Social media websites have had a transformative effect both on authoritarian regimes during the Arab Spring and on current American electoral politics, said journalists and technology advocates on Wednesday night in Kirkland House, the birthplace of Facebook.
Panelist Wael Nawara, journalist and co-founder of Egypt’s El Ghad Party, said Egyptians used Twitter and other websites to create a parallel political sphere that bypassed the country’s state-controlled media and facilitated revolution.
Nawara, who dictated Twitter messages to his son in Canada when the Egyptian government shut down internet access in January 2011, compared regimes attempting to censor social media to rising water in a dam.
"Either they can rise above, or collapse,” he said. “Once this happens, you can’t go back.”
Micah L. Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, took a domestic perspective, noting that social media has played a major role in extending the Republican presidential primary by mobilizing sustained support for candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
He also argued that social media is helping to democratize politics, citing its centrality in the formation of movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.
“We’re just a few years into a huge cultural change that’s about as big as Gutenberg’s perfection of moveable type 500 years ago and the democratization of printing,” he said.
“Imagine—now we all have printing presses in our pockets, and they’re all connected to everybody else.”
Former NPR journalist and current IOP Fellow Farai Chideya emphasized social media’s ability to connect and mobilize people at a time when many feel disillusioned by conventional means of political involvement.
“Social media helped enable a physical movement where people put their bodies on the line and out into the street,” she said.
“Combining the energy of social media and face-to-face can do everything from win elections to topple governments.”
For Michael Shayan ’14 and Lily H. Ostrer ’14, organizers of the “Conversations with Kirkland” series, the event was an opportunity for students to rethink the possibilities of social media.
“For us, it’s really easy to see the role social media plays in our social lives and to not realize the role it can play in the political system internationally,” Ostrer said.
Shayan, who was live-tweeting the event, agreed.
“I think the reason social media is so powerful an inspiring is that it connects people to one another,” he said. “When people connect, there are so many potentialities and possibilities.”