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Social media matters: but is it the golden ticket to development progress?

Written by Leni Wild

Recent events in the Arab world have had observers scrambling to identify the catalysts of social change. The role of social media has been placed at the heart of subsequent analysis but as an ODI/One World Media event on Monday evening highlighted, we should take care not to see it as the golden ticket to political or developmental progress.

Forms of social media such as Twitter and Facebook have opened new opportunities for both the sharing of information and for mass mobilisation, as events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the region poignantly revealed.  Away from the media glare, other initiatives have emerged, such as Twaweza, which combines old and new media to encourage more responsive government in Tanzania and other parts of East Africa, and Ushahidi, set up following election violence in Kenya, which uses crowdsourcing to map incidents of violence and peace efforts.

And undoubtedly, technological advances and the power of communication have historically made significant contributions to development processes around the world, as Jonathan Glennie argued at our event and in a recent Guardian blog.

But, as Monday’s panel pointed out, while we should welcome recognition of the roles that media – old and new – can play in helping to give citizens a greater voice, attention also needs to be paid to the potential challenges and threats involved.

The genocidal violence in Rwanda in the 1990s and election violence in Kenya in 2007 both revealed the role of ‘hate media’ in fostering the spread of violence. The predominance of terrorist websites also shows the darker side of an unpoliced and unregulated web. Increasingly, governments too are waking up to the uses of social media, and are either cutting internet access (as happened recently in Egypt and is common practice in China) or using the virtual world to gain access to the identities of users and targeting them away from the keyboard.

The UK’s recent Bilateral Aid Review committed to significant increases in the level of funding to fragile states, including in the Arab region. And there is likely to be growing interest in supporting initiatives that encourage the sharing of information and collective action, including online or through mobile phone technology. But care should be taken not to jump onto the social media bandwagon without a full appraisal of its uses and implications in each country. In practice, communications technologies are really tools – akin to cars or televisions – whose impact depends on how they are used by the individuals with access to them.

What really stands out from recent Arab experience is that what matters is the nature of the connections that link social media to more established media (such as the BBC or Al Jazeera) and to political organisations and wider international and diplomatic relations. And while forms of social media can be important catalysts for political and social mobilisation, they should not be used as a substitute for more formal types of political organisation, including political parties – as my colleague Alina Rocha Menocal argued in relation to Egypt.

In fact, Kate Allen – writing in Tuesday’s Guardian – argues that some ‘business as usual’ approaches are emerging in Egypt, with the Justice Minister warning of an ‘iron fist’ for those who threaten Egypt’s security. It is increasingly evident that the social mobilisation and activism around Tahrir Square was able to overthrow a regime but it has not yet translated into coherent political movements capable of addressing governance challenges in Egypt going forwards, although time will tell in the run up to elections later this year.

So while we rush to appraise the potential of hashtags and crowdsourcing, we should first consider how these will interact with existing power dynamics and forms of political organisation, as it is these underlying factors that will really shape future change.