One of the key forces challenging political orthodoxy and debate in Asia in the coming years is likely to be social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and their regional counterparts, according to the latest issue of Global Asia, a Seoul-based quarterly journal.
“What we uncovered in our assessment of social media in this region, ‘Digital Dynamite: The Power of Social Media to Transform Asia for Better and Worse,’ is that the rapidly accelerating rate of smartphone usage and Internet penetration in Asia is creating a veritable petri dish in which social media networks have the potential to radically alter both the forms and outcomes of political discourse and how governments respond,” said Moon Chung-in, editor-in-chief of Global Asia, which is published by the East Asia Foundation.
“To be sure, the impact of social media is also evident elsewhere in the world ― witness its role in the Arab Spring ― but what is significant in Asia is that governments here have largely been shielded from the harshest forms of grassroots criticism, because their economic policies have lifted so many in this region out of poverty and into the middle class,” Moon added.
“It remains to be seen whether that will be enough in the future to inoculate them from the power of social media to influence public policy debates about a range of other issues.”
Governments in countries such as China, which have a significant stake in being able to control public discourse, have devoted considerable resources to targeting social media outlets.
So far, China has managed to contain, although not control, the development of social media in the country, according to the journal. As noted by Chinese academic and Internet expert Hu Yong in one of the journal’s articles, the Chinese government’s preoccupation with controlling public discourse goes back hundreds of years to some of China’s earliest dynasties, so the current battle over control of the Internet should come as no surprise to students of Chinese history.
The findings by Global Asia point to the wide-ranging impacts that social media are having throughout the region ― from South Korea, where they have had a clear influence on election outcomes in recent years, to Vietnam, where social media networks have provided an outlet for public discontent over the country’s faltering economy.
Even in Thailand, which has a long history of a free media but which experienced a military coup on May 22, ousting the elected government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, social media quickly became a focus of the country’s military rulers.
They sought to block Facebook in their first week in power, but a public outcry forced them to back down.
“Gone are the days when primitive controls on the flow of information were sufficient to block out dissent,” said Moon. “Whether constructive or destructive, dissent now has a clear channel of expression through social media. But again, so too do the supporters of existing centers of power. In short, the debate has become much, much larger, which in the end is a good thing.”