Twenty years ago, the telephone was the primary means of communication, and people typically got their news from a newspaper or TV. Libraries were our greatest sources of information, and the Internet was still a very novel concept.
Two decades later, the Internet and social media have completely altered the world. We now communicate via Facebook and Twitter, most of us read the news online, and the evening news is becoming a thing of the past.
Today, information isn't only readily accessible, it's constantly thrown at us. With a smartphone, we literally have the power to access the compilation of human knowledge within the palms of our hands. It's an unprecedented time in our history.
The rise of social media has created a world in which regular people on the street can create headlines with 140 characters or less. It's an immeasurable power.
That does not mean that it's not subject to abuse, and there are certainly pros and cons to this. Still, social media outlets have the potential to liberate and empower people beyond any other medium of communication that has come before it.
Indeed, social media sites have already changed the course of history.
While the Arab Spring has largely failed in its attempts to spread democracy, it's worth noting the way in which social media fueled the movement in its early days and helped people organize.
Thus, while some people might be using social media to share GIFs of cats, others are using it to spark revolutions.
Presidential campaigns in the United States are now won via social media. This was true for President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. If politicians want to win over voters, they have to utilize social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram effectively.
Hence, social media platforms are not only ways to measure public opinion, they're also a way to mold it. To elaborate on this topic, here are some more recent examples of major events impacted heavily by social media:
Israel-Gaza Conflict 2014
Propaganda and war have gone together like peanut butter and jelly for centuries. One side will always try to destroy the public image of the other, it's how you get both your own people and allies on your side.
During the bloody conflict between Israel and Palestine this past summer, Gaza definitely won on the social media front.
For example, close to the end of July, the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack had been used in over 4 million Twitter posts, while the hashtag #IsraelUnderFire was only used in 200,000 posts.
As a consequence, Israel's global public image suffered a great deal.
Following the shooting of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, social media exploded with the hashtag #Ferguson. Other social media movements related to the subsequent protests on the streets of Ferguson also surfaced, such as #HandsUpDontShoot.
Additionally, social media platforms became rallying points against what people perceived as a militarized response to the protests from the police. In turn, this sparked a national discussion on the subject of the militarization of the police and surplus military equipment.
Details surrounding Brown's death and the protests surfaced at an exponential rate, as the situation continued to escalate over the summer. Journalists and citizens alike live-tweeted the events as they happened, and people around America and the world expressed solidarity with the community in Ferguson.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), has used social media more effectively and sophisticatedly than any terrorist organization to come before it. At this very moment, these extremists are using social media as a means of recruitment and propaganda.
ISIS has used Twitter to broadcast brutal images and threats, including photos of dead American soldiers. The terrorist organization has been quite savvy with the hashtags it selects, hijacking trending hashtags to maximize the exposure of its posts.
Consequently, America is now fighting a war against ISIS on two fronts, with both airstrikes and on social media. In fact, the State Department recently created a Twitter account to combat ISIS' social media presence.
The account is run by the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) and is called “Think Again Turn Away."
Hong Kong Protests
Social media platforms have been the catalyst behind the recent protests in Hong Kong. The hashtags #OccupyCentral and #UmbrellaRevolution have been at the heart of these protests from the very beginning.
The Hong Kong protestors have successfully used Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and FireChat to organize, warn about police crackdowns and spread their message to the world.
Social media sites have changed the way people challenge governments, they've changed the way we fight and they've revolutionized our means of communication.
Photo Courtesy: Hope Elizabeth