02/27/2015

Will the next People Power happen online?

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There’s a coup d’etat in the works, if the Internet is to be believed. And not of the traditional, military-initiated kind, either. Civil society will be the leading the charge — or to be more sector-specific, our online, social media community, will.

This in the wake of last month’s tragedy over the death of our 44 SAF commandos, and our government’s maddening response of simply passing the buck. Already the maelstrom of shares, tweets, updates, reblogs and likes have inundated the web, drowning out local media’s repetitive coverage and blue-penciled reporting.

It’s the perfect chance for anyone with a bone to pick with P-Noy to push for his ouster, since this mishap implicates him directly, after all. But let’s say Filipinos are actually angry enough to martial all the powers of the web. Can the next People Power happen online?

The short answer: Of course not. People Power, like every other political uprising, thrives on the raw, physical presence of sweaty, purposeful individuals. The strength of an idea is given shape by the ranks of people caught up in its collective fever, and an online presence sorely lacks that kind of punch. You can shame certain individuals into acquiescence (and a number of homegrown celebrities come to mind), but I doubt a well-rendered meme of Ex-PNP Chief Purisima on a leash is going to cow the administration into backing out. P-Noy won’t gracefully vacate his seat just because we hashtag his name to kingdom come.

So really, the revolution won’t be tweeted into existence any time soon. But setting the spark via social media? Done, done, and done.

Think of the Arab Spring in 2011, when a series of uprisings across the Middle East forced various authoritarian rulers from power, watching them fall one after the other like a stack of dominos.

Think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which, although short-lived, was able to galvanize national attention enough to seep into America’s lexicon, nowadays referred to simply as “Occupy.”

Think of the recent Hong Kong election protests, stemming from Beijing’s rejection of the call for free and open elections, which all but put the fate of Hong Kong’s future in the hands of Mainland China.

Closer to home, think of last year’s so-called Million People March against our legislators’ pork barrel funds.

What all these demonstrations have in common is a cellphone, a Wi-Fi connection, and a Twitter account.

To understand the impact of social media on mass protests, just imagine what it’s like to actually plan one, and more importantly, to sustain it. Social media is the trigger, the conduit for scheduling the where, timing the when, organizing the who, and disseminating the what. Gone are the days of passing out flyers and posting notices, standing in the middle of busy streets with megaphones in hand, begging people to take notice. We live in the age of the live-tweet, of real-time status updates and five-second video captures. Believe me when I say that many netizens would rather not look, but with enough shares, likes, and hashtag hits, are forced to take notice anyway. Social media has heightened our sense of community, so much so that physical presence becomes incidental to the one-ness already fomented online. And news travels fast. Crazy fast.

Social media’s flexibility as a tool of protest is further emphasized when we compare it to traditional media. The crisis of confidence in major dailies and TV networks holds true for both democracies and authoritarian societies alike, albeit with different “bad guys” — the former has to contend with private business interests; the latter, with state censorship. On the Internet, anyone can broadcast. Nobody needs to ask permission, not even in notoriously Facebook-allergic countries like China.

And that’s why social media has, and will continue to play, a key role in shaping our current history. A small group of passionate, like-minded people can influence others who are more reticent, or who simply aren’t informed enough about an issue to take a tentative first step.

Of course, social media won’t stop militant groups from shooting first and asking questions later, won’t stop our military from red-tagging, won’t stop our government from constantly breaking our hearts (and our bank accounts). We also have to recognize that social media’s omniscience gives the dangerous illusion that life can simply go on when the chips are down — and that it will go on comfortably. But if and when a violent crackdown occurs, the world will be watching, and so, to this end, must we.

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