25/06/2013 10:35 BST | Updated 21/08/2013 06:12 BST

Social Media and the New World Order


The wave of protest we've seen in Brazil over the last week is just the latest example of how the world has changed drastically in the last decade. People, and particularly younger people, are increasingly choosing to miss out the political class and the mainstream media altogether, connecting with each other directly to form political movements and make their voices heard.

It's been over 10 years now since social media emerged and its influence on the world has never been more evident than it has been this year. As has been well documented, Facebook may have started as a kind of university prank, but its impact has grown at break-neck speed, spawning a whole generation of similar networks which now have the power to prompt political change, and spark widespread protest.

However, at the same time it can be entirely superficial and banal. To my mind, the vast majority of Twitter posts are completely vacuous and constitute nothing more than empty opinion, spewed into the plethora of space made available via the internet - serving no purpose other than to make the kind of impulsive ideas which only used to get heard in the pub, seem somehow more important and more official having been shared online.

There are also plenty of downsides to the way in which people can break news and deliver misinformation via the social media space. Often instant impressions blend with spontaneous, knee-jerk opinions to create the wrong impression about an unfolding situation - and that can be entirely damaging to our perception about what's happening, causing panic, outrage and fear.

The way news of the horrendous murder of Drummer Lee Rigby was broken by several 'citizen journalists' was a good example of this. I watched the story flow onto the internet as a flood of reports emerged, causing panic and misunderstanding about what was actually happening and why it had happened. It was opinion presented as fact, chucked out as fast as possible and without any consideration, and I can see no benefit of this when the circumstances are so grave.

And yet, when these opinions have found some coherence and meaning, and discovered a common purpose, they can combine to prompt a powerful wave of sentiment which, as has been the case on several occasions in the last few years, can manifest itself on the streets in mass protest, riots and even revolution.

By communicating via social media what previously may have been isolated, localised incidents of protest have transformed into mass participation movements. From the 'Arab Spring' to the 'London Riots' and now Brazil, what we've seen is the potential for those with no obvious political representation to connect with each other and create enough collective impetuous that their virtual grievances have turned into physical action.

What's struck me is that this isn't a phenomenon which is limited to one society or another. The influence of the new media landscape has made an impression everywhere, from the so called 'developed' world to the 'developing, in Islamic countries and Christian, in the East and the West. We've seen examples of these new uprisings everywhere and the political classes need to sit up and take notice or find themselves getting brushed aside or even completely cut out of the political process altogether in the years ahead.

This might sound like a good thing (and certainly my inner 21-year-old university student loves the idea of a political process that cuts out 'the man' altogether) but I'm not entirely sure it will be.

There's no doubt in my mind that the current crop of political parties have never been more disconnected from the public. However, these social media facilitated 'movements' are not always based on more than one or two issues, and have always lacked coherence and balance - in some cases they have simply turned into an excuse for widespread anarchy, as was the case in London.

This is not a good thing for society. Just because we may be apathetic about the effectiveness of our politicians that doesn't mean we should be sleepwalking into a situation where impulsive, spontaneous movements dictate the terms of society. It may not seem like it, but things are changing fairly rapidly and it might not be good enough for us middle-aged folks to keep shrugging our shoulders apathetically.

Under more pressure than ever, struggling for jobs and faced with an uncertain future, the voice of the discontented youth is getting louder. Through social media it has shown the ability and capacity to prompt widespread action and political change from below. Governments need to recognise what the people are saying and find a way to bring everyone into the democratic debate quickly, or risk being blown away in a tide of smartphone inspired protest.

The growth of social media has connected people in a more wide-reaching way than was ever previously possible. Yet at the same time, in so many ways, we've never been more disconnected.