Published on Let's Talk Development

Social media beyond entertainment

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Social media has flourished with increasing digital connectivity. Internet users in the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates spend more than 3 hours per day on social media. Global social media platforms such as YouTube and WhatsApp as well as local ones such as Mxit, an instant messaging application in South Africa, and Odnoklassniki, the Russian version of Facebook, are attracting people's attention. The social interaction aspect of those communication initiatives redefines how individuals, business and government engage with each other.

Businesses are leveraging social media to sharpen marketing strategies. A Facebook Business Fan Page, instructive videos on Instagram, as well as tweeting interesting user experiences, are typical social media marketing approaches. Recent technological developments in artificial intelligence enable the feeding of tailored advertisements to customers based on their social media behaviors. Individual entrepreneurs can also achieve self-branding with the help of social media. Chiara Ferragni, one of the most influential fashion designers, started her fashion career from blogging. LinkedIn provides a valuable platform for its users to promote themselves on the job market.

Social media can also be integral in creating new sectors. The bourgeoning of the “user-generated-content” sector, showcases how social media creates new business opportunities., a website where people play video games for others to watch, is now the fourth largest website in the US in terms of peak traffic. You can earn $300,000 a year by playing video games for others to watch. Similarly, people make a good living by uploading self-created fun videos on TikTok, the most downloaded iPhone app worldwide for short video sharing. Watchers send monetary gifts through the video platform to the vloggers.

WeChat, China’s most popular social media app, breeds a new group of micro e-merchants (“weishang”) who sell products through WeChat accounts. These micro e-merchants post product information on their “Moments”, the app’s life activity sharing page, just like people post photos/videos on Facebook. E-friends connected through WeChat are their potential customers. Interested customers can message the seller or leave a comment. Sellers will follow up through personal chatting on WeChat and finish transactions usually through the app’s embedded mobile payment system. People tend to resort to e-commerce platforms such as or when they have in mind a specific product to look for. However, purchasing through WeChat happens when you browse e-friends’ posts and then bump into certain product of your interest. In 2017, the market size of this social media-linked e-commerce in China was estimated to be more than $50 billion. More than 30 million people earn a living through this type of entrepreneurial activity.   

Governments in turn can be proactive by incorporating digital technologies into public administration as emphasized in the World Development Report 2019. Live-tweeting public meetings, soliciting public opinions on proposed new regulations through popular social networks, are possible social media solutions worth exploring. The Department of Energy in the United States earned praise of its expansive social media presence to ensure transparent and timely communication with the public. Moreover, social media enables governments to be more resilient in responding to natural disasters. Governments leverage social media to disseminate warnings ahead of disasters, turning social platforms into the new 911. When hurricanes hit Mexico, social media proved to be an effective tool, connecting affected individuals or communities with government aid agencies. 

The flip side of easy content creation and distribution through social media is the risk of false information. Content on social media is rarely subject to fact checking, source verification and editorial oversight as in traditional media. In responding to deceitful information, many governments now require social media platforms to block malicious users and filter fraudulent or inappropriate information. Social media which facilitates information sharing should not be exempted from limitations on free speech and expression that are applicable to traditional media. Platforms are also incentivized to root out false and harmful information to preserve their reputation and credibility. However, it is hard to draw a clear line when defining harmful information. Germany now requires social platforms to delete “hate speech”. Governments should also be cautious with not abusing regulatory power by asking social media to filter out criticism from political opponents or average citizens.


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