It is estimated that over 425 million people use social media networks, including Facebook and Twitter. The use of social media has been described by many activists as the ‘final medium for free speech’. Catherine Jackson, Reporters without Borders, called on media groups to embrace social media networks as they search for new mediums of communications.
With media freedom reducing all over the world, the question that exists is how far do media institutes use this new form of communication?
Catherine Jackson, speaking to The Sunday Leader, explained that with the growing censorship over media the world over, a new uncontrolled medium must be found. She stated that governments do not have control over social media networks, which allows the opportunity for uncensored news to continue to filter its way to the people. ‘With over 400 million people using social network sites, the reach for media institutes will be unmatched,’ she added.
However, last week Twitter announced that they would be selectively blocking content on a country by country basis. According to their official blog, a country’s government may make a request that tweets (messages by Twitter users) referring to a certain topic be banned in their respective countries. For example, in Germany Twitter may block tweets with any pro-Nazi sentiment. This is because it is illegal to promote the Nazi party or its ideology in Germany. Despite the tweet being blocked in Germany it will still be visible to users elsewhere in the world.
This announcement was met with a mixed reaction by global media advocates, with many claiming that the organisation is simply encroaching on people’s media freedom. Others have argued that this move serves simply to strengthen the message which is being blocked. Twitter defended the decision claiming that it was carried out in the interest of protecting freedom of speech, but also to adhere to the laws of countries.
Regardless of the reasons behind the new action taken by Twitter, it is clear that governments’ influence on social media is creeping in.
In Sri Lanka the media freedom was dealt a blow last December with the announcement that all media websites must be registered with the Ministry of Mass Media. This saw several news websites blocked including, and Despite these websites being unblocked two weeks later, there are still conditions existing around their operation.
With media control increasing in Sri Lanka, people are now looking to alternate forms of communication. The use of the internet offers this alternative in the form of social media. However, Sri Lanka has not grabbed on to the power of these online media networks.
Major newspapers use these networks as an extension of their websites, the information received on networks such as Twitter and Facebook is nothing new. Twitter accounts for these newspapers are used to highlight articles that are made available on the website.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, member of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, explained that Sri Lanka is still ‘largely unaware of the potential of social media online to galvanise support’. He added that activism in the country is still limited to physical aspects such as staging protests, however online activism is still to gather momentum. He called on groups to learn how to effectively use such platforms which are resilient to network blocks. ‘Media organisations can more effectively reach a growing number of users within Sri Lanka on these platforms, can virally spread their advocacy, and reach those outside the country,’ Hattotuwa added. Drawing attention to the Arab Spring, Hattotuwa expressed his belief that social media is fundamental to free speech today.
In Egypt, the uprisings and subsequent occupation of Tahrir Square by over a 100,000 people was made possible due to the use of social media.
The organisation by opposition groups, dissemination of their messages and the continuous news streaming from different areas in the country was done through social networks such as Twitter.
In Syria, the crackdown on protestors has been coupled with a ban on foreign journalists entering the country. The only news organisations that continue to broadcast are those that are run by the oppressive regime. However, the world has been made aware of what is going on within the borders of the country due to use of the internet and social media.
Protestors have taken to tweeting regular updates of the situation, while YouTube is continuously being updated with amateur videos of Syrian troops attacking protestors.
Of course this has led to many of the purists claiming that such media reports are unverified and cannot be considered accurate. John Nicholas, lecturer on media and journalism at the University of Newcastle in Australia, wrote in an open letter to the world media that social networks are ‘an unverified entity which will only serve to spread false rumours. As journalists we are trained to find the facts and report them truthfully, social media is a tool that holds potential but can go no further than serving as a link between the media and the people’.
Ironically, it is the governments of the world which have seen the potential of social networks faster than media institutes. In Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has employed members of their police force to actively monitor social media networks. The job goes further than just reporting on what is being said, but they are also expected to help promote pro-government propaganda.
Similarly in China, Twitter has been blocked by the authorities and replaced with a state operated social network known as ‘RenRen’. This platform was introduced by the Chinese government in an attempt to quell free media while still allowing their citizens an opportunity to enjoy the ‘social aspect of social media’.
In the world of growing internet, it will seem that for free media to continue its growth the embrace of social media seems to be necessary.
By Dinouk Colombage