education, culture and peace in the past, why might social media succeed in doing so today? In part, because yesterday’s technical advances were about empowering the individual while social media is about connecting them. Unlike television or even the World Wide Web, social media isn’t about access to information but access to people.  

Certainly social media can be used to spread hate or create problems, but it also is used to fight the good fight. We’ve already witnessed evidence of this such as: 

  • A groundswell against terrorism. In the prologue for the book “The Facebook Effect” (which is excerpted on The New York Times site), David Kirkpatrick tells the tale of Oscar Morales, who created a Facebook group out of rage against FARC’s actions in Columbia. Within days his group amassed thousands of fans and a month later 10 million people marched worldwide against FARC, an effort coordinated on Facebook.
     
  • Bureaucratic roadblocks diminished. NBC-TV reporter Ann Curry was traveling on a Doctors Without Borders plane on its way to Haiti following the earthquake. When she found the plane could not get clearance to land, she tweeted, "@usairforce find a way to let Doctors without Borders planes land in Haiti." They were soon on the ground delivering humanitarian aid and assistance.
     
  • A political prisoner freed. James Karl Buck was on his way to an Egyptian jail when he tweeted a single word: “Arrested.”  The message was received by friends and caused action in the United States; 24 hours later Buck was released.
     
  • Bills advanced in the US congress. Earlier this year, I had a terrific discussion with Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. With an anti-genocide bill stuck in Washington DC, the group asked members to turn to Facebook and Twitter to urge action in their representatives. Within 48 hours, 1,200 activists had posted on the Facebook walls of 10 members of congress. Within days two of these congressmen agreed to sponsor the bill, and it was soon passed and signed into law. So successful was this effort that one of the senators reached out to the organization and asked that they send activists back to Facebook to thank elected officials in order to close the loop in a positive fashion.

There is no question that social media can bring great and positive change in our world, but here’s the problem: It cannot do it alone. In each of the examples above, it was not Twitter or Facebook that created change but the action of people (or the threat of action of people) that did so. Oscar Morales, James Karl Buck and Alan Rosenblatt were not successful simply because they used social media tools but because people acted as a result of how these tools were used. If no one marched against FARC, responded to Buck’s tweet or acted on an anti-genocide call to action, then nothing would have been accomplished. 

And it is this sort of action that allows social media to be a sort of “social change multiplier.” For example, Ann Curry’s tweet didn’t need to bring about a groundswell of action to get the Air Force to permit an aid plane to land — it only needed to threaten to do so.  The decision-makers at the Air Force may have been unaware of the plight of the Doctors Without Borders plane, but it’s also likely they simply didn’t want to deal with the repercussions of Curry’s tweet. After all, the military may be largely independent of public opinion, but even it doesn't want to deal with a flood of questions as to why it's preventing aid from reaching suffering Haitians.

That shows the power of the “social change multiplier.” If people take action in sufficient numbers a sufficient number of times, those who care about public sentiment (including elected officials, corporate executives and others) will react as much to the threat of social media action as real social media action. But if there are no repercussions because people fail to pay attention and act, then the threat goes away.  No action means no social change multiplier.

French historian Fernand Braudel suggested that a way to predict the future was to consider the past, not in terms of recent trends and changes but the things that do not change in human behavior. Called “projective history,” his theory implies that only by studying the eternal truths of history (and not the front page of newspapers) can you see what must come next. If we use projective history, the future of social media doesn’t look bright. Cable TV failed to live up to its promise of “becom(ing) a medium for local action” not for any failure of the technology but because of unchanging human nature. As a result of viewer habits, it is more economical for cable providers to take infomercial money to sell abdominal tightening machines than it is to provide educational and community content.

As social media continues to commercialize (as it must to survive), the question is whether it will follow cable TV and become a vast wasteland of meaningless minutiae, a force for positive change or, if we’re lucky, both. In the end, that doesn’t depend upon what happens in the halls and cubicles of Twitter and Facebook but what happens to those of you reading this. If you act on the things you read and see in social media merely by following and friending, then little will change. But if the things you read on Twitter and Facebook encourage you to act — to donate, post, call, write or change your behaviors — then social media may succeed where so many other technical advances have failed mankind.

Regardless of what happens in social media this coming year, I wish all of you a prosperous, safe, healthy and peaceful 2011. 

Comments

Augie, yours is such a

Augie, yours is such a powerful, distilled insight:

"If people take action in sufficient numbers a sufficient number of times, those who care about public sentiment (including elected officials, corporate executives and others) will react as much to the threat of social media action as real social media action. But if there are no repercussions because people fail to pay attention and act, then the threat goes away."

I hope and pray that the former comes to pass, rather than the latter. I am optimistic that fueled by social media, we will continue to act and therefore have this incredibly powerful toolset to help us make change for the better happen.

Peace in 2011.

Sue

Sufficiency

Thanks, Sue. I'm with you--I'd like to see the latter comes to pass. And, as I said at the start of the piece, I'm optimistic. In mass broadcast media, the wishes and wants of a minority are easy to ingnore, but in social media this is not the case. If enough people care and act, I believe a wave of change can happen. I just hope they act in the right way (but then again, my "right way" and others' may not be the same thing!)

Charity

5. Yeah! I agree with you. Help a cause is really a great thing. And now a day, internet has developed so much that it helped to donate money to a cause, which is worthy enough to spend money. I am very glad about it. And people should do it more often. Charity, Good causes

Be the Change

Thanks for the gentle nudge away from my natural tendency to cynicism. When I see friends encouraging me to "like" the latest cause seeking millions of Facebook fans, I often think "what difference can this make?" But you are right, if it also stirs folks to action, it can be more than an easy way to express concern. I've always appreciated the idea from Gahndi that we must be the change we want to see in the world. so next time I get a request to join something that is a good cause, I will join AND make a post about the real world action I will take to back it up.

Fighting cynicism

Marjorie,

It certainly is easy to slip into cynicism, isn't it? I felt Malcolm Gladwell was guilty of this when he wrote "Why the revolution will not be tweeted" for The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell). I think he's mostly wrong--Twitter and Facebook may not change human nature, but in the right hands these tools most certainly will help create revolutions and change.

I appreciate the comment and am glad the blog post might help you be a little less cynical! :)

People in the world

Hey Augie,

Great & thoughtful peace. Also see Clay Shirky's 'Cognitive Surplus' which posits that, now that we're ungluing ourselves from 50 years of couch-based one way hypnosis we're freeing up enough time and energy to exploit the new communal aspects of public media. Perhaps, dare he suggests, for exponential good.

He cautions, much like Braudel might, that people are people, and inherent human behavioral make-up is a slow moving evolutionary beast. But we know *we* as individuals can change and sometimes that change can not only be for the better, but in epochs like our present one, a little good snow flake of change can roll into a big old avalanche - amplified and enriched by the tools of social communion.

We're entering into a post-digital phase where we're all learning to paint with these new brushes at the same time. History's canvas, perhaps, has never held such promise of potential goodness, holds Shirky and I'm hopeful with him.

I'm all out of badly mixed metaphors so I will wish you and your readers a Happy New Year and go play in the new fallen snow with my kids!

@tkennon | bigevidence.blogspot.com

Thanks Thom

I've read some Clay Shirky, but clearly need to dig more. I wish I shared that sense of unbridled optimism, but it seems to me when humans unglue themselves from one set of habits, the new set of habits to which they glue themselves isn't much different. But, I do believe that those people who care to fight for change can be more empowered today than in the past--and that is how a few good snowflakes can create that avalanche.

Enjoy the snow!

Social Media

I would have to say that I think that social media does cause people to act. More than normal because with many people seeing what is truly happening it does encourage something to be done. Works as a marketing tool, charity or even for awareness. Its amazing how fast news spreads now with social media and technology and I believe it will continue to keep right on impressing us all.

I hope you're right, Angie!

Thanks for the comment. I certainly hope you are right--it would be great to see a wave of people caring, acting and making a change for the better.

Very nice post, Augie. Like

Very nice post, Augie. Like you, I'm optimistic that social media can be a force for good. This lesson was driven home for me by the global effort to bring attention to the #IranElection. More of the global citizenry now use and understand social media. However, the realist in me sees governments taking control of the internet and stifling the connections that we've been building.

#IranElection

Thanks, Kenan.

I avoided mentioning the #IranElection because it seems there's been a shift of opinion about the role Twitter played. At first, there was a great deal of attention as to how Twitter helped those in Iran who were fighting for change. More recently, some articles have called into question if Twitter helped much at all within Iran. But, one thing is for certain--Twitter helped raise awareness around the globe of an Iran issue that otherwise might've been fodder for news storied on the third page of the New York Times.

No matter what role Twitter played in #IranElection, I agree with you: This sort of global action is bound to bring about local change in the future.

Skeptic

Nice post, very optimistic.

Well - I have a rather depressing tidbit to share. One of the most frequenly RTed types of tweet or copied FB status update (in India at least) are urgent appeals for blood donations, usually for the rare negative blood groups. I get such tweets or status updates at least twice every day, and usually they cross my path more than once. I decided to test my hypothesis - social media makes people mistake an RT or a copied status update for activism.

I called up the person named in the blood donation appeal and asked if he was getting any help. His answer was no. He said he'd been getting a lot of mentions on Twitter, but nobody had stepped up to donate blood. (I couldn't, because I live in another city). I wasn't surprised. This status message was posted by at least five of my friends on Facebook and RTed by several people I follow, some of whom have more than one thousand followers.

While we're optimistic and enthusiastic about the impact social media has on bringing about positive change, this little incident makes me take a step back and think whether we're actually missing the trees for the woods?

Perhaps not, perhaps we need to change the definition entirely of what constiutes "activism" in this age of social media?

Slacktivism is slacktivism

Thanks Haroon,

Interesting experience. Thanks for sharing. In the end, I think "slacktivism" doesn't change in social media. RTing a cause is not the same as supporting it with donations, actions or changes in behavior. I think we'll see a lot of slacktivism in social media, but it doesn't take that much true action on the part of a minority to have a huge impact.

I appreciate the thoughts!