Social Media Won’t Save the World

Former National Security Adviser to the Carter administration Zbigniew Brzezinski and General Brent Scowcroft, who served both the Reagan and H.W. Bush administration, spoke at a U.S. Senate Hearing about the variety of global challenges facing America in the new century.

Watch the full hearing here

Both speakers were prominent Cold Warriors, but Brzezinski if I may say has in the new century more deftly coupled conceptual ideas with practical policy-making positions. Perhaps it comes from his experience as an academic. At one point in the session he grapples with his long-held belief that we are living through a global political awakening. Somberly, he states that the momentum of awakening has been short-circuited by violent upheaval. Peaceful political change has given way to intransigent conflict.

The impact that social media has had on political change seems to be overstated by General Scowcroft. That assertion by many political commentators may help us to understand why peaceful change has been evaded.

One of the things we’ve seen if you want to object like in Egypt for example you go out and parade in the square…that’s a difficult thing normally…but now globalization has made it really easy all you have to do is pickup your cellphone…and say there will be a rally tomorrow in Tahrir square at 10 o’clock and you can get 10 million people…

A common misconception about social movements and protest politics is that social media is now the source of popular mobilization. That throwing up an event page on Facebook will unleash people power.

Social Media is really an outgrowth of human networks. A tactic for appeal, used by those already-connected to reach out to those who are not. Social Media is about awareness of popular mobilization, generally by the media who if social media wasn’t around, would be unaware.

It’s rarely about connecting the newly aware (or politically awakened) with already existing activist networks. The Square is an example of this. Scowcroft credits social media with mobilizing people, but the people who began the occupation were party activists, NGO staff, labor unions, etc. So while I would credit social media for making the media aware of the mobilization, I would credit traditional media with communicating this to the public.

Traditional forms of organization (which is physical), and media (radios and TV) are still playing the largest role in affecting change. The restriction of these are what has slowed that change. Social Media only adds to the snowball after all the other pieces have executed their part.

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