There are many problems with Prime Minister Abbott's now twice-stated remark that 'Social media is kind of like electronic graffiti'. Here are just three.
First, his views hit awfully close to home for the majority of Australians, because it turns out we are graffiti artists and prolific ones at that. About 60% of Australians have a social media account, ranking us sixth in the world for accounts per capita. And this addiction to online connections has been brewing for years. In 2010 we spent just seven hours a month browsing social media. Fast forward five years and an astonishing two hours every day is consumed by its use. The total number of active accounts grew by 6% in 2014 and we are now home to 13.6 million Facebook accounts, 4 million Instagram users and 2.8 million Twitter accounts. We also have a particular affection for YouTube videos, blogs and the mobile dating app Tinder.
But it is not just Australians who are social media animals and this leads to the second problem with the Prime Minister's statement. There are more than 2 billion social media users scattered across the world. The bulk, more than 1 billion, reside in our neighbourhood, the Asia Pacific. Our neighbours in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Singapore spend more time each day on social media than we do. Almost half of China's population has a social media account, 15% of the world's tweets come from Indonesia, and in 2014 India experienced a 31% hike in total social media accounts.
Unsurprisingly, in the Pacific Islands, the numbers aren't as impressive, but social media has been used to hold governments and businesses accountable for corruption and poor service delivery. Facebook discussion groups, particularly in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, have played vital roles in crowdsourcing policy ideas, shedding light on misused public funds and alerting law enforcement to domestic violence and other crimes.
Third, governments around the world take social media seriously and are increasingly inventive in its use as a tool of communication and influence, They also use it to predict trends. At a very basic level, social media is widely used to measure changes in public opinion and to gauge sentiment when new policies are announced. The Australian Government has in fact funded and built its very own software tool to do just that. And government departments use it to communicate with and engage the public (a list of the federal government's vast collection of social media accounts can be found here).
Even in China, where internet censorship is routine (the Chinese Government is thought to employ some 2 million people to monitor Chinese social media), social media is contributing to a new responsiveness from local governments. Online activists and grassroots movements in China such as 'Not In My Backyard' have used social media to force action on a range of environmental issues..
The US Government, via various intelligence research arms, invests heavily in programs that mine social media to predict social and political events, including the spread of disease. More recently, the US Government revealed it was social media that provided the crucial link to identify those responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in the Ukraine.
The Indian Government has committed to expanding its social media presence and responsiveness, particularly in the area of digital diplomacy. The way India and the US used social media (and other online tools) before and during President Obama's recent visit provides the Australian Government with some excellent lessons on how it can expand its digital diplomacy capabilities (for example, see #AskObamaModi)
The Prime Minister's antiquated remarks about #electronicgraffiti could worryingly be read to reflect a lack of understanding of both the role of social media and how widely used it is around the world, including by his own government. Social media is no longer just the purview of angsty teenagers and online gamers. It is used globally to foster development and to help shape social and political change.
26 January isn't just Australia Day, it is also India's Republic Day (an event President Obama made the centerpiece of his visit this week). In an Australia where all that is old is new again, it is perhaps awkwardly fitting that, while our Prime Minister described social media as 'graffiti that happens to be put forward by the means of IT' live on ABC news, India's soft power savvy Prime Minister was tweeting his best wishes to Australians on Australia Day (to his 9.7 million followers). It is disappointing, but not surprising, that our Prime Minister's Twitter account did not return the favour.