”Two days after the terrible earthquake in Haiti in January, I met one of the brightest men currenty working in the US government: Alec Ross, the senior advisor for technology for Hillary Clinton at the US State Department.
With a grave facial expression, Mr. Ross told me about the huge amount of work the State Department expected to do to help the millions suffering the devastation in Haiti. But then he said something hopeful:
”For me, this earthquake will also be remembered as the moment when I realized the potential for social media and new technology to change the world for the better.”
Mr. Ross told me an astonishing fact: in the 48 hours after the earthquake, more than $2 million was raised to the Red Cross thanks to donation efforts on Facebook and Twitter. A week later, president Obama said $20 million had been raised thanks to social media.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, one in seven Americans said they received information on how to donate money to Haiti through Facebook, Twitter and other social media (among Americans under 30, the number was even higher: 24%).
On the ground in Haiti, staffers from organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health reported that Twitter had become an essential tool in getting information on rescue operations. Before any foreign journalists had arrived in Haiti, the Twitter feeds from people on the ground was the fastest way to find out about the horrible effects of the earthquake.
Internationally, there’s been many recent examples of the power of social media. We’ve seen Twitter play an important role in shaping popular protest movements in Iran and Moldova. For activists and dissidents in China, Burma, Egypt and Belarus, blogs and social media have become indispensable tools – the 21st century equivalent of the power of Xerox and fax machines to spread information behind the Iron Wall in the 1980’s.
Personally, I realized the enormous political potential of internet based movements when I spent two years travelling around the US to report on Barack Obama’s campaign for president. I met hundreds of volunteers who had never worked for a political campaign before, but was now organizing meetings, canvassing and rallies online. Obama raised more than $500 million online, mobilized 2 million volunteers and registered 13 million supporters on his e-mail list.
Often when I go to Europe, people ask me if something like the movement the Obama campaign created online could ever be done there. Skeptics say ”no” without much hesitation. They point out that Europe does not have America’s spirit of volunteerism and civic engagement. As far back as the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the American people’s willingness to organize voluntarily was unique in the world.
But in fact, the America that Tocqueville observed almost 200 years ago has been gone for a long time. For many decades, American volunteerism was in heavy decline. In the landmark book ”Bowling alone”, political scientist Robert Putnam portrayed a country where the citizens had grown isolated and apathetic.
What the Obama campaign was able to do, with a little help from the internet, was to revive the spirit of volunteerism in America. In the election of 2008, voter turnout was the highest since 1964. More Americans than ever – particularly young Americans – now volunteer for orgazinations like Teach for America, Americorps and Doctors Without Borders.
In severe recessions, people usually become more selfish. But this time, in large part thanks to social media and new internet tools, millions of Americans instead decided to help each other, through volunteering.
The power of social media and new internet tools are hardly limited to party or ideology.
When the Republican Scott Brown surprisingly won a Senate election in Massachusetts in January, social media was crucial. For example, his campaign developed an iPhone application called Walking Edge, which combined GPS navigation and Google Maps to make it possible for volunteers to walk down the street and see which doors they should knock to find potential Republican voters. Connecting like minded people has never been easier.
Here in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg certainly knows the power of social media. He spent $12 million on digital media ads, when running for his third term as mayor, the most that’s ever been spent on a mayoral campaign.
Obviously, there’s also a dark side to social media. Dictators can use it to track dissidents and free speech activists. Extremists and conspiracy theorists, often expelled from the popular debate, have a tendency to embrace the latest technological tools. If used unwisely, social media can simply be a waste of time.
But as shown in the past couple of years, Twitter and Facebook, blogs and clever smartphone applications can also be used to inspire young people to engage politically, to mobilize big social movements and, literally, to save lives in emergencies.
In the decade that has just begun, the internet will play a more important role than ever in shaping our lives and our democracy. Let’s make sure that role becomes as positive as possible.”
Published in the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce monthly magazine.