It can grant visibility to their experiences, provide a venue for discussion and offer a platform for direct participation, even enabling people to speak directly to the powerful.
And because of its built-in multiplier effect, social media can vastly speed up the diffusion of information, ideas, practices, values and social norms that support positive changes.
It’s also worth emphasising that social media needn’t just reinforce echo chambers...it can also be used to cut across existing societal divisions and expose fabrications and hearsay.
Social media can also serve as a tool for organising and taking action. This is critical for achieving what many see as its most transformative potential: enabling people to coalesce around solutions to problems set out elsewhere in the media.
Yet despite the optimism about what social media can achieve, evidence appears limited and sometimes contradictory.
A recent World Bank report simply states that there isn’t much evidence of the impact of social media in developing countries.
Contributing his views during Policy Forum’s monthly debate, themed “Is social media an alternative forum under the context of shrinking space in Tanzania?”, held in Dar es Salaam yesterday, Policy Forum’s board chairman Japhet Makongo highlighted the need for creating an active social media that could change the narrative into content that metamorphoses into constructive space where leaders and citizens discuss issues that have positive impacts to their lives.
He further revealed that the changes happening in social media space was normal, in comparison towhat was happening in the previous political culture, that of the one party system.
“While we are talking about the challenges facing social media, let us look at their positive opportunities, upon which we need to capitalise more,” he appealed.
For his part, the breakfast debate discussant Dr Muhidin Shangwe, a political science lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, said that there was a need to ensure social media become relevant and discuss constructive issues that impact their day to day lives.
“Citizens have the right to constructively demand communicational space from the government of the day, which they think is lacking - without using violence,” he told the gathering.
Dr. Shangwe said the social media are a global phenomenon and a platform for knowledge, information and person to group communication. “The social media have come to shape our lives in very fascinating and remarkable ways,” he observed.
The social media in particular have come to represent the perfect example of the democratisation of information and technology, with a demonstrable capacity to migrate communication to interactive dialogue and social activation, he further stated.
This is greatly evident all around the world with regard to its use for campaigns and enlightenment, by political parties.
The most intensive scrutiny of the relationship between social media and politics is found in the analysis of the Arab uprisings.
Social media was instrumental to the uprisings because it provided a means to transform individualised, localised and community-specific dissent into collective consciousness and shared opportunity for action.
Socially, we are all witnesses to the volume of information shared on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Blackberry Messenger and Instagram, the principal programs across several social media networks through which Tanzanians like other people interact, obtain information to meet their social needs to shape their attitudes and enrich the quality of life.
On the economic front, social media has become a market place of ideas and creativity. Products and services are sold online, thus providing opportunities for start-ups to commence businesses on a wider level.
Social media play a huge role in the lives of many people. While not everyone is fond of the phenomena, society and various strata of society recognize the impact that social media have on people’s everyday lives.
More and more, people are using Facebook as a means to connect with old friends, stay up to date with people’s lives, find out about upcoming events, and even as a way to shop online.
The younger generations are exploring various social media platforms such as Instagram and twitter, facebook, blogs and whatsapp. Whatever the platform may be, it can be used as an effective way to update the public with positive and correct information as well as promote, attract and recognize businesses.
The main presenter at the breakfast debate, a consultant with Business Management Consulting Co. (BUMACO) Ltd, Dr. Aikande Kwayu, said that it was easy to get massive support/cheerleading within social media but beyond social media that support can be insignificant. Effectiveness of social media activities is debatable, as it depends on how you measure success.
She was of the view that in Tanzania, social media have enabled people, among other things, to express themselves, broadcast their views, get feedback, build their audience, and reach out to the community.
Dr Kwayu further noted that civic space is not given but created. Thus, “There’s a need to create more and expand spaces by linking digital and physical space because they are interdependent.”
She also recommended for the expansion of existing spaces, like faith-based spaces into digital spaces. “Social mobilization and collective efforts should not be replaced by digital space but supplemented.”
Literature shows that social media enhance political accountability, empower agency and resistance, constitute a critical juncture in political participation. The “voiceless” can speak up, as such media provide global currency by global outreach. They provide a facility for larger community interactions and participation, posses an organizing potential, network citizen-centered perspectives, and enable citizens to be drivers of democratic innovation, with ability to shape social relations of power.
They make participants active consumers, those who can challenge back as opposed to passive recipient of propaganda, and provide a disruptive capacity in relation to the work of traditional political practices
She also mentioned the limitations of social media among others, underlining that many lead to focus on individual agency, while unmediated interactivity of individuals may challenge collective efforts, apart from suffocation of information.
Almost a quarter of the world’s population is now on Facebook. In the USA nearly 80 per cent of all internet users are on this platform. Because social networks feed off interactions among people, they become more powerful as they grow.
Thanks to the internet, each person with marginal views can see that he’s not alone. And when these people find one another via social media, they can do things like creating memes to organize action, issue publications and create entire online worlds that bolster their worldview, and then break into the mainstream.
“Without social media, social, ethical, environmental and political ills would have minimal visibility. Increased visibility of issues has shifted the balance of power from the hands of a few to the masses,” the discussant underlined.