It's strangely been a trend in the last couple of weeks that I've been getting into a lot of conversations about social media and why it's not as important/useful/relevant when a very large portion of our population don't have access to technology. What would a rural farmer care about Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all those social media platforms, particularly if you live in an area of rolling blackouts and limited services? So I'll take it as sign and write down my take on it.
The Philippines as a developing country has an imbalance in a lot of ways. We're known around the world as a social media capital, often driving our hashtag and trends into the world's online stage, when only a certain portion of our population is actually online. Social media is generally focused on those with capacity to own or access technology. And I do feel that how well you manipulate social media beyond updating your status message and saying hello to your friends is also dependent on how much capacity and access you have to information on manipulating social news and networks. So yes, there is a divide and it's obvious that social media is not the answer to solving deep-seated issues in our country.
But here's what I think about social media. Social media is not necessarily a solution but a method to get to one to solve the many ills of the country. True, those who do use social media tend to get passionate about it, particularly if you're like me, a nerd who thinks there's a lot of potential in social media and it is an emerging trend influencing a number of things, from awareness to politics to social consciousness. But by all mean, it is not the end all and be all.
In my opinion, social media is never meant to exist without a counterpart action happening outside the virtual world. The Arab Spring may have started out in social media for awareness and organization but would never have grown to the extent that it did if it hadn't mobilized or galvanized people into taking action. Same thing with our Million People March; information moving around online was there but there were other things aside from that which sparked the need to go to Luneta and stand with the hundreds of thousands of people.
For social media to be effective, it's got to be thought of as complementary or precursory to another action. It can't exist in a vacuum. For me, thinking of social media as the sole action is like missing the point entirely -- if you want to raise people out of poverty and decide to just do a social media campaign without involving the group you're trying to help because they don't have the access to technology, what's the point? You're not quite telling their story then, are you?
What we've got to understand about social media is who has access to it, the numbers and groups it can reach and how information can transmitted from person to person. To use social media, you obviously need technology and the access to it and the world's not yet at the point that everyone from all sorts of backgrounds can access this. It's still really only at the upper echelons of society, those with the wealth, education, knowledge, etc. And to be frank, it does suck that it's still at that level, which is why we've got to bring it down so everyone has access and not just the ones with the wealth to possess it.
But while the world has not yet graduated to that awesome inclusive right-to-technology phase, we should understand the power of what social media can do. For me, what social media can do is create an environment of awareness, a space for regular people to share their thoughts and concerns on issues that are generally thought to be for experts, in a forum that's less formal and more open to opinions and ideas. It is not a monopoly to care limited to people who work in NGOs or in government or are bleeding hearts and treehuggers. Optimistically, I think, people are built to care about what happens to them or other people. But sometimes when an issue comes about that is as complex as Mindanao's peace agreement or as complicated as the graft and corruption that seems to have built itself into our political system, people are reluctant to speak their minds because of the fear that they could be wrong.
But when you post your opinions on Facebook to your network, you end up connecting to people who care, who might just be as uninformed as you are, or who disagree with you, and they start sharing your views or their own, creating a space where it's okay to talk about issues amongst your peers. Maybe you will be judged, but it's either you can be agreed with, corrected or debated with, but (unless you are universally racist or a terrible person), your thoughts being expressed online are totally fine and will be respected. It's not an academic journal after all, it's Facebook! What will not happen is that your status message becomes static (unless of course you have no friends and your privacy settings are super locked down). Someone will either read your note, like it, share it, comment on it or mull over it and you will have been part of that chain of awareness spreading Facebook friend by Facebook friend.
And the beauty of social media is because you are appealing to the regular everyday people of the world, you're breaking down information to it's simplest form. At the height of the Pork Barrel scandal, I was riding in a taxi and the cabdriver was so enraged by the whole issue, he kept talking about it the entire way and what struck me the most out of all his statements (really good well-informed ones - taxi drivers know so much about issues because of the nonstop radio!) was with the stolen PHP 10 billion pesos, at least a million pesos could have been given to every single Filipino with change to spare. Poverty issues averted! (well, not really, but you get the point) That was the essence of people's outrage laid bare in facts and figures of the simplest ways and that's how people from all walks of life and backgrounds were pissed off enough to get up on a holiday and go to Luneta. Issues on social media get passed down, broken down, processed but the information that is shared the most are the ones explained in the simplest ways.
And when information is processed so simply that more and more people agree to a fundamental idea (challenging in a country with freedom of speech and expression x approximately 94 million people!), it creates a critical mass, a pressure cooker of emotions and feelings representative of a pretty substantial part of the country. This reaches the people who are in power, legislators and lawmakers who are in key roles that can change a country. Corona's trial and the rancor incurred online throughout the trial did have a part in leading to his impeachment. People were not 100% sure of what the verdict would be that we kept tallies in our office whiteboards as the trial rolled on. We couldn't be sure which politicians would change their minds and suddenly get on the boat that most Filipinos were on but somehow they did! The use of social media, of exposing ourselves to a multitude of opinions that we would then have to filter out into our own analysis, also has the added advantage of improving the general intelligence of the social media populace. I personally, am forced to read more about the news because I catch it so often on my Twitter feed.
Social media may be limited to people of a certain background but when we don't know what we can do or of our skill in being part of the solution, then our role is to turn the attention to those who are at a disadvantage, to share their story and figure out how to get us to care again.
That combination of information + awareness + critical mass + pressure on power, that is one way to spur counterpart action and actions are what leads to solutions. Social media is never meant to stand alone.
So yes, I totally disagree that social media is the solution to something like lifting poor people out of their poverty -- but I think that it is one invaluable part of that journey. Issues affecting our progress are often so complicated that sometimes fighting to bring that awareness of the issue back to the table is the first step to getting there.
So no social media does not equal the end all, be all. But it sure is one interesting and great and established step to getting us to move again.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.