If someone from past centuries - be it 200 or 2000 years ago - were to time travel to this decade, they would be utterly amazed at our modern technology and it's capabilities, but they would be more than familiar with many of the purposes it serves.
Politics and social unrest have been around since man first gathered into groups in order to survive. Someone always wants to be in charge, and someone is always unhappy with the way things are. Leaders have always used private or public communication tools and propaganda to gain or maintain power, and those who oppose them have always used the same to overcome them when necessary (et tu, Brute?). The printing press brought information to the masses in the 1500s. The postal service moved things a step further in early American history. Today, those same ideas have been continued with Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.
The difference today, with instant communication possible on a global scale through email, IM, and social media, is that these things happen much faster, and often much more effectively. With the near ubiquitous nature and adoption of social media and online information dissemination in general, being able to monitor that activity is more important than ever for both sides of the equation - the leaders and the people.
This can be a liberating force for good and freedom, but there is also a dark side as authoritarian governments - and frighteningly, many who claim to be for freedom - use the same tools to monitor their citizens for any dissent in order to clamp down and maintain control.
The new mass communication tools have seen their share of successes in the last two decades. The ability to communicate and organize quickly via text messaging led to the ouster of corrupt Philippine president Joseph Estrada in 2001. Text messaging also helped get rid of Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar in 2004.
Text messaging combined with Facebook and Twitter contributed to the downfall of the Communist Party in Moldova in 2009. Online news (via The Boston Globe) and digital media (prior to social media) brought news of the Catholic Church's long history of harboring pedofiles to the world in a matter of hours in 2002, leading to public awareness and massive lawsuits.
Perhaps the most well-known use of social media in a political sense came in the form of Barack Obama's election as President of the US in 2008. Coming at the perfect time regarding digital and social media's evolutionary timeline, the combination of Twitter, Facebook, websites, blogs, and online news sources played a huge part in the election of an unknown, one-term state senator who also happened to be the first person of color elected to that position in the nation's history.
Since then, social media and other internet outlets have played a regular, and often crucial, role in politics, including local, state, and national levels, and in the international political discourse as well.
Before the new age of communication, not all movements, uprisings, or instances of political or social activism were successful, and many were brought to a quick and violent halt by those in power. Some things never change. There have been some recent historical cases where despite the ability of people to communicate and organize quickly for a cause, the results were devastating for them.
The Belarus email campaign to protest President Aleksandr Lukashenko's election rigging in 2006 began strong but failed, and Lukashenko cracked down on social media after retaining his power. The similar election fraud in Iran in 2009 also led to a violent end and more government control over internet access. The 2010 Red Shirt Uprising in Thailand met a quick and violent end as well.
Authoritarian governments such as China have long held tight controls over internet access for their citizens. Unfortunately, even nations that claim to be "democratic" (a misnomer if ever there was one) such as the US and the United Kingdom are guilty of curtailing their citizens' freedoms.
The revelations that the NSA has been internally spying on US citizens for a decade or more has created a massive rift between officials and citizens concerning trust of the government. Most recently, British PM David Cameron announced that if he wins this year's election he will put government monitors on every aspect of internet use in the country, saying there should be "no means of communication...we cannot read" in combatting terrorist attacks.
Thankfully, most of us don't have to be quite as concerned about many of these issues. We are instead focused on more sensible and practical business and political uses for social media, blogs, email, and sms. These more extreme instances of digital communication social media monitoring, however, do much to emphasize the importance and usefulness of such measures in our daily personal, business, and political activities.
It is without question that both proper political activity and propaganda will be increasingly influenced and enhanced by our digital means. Elections are now, in essence but with some limitations, held online before voters ever reach the ballot box. Good or bad, this is now reality, and needs to be handled as such.
While private business has been gaining steam for years in analyzing the sentiment of their brands and customers using social media monitoring software, the practice is now increasingly used by political campaigns as well. What has been considered an indispensable marketing tool for companies for several years has become an indispensable tool for political campaigns and and activism as well.
Fortunately, the ability to perform this kind of sentiment analysis and online monitoring isn't limited to national security agencies. Any local political campaign can obtain a reliable sense for the community's thoughts and feeling issues or candidates with a readily available and efficient piece of social media management software.
It's important to not only be able to monitor Facebook and Twitter, but other social networks, blogs, websites, and online news sites as well. The political discourse occurs in every nook and cranny of the internet, and confining the mined information to one or two networks will simply not yield a complete picture of the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the crowd.