There is nothing “social” about the “social media.” Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are just like Disney, Time Warner and News Corporation. YouTube LLC was set up in 2005 in California and was bought by Google Inc for $1.65 billion in 2006. Google Inc, in turn, is an American corporation with 24,400 employees worldwide. Its profit in 2010 was $8.5 billion. It has assets worth $57.8 billion. Similarly, Facebook is owned by Facebook Inc which, in turn, is partly owned by Goldman Sachs. It has 2,000 employees. In 2010, it had an estimated revenue of $2 billion. Launched in 2006, Twitter has 450 employees and had a projected revenue of $140 million in 2010. It’s about time Twitter is gobbled up by a media giant.
No doubt we are apparently free to post whatever we like on Facebook. We can Tweet at will. We can upload video of our choice on YouTube. Media scholars in the service of big capital, therefore, continue highlighting the social media’s liberating potential. The Arab Spring is cited as proof. There is an element of truth here. But only an element.
In the first place, various states can block, and often resort to censoring, various social networks. For instance, YouTube has been blocked in China, Morocco, Thailand, and Turkey. In Pakistan, we have seen a ban on Twitter and harsh legislation to control cyberspace. Secondly, social networks resort to censorship when their business is at stake. For instance, Google notoriously struck a deal with Chinese regime and agreed to censorship. China is too lucrative a market to be lost.
As far as Facebook’s explanation of the Arab Spring is concerned, it raises more questions than it answers them. Yes, it was a YouTube call by a young woman, Asma Mahfouz, that paved the way for the Al-Tahrir sit-in. Earlier, blogs and Facebook played a key role in the Tunisian revolution. But Facebook messiahs have not been able to bring down the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, of all the Arab countries, is wired like any Western country. Yet the liberating social media did not ruffle any section of the population in the puritan kingdom. The social media did not bring the Green Movement in Iran the desired results either. Fact of the matter is, the power attributed to the media is an overblown myth. Social or mainstream, media merely reflect the balance of power in a given society.
The YouTube call in Egypt would not have been paid any heed in the absence of the Tunisian revolution. As a matter of fact, the Internet was banned on January 25 last year. The entire country was effectively unplugged. The Tunisian revolution, in turn, would not have been possible in the absence of the UGTT (General Union of Tunisian Workers) and a vibrant civil society. In Libya and Saudi Arabia, a civil society is simply missing. In Iran, the regime was able to survive because, on the one hand, it enjoyed a larger social base unlike in the case of Ben Ali, Qaddafi and Mubarak and, on the other, the reformist leadership did not want to bring down the system, hence betrayed at a crucial moment.
Lastly, I argue that the social media is not an alternative to the mainstream media. In the first place, social networks are owned by big capital. Secondly, it is the mainstream that dominates the social media. For instance, amateur content forms the majority of what is on offer at YouTube. However, 15 of its top 20 search terms are for US TV programmes and there has been a 600 percent increase since 2007 in people watching news videos from AP, Reuters and similar corporate services.
The writer is a freelance contributor.