Social Media’s Globe-Shaking Power

…Over much of the last decade, we have seen progressive social movementspowered by the web spring up across the world. There was the Green Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa. In the United States, we saw the Occupy Wall Street movement andthe #BlackLivesMatter protests.

Social networks also played a role in electoral politics — first in the ultimately unsuccessful candidacy of Howard Dean in 2003, and then in the election of the first African-American president in 2008.

Yet now those movements look like the prelude to a wider, tech-powered crack up in the global order. In Britain this year, organizing on Facebook played a major role in the once-unthinkable push to get the country to leave the European Union. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, a firebrand mayor who was vastly outspent by opponents, managed to marshal a huge army of online supporters to help him win the presidency.

The Islamic State has used social networks to recruit jihadists from around the world to fight in Iraq and Syria, as well as to inspire terrorist attacks overseas.

And in the United States, both Bernie Sanders, a socialist who ran for president as a Democrat, and Mr. Trump, who was once reviled by most members of the party he now leads, relied on online movements to shatter the political status quo.

Why is this all happening now? Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University who has studied the effects of social networks, suggested a few reasons.

One is the ubiquity of Facebook, which has reached a truly epic scale. Last month the company reported that about 1.8 billion people now log on to the service every month. Because social networks feed off the various permutations of interactions among people, they become strikingly more powerful as they grow. With about a quarter of the world’s population now on Facebook, the possibilities are staggering.

“When the technology gets boring, that’s when the crazy social effects get interesting,” Mr. Shirky said.

One of those social effects is what Mr. Shirky calls the “shifting of the Overton Window,” a term coined by the researcher Joseph P. Overton to describe the range of subjects that the mainstream media deems publicly acceptable to discuss.

From about the early 1980s until the very recent past, it was usually considered unwise for politicians to court views deemed by most of society to be out of the mainstream, things like overt calls to racial bias (there were exceptions, of course, like the Willie Horton ad). But the internet shifted that window.

“White ethno nationalism was kept at bay because of pluralistic ignorance,”Mr. Shirky said. “Every person who was sitting in their basement yelling at the TV about immigrants or was willing to say white Christians were more American than other kinds of Americans — they didn’t know how many others shared their views.”

Thanks to the internet, now each person with once-maligned views can see that he’s not alone. And when these people find one another, they can do things — create memes, publications and entire online worlds that bolster their worldview, and then break into the mainstream. The groups also become ready targets for political figures like Mr. Trump, who recognize their energy and enthusiasm and tap into it for real-world victories.

Mr. Shirky notes that the Overton Window isn’t just shifting on the right. We see it happening on the left, too. Mr. Sanders campaigned on an anti-Wall Street platform that would have been unthinkable for a Democrat just a decade ago….(More)”