Still in its formative stages when he first took office eight years ago, social media has exploded into a global phenomenon as Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close, with major impacts for social and political activism around the world, as he acknowledged in his final address to the United Nations this week. But the soon-to-be-outgoing U.S. president also warned that social media also has a dark side.
On one hand, social media has become the voice of the people across broad swathes of the globe, including in authoritarian regimes and failed states, where ordinary citizens may be denied basic political rights including voting in free elections, but also in democracies, as Obama noted: “An explosion of social media has given ordinary people more ways to express themselves, and has raised people’s expectations for those of us in power."
Although Obama glossed over this fact, in some cases social media has actually enabled revolutions, as in the Arab Spring and the Green Revolution in Iran – but as the aftermath of Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” showed, the unity enabled by social platforms often proves fleeting, as technology can’t erase longstanding social and cultural divisions. Looking ahead, social media’s ability to facilitate revolutions will probably diminish as repressive governments learn to use social media for their own purposes, including surveillance, disinformation and propaganda.
Obama also pointed to some of the threats posed by malefactors with access to social media: “We see too many governments muzzling journalists, and quashing dissent, and censoring the flow of information. Terrorist networks use social media to prey upon the minds of our youth, endangering open societies and spurring anger against innocent immigrants and Muslims.” While governments are working with social platforms to combat extremist messages and remove pro-terror accounts, this will probably be a never-ending task as long as terrorist sympathizers exist and are willing to continue playing a game of cat and mouse.
More broadly speaking, Obama hailed the Internet and mobile media’s power as a leveling, democratizing force, especially with its ability to deliver information to individuals in developing countries. On that note he noted, “The Internet can deliver the entirety of human knowledge to a young girl in a remote village on a single hand-held device.”But even here, he warned that the increased transparency and flow of information can also stir up social unrest, by allowing people to compare their circumstances more easily: “Just as the child in a slum today can see the skyscraper nearby, technology now allows any person with a smartphone to see how the most privileged among us live and the contrast between their own lives and others.”