In recent years, the internet and social media have been integral to political protests, social movements and election campaigns around the globe. Events from the Arab Spring to the worldwide spread of #MeToo have been aided by digital connectivity in both advanced and emerging economies. But popular social media and messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have drawn attention for their potential role in spreading misinformation, facilitating political manipulation by foreign and domestic actors, and increasing violence and hate crimes.
Recently, the Sri Lankan government shut down several of the country’s social media and messaging services immediately after Easter day bombings at Catholic churches killed and wounded hundreds. Some technology enthusiasts praised the decision but wondered if this development marked a change from prodemocracy, Arab Spring-era hopes that digital technology would be a liberating tool to a new fear that it has become “a force that can corrode” societies.
In the context of these developments, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds these publics are worried about the risks associated with social media and other communications technologies – even as they cite their benefits in other respects. Succinctly put, the prevailing view in the surveyed countries is that mobile phones, the internet and social media have collectively amplified politics in both positive and negative directions – simultaneously making people more empowered politically and potentially more exposed to harm.