Social media – For better or for worse

2018 has started and usually at this time of the year one finds several organizations and institutions giving out awards for the year that has passed.

If an award were to be given for having the greatest single impact on humanity over the last year and indeed over the last century or more, then such an award would undoubtedly go to social media.

We now live in an era in which social media, in all its forms and platforms, significantly affects and contributes to our way of doing things. It impacts on all persons in all parts of the world. Rich, poor, middle-class, leaders, followers, all types, races, religions, nationalities, male, female, physically challenged, absolutely no one is untouched by the tentacles of the technological phenomena we know as ‘social media’.

From the birth of the computer to the Internet, social media has overshadowed all the information technologies that came about over the years. Its profound impact on humankind is now being studied as a science. Research is being carried out as to how human beings are so greatly affected by this form of instant communication.

From its simplest forms to its most elaborate methods social media comes in various applications. All evolving and battling each other for supremacy. From Facebook to WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and the list goes on and on. Without a doubt all these applications have changed and impacted human behaviour, attitudes, culture, norms and psyche unlike any other phenomena in modern human history or even the entire humankind’s history. For better or worse.

Social media has certainly revolutionized the way we view ourselves, the way we see others and the way we interact with the world around us.

From the very positive impact to the very negative impact, all has been researched and written on what social media can and has done to us as human beings. For sure many have been promoted to the highest levels of power and prestige via social media and many have been debased to lowest levels by the same medium.

We have seen the countless memes making funny the many good and bad traits, so I know that all of us understand too well the many benefits and equally the many dangers of social media.

But we can’t ignore its profound impact and the extremely important role it plays in shaping our society and our people today. We must accept the fact that it is very much part and parcel of our lives and especially our younger generations. They are so deep into it that it is perhaps the only medium through which we can communicate with them.

I heard a caller on a recent call-in programme highlighting the point that the next election in Barbados, due this year ,will be determined by what is presented via social media. That is a very interesting observation.

Donald Trump, the president of the United States, can be called the ‘Twitter president’. His tweets are what we usually always hear about on the news. But this is deeper than just tweets via Twitter. He himself admits: “I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you.”

Trump is a prolific Twitter user with tens of millions of followers. He estimates that he has a combined 125 million followers across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

As one article pointed out: “Remember years ago what would need to take place if the president wanted to make an announcement to the world? They would broadcast it over the radio or interrupt TV and broadcast into every household that had their television turned on.

“Well, social media has a much more powerful reach than any other media channel. The entire world is glued to their phones around the clock. If we are awake and breathing, then there is a smart phone in hand or within reach at all times. Someone like Trump can grab his phone, take ten seconds to compose a tweet and instantly have millions of people see it and share it. His message is amplified so much because of the power of social media.”

Analysts have noted that Donald Trump and his associates studied every aspect of social media and knew what was needed via that medium to win the elections. He got his message out to millions and gained the presidency. As the same article noted: “He was a businessman, but also a performer. He knew that social media was the one place he could get instant reactions. Even now, he uses it to get his name out there. Trump can tweet, and within minutes every major media outlet is talking about him.”

But are large followings enough?

The argument is no. It is ensuring those followers are engaged. The article goes on: “Trump had several million more followers than Hillary [Clinton], and that proved to be a huge advantage, but that shouldn’t shock you. Take two local flower shops for instance. If one has 50,000 social media followers and the other has 500, who is going to generate more revenue? Neither, if they aren’t going to put the effort in, but if the shop with 50,000 followers learns how to properly leverage social media to attract attention and get their followers to share and engage with their content, then it’s going to help put their business in front of a much larger audience.

“Trump’s massive following was key, but if he didn’t know how to get them to engage it wouldn’t have been as effective. So, while a large following essentially can’t be beat, you must know how to take full advantage of that audience to see results. Also, large followings must participate. This is why buying fake followers does nothing. If anything, it turns people off. Imagine if Trump had millions of followers but his posts only received a few engagements? Don’t buy a fake social presence. Put the work in to build it up organically and then take advantage of it.

I understand that politics in Barbados may operate very differently than in the United States of America but given the already known impact of social media on the way Barbadians respond today I do not think that it is very farfetched to expect that it will be a major factor in the upcoming elections.

Already political parties are engaging social media in their campaigns. Most candidates, if not all, have a Facebook presence and are on social media in one way or another. The potential for success or failure via this medium is also greatly enhanced as proven by the examples of some existing politicians. Their misgivings via social media is made into an important ingredient for laughter among the comedians and comical shows in our country.

The number of viewers via social media to political meetings that are streamed live will probably be the best gauge of success rather than the numbers that actually turn up in person.  And the debate of placing political posters on poles will probably be replaced by what goes out via social media.

Barbadians like other people in all parts of the world are engaged via social media. It is impacting our society like it is across the globe. In politics, social life, economic transactions and even in religion no entity or person escapes its effects, for better or for worse.

We all can use it to better ourselves or to hurt ourselves. We are the craftsmen of that fate via social media.  A blessed 2018 to all!

Source: (Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: suleimanbulbulia@hotmail.com)

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