Can Social Media Change the World?

Note: I was selected to be a 2015 Social Good Summit Blogger Fellow for the United Nations Association; I attended the summit during U.N. Week in New York City and wrote on the issues presented. This blog post was originally published on GenUN.

Social media has quickly become a normal part of life for activists and others working for the social good. Still, not everyone is convinced that is a positive phenomenon. Some say social media allows people to feel satisfied with their tweets, posts, and likes while letting them off the hook for not participating in real action. But if you attended Mashable’s 2015 Social Good Summit, you may come away more of a believer in the power of new media and technology to make positive global change.

The purpose of social media is to connect individuals wherever they may be located. This doesn’t just mean looking up your elementary school bully or researching the guy who asked you out on a date. We’ve seen during international crises and natural disasters how social media allowed people to connect for grassroots organizing and safety purposes. During the Arab Spring, global audiences had a direct line to what was really happening on the ground versus what the mainstream media chose to report. Egyptians essentially became citizen journalists and attracted even more international attention than traditional reporting would have. Videos from Egyptians dominated the content shown on traditional media outlets.

The same is happening right now with the refugee crisis in Syria. The tragic photo of a drowned Syrian boy whose body washed onto a Turkish beach highlighted the humanity of the refugees and sparked outrage and concern. Photos and videos of refugees fleeing, being kicked by a Hungarian reporter, and being welcomed by a German crowd have become viral as they are shared among friends online. Whether concern translates into action by world leaders is a different story, but no one can deny the importance of an informed citizenry demanding that its government take action.

The direct communication that social media provides has proven to be vital during natural disasters, as well. As Dr. Pranav Shetty of the International Medical Corps (IMC) said during the summit, “speed saves lives.” Naomi Gleit, Vice President of Product Management for Social Good at Facebook, spoke about the Facebook safety check and donate button as examples of how social media can prompt a wide audience to become involved in social causes. After this year’s earthquake in Nepal, for example, cell phone and landline phones weren’t working so many people used the Facebook safety check to let family and friends know they were okay. Through Facebook donations, $15.5 million was raised for the IMC to provide services on the ground and people who wanted to volunteer to help were connected and therefore able to do so.

At a time when every social movement needs a hashtag (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter), it’s impossible to deny the utility of social media to connect us with strangers who, in the past, would have probably remained strangers. Social media is just that; a tool that we can use in the fight for social change. We will always need activists, experts, entrepreneurs, and leaders as the driving force. The difference is that now they can increase their reach exponentially by using social media to organize, connect, and empower to achieve social progress.


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