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File photo: AFP
File photo: AFP

Opinion | Why social media can’t start great revolutions

Real revolutions are always led by a leader at the top of a well-defined hierarchy. On social media, everyone is an expert unto himself, a leader unto himself

Among all the discussions about the Arab Spring movement, Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker, Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, stood out. When every social change expert was talking about the role of social media in initiating and accelerating a social revolution, Gladwell’s article countered the general belief about the power of social media.

It is easy for social media to achieve behavioural change if the action is small and can be performed without leaving the comfort of one’s personal space. Social media is capable of getting someone to watch a video, or press the like button or make a small donation. The Ice Bucket Challenge social media campaign helped the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) foundation collect more than $100 million. In all these initiatives, the behaviour change is mostly being attempted at an individual level.

Does social media have the ability to change long-established social norms, built by powerful social forces? Can social media be used to solve significant societal problems like maternal and child health issues, road accidents and corruption?

The issue of maternal and child health is not about the behaviour of young mothers alone. The problem is a complex one, involving the behaviour of the mothers-in-law, health workers, nurses in primary health centres, and the husbands as well. To achieve the final desired results, the behaviour of all these players must change simultaneously. Alternative systems have to be created to monitor and coordinate the behaviour of all concerned.

As Gladwell pointed out in his article, the Montgomery bus boycott, one of the most consequential events during the US civil rights movement, involved creating an alternative transportation plan, hundreds of volunteers working on-ground, and massive logistical support from the local churches lasting for more than a year. A few online campaigns and nudges cannot quite solve deep-rooted social problems involving a large number of people. Real social changes involve rigorous, systemic changes.

To solve the persistent problems in a society, people will have to step out of the comfort of their homes and hit the ground strong. When one steps into those real battlefields, one interacts face-to-face with various other people. Meeting like-minded people physically indelibly creates waves of empathy, leading to an increase in the confidence levels of individuals. A feeling of invincibility might permeate across all members of the group. As Gustave Le Bon wrote in his famous book The Crowd: A Study Of The Popular Mind, an individual tends to operate at a rational, conscious level when he is alone. But when he is with a crowd, his non-conscious personality takes over. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings.

The contagion effect generated by a passionate crowd is not the result of the arithmetic addition of each individual’s effort. The resultant collective effort is much larger than the sum of the individual efforts. Great revolutions, significant social changes, have happened as a result of such collective emotional outbursts. These emotional explosions happen only when the individuals involved are interacting face-to-face, in the physical world. Social media cannot create this level of emotional energy, more so in the face of opposing forces.

Every social change is faced with opposition. Those opposing the change bring in all kinds of impediments in the path to change. An individual might be deterred by these walls that protect the status quo. But when that individual is part of an emotionally charged crowd, any opposition in the crowd’s path only invigorates the crowd to redouble its efforts to overcome those barriers.

The very nature of social media makes sure that the emotional energy that is normally generated by the interaction between opposing views does not thrive in the online space. The algorithms of social media platforms are designed in such a way that one sees, listens and interacts mostly with the people that have similar views.

These echo chambers have been created by social media companies to increase the comfort levels of its users. Real change occurs from the sparks that fly when opposing views collide. Such collusions of opposing ideas do not happen often enough in social media.

The famous sociologist Mark Granovetter pointed out that, on social media, most interactions happen between weak ties: casual friends and acquaintances with whom one has very infrequent interaction. On the other hand, several studies have shown that high-risk activism involve strong ties: people you know and trust deeply. Interactions with people with whom one has strong ties are mostly face-to-face interactions. With its weak ties, social media might be a good medium to share ideas, but certainly not a medium to start or sustain an intense initiative for behaviour change.

Real revolutions are always led by a leader at the top of a well-defined hierarchy. On social media, everyone is an expert unto himself, a leader unto himself. A social-change movement cannot succeed when there is no individual leader showing the way, and no organizational structure that supports that leader.

If social media was entrusted with the responsibility to start the French revolution, we would still be debating the statements of Voltaire, in the comfort of one’s living room, in 140 characters. The walls of the Bastille fort would still hold.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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