My Take

The power of social media cannot replace leadership

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 3:54am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 3:54am

To tweet is not to lead. Unfortunately, many young activists, in Hong Kong and around the world, mistake their ability to field rallies with hundreds or even thousands of people for leadership.

I recently met a university student leader who proudly boasted to me that he could field dozens to hundreds of people with just a few tweets to join a protest over any current political issue. Now here's a consummate protester who knows how to make clever use of social media. He joined or helped organise many recent mass protests, from those against national education to those for press freedom after former Ming Pao chief Kevin Lau Chun-to was viciously attacked. I don't underestimate his power to rally. In fact, as a techno-dinosaur, I am in awe of him and his friends.

But I do question his ability to lead, and to translate protests into meaningful policy changes. I doubt if he really has specific policies on issues he and his mates are fighting for and how to bring about those changes. Despite the advent of social media, there is still no substitute for political leadership. In their fight for universal suffrage, one problem with the pan-democrats is that they have no real leadership. Interestingly, many young activists today think old-style democrats like those from the Democratic Party are either outdated, corrupted or irrelevant.

Meanwhile, Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu Ting has been using internet platforms to enable people - without leaders, unless you count Tai as one - to try to build democratic systems from the ground up. His efforts are deliberately anti-leadership, as if having leaders who propose or dictate a democratic system is in some way non-democratic. There is an excellent analysis of this global phenomenon in The New York Times by Zeynep Tufekci, a fellow at the Centre for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.

From the Arab Spring to the mass protests that brought down former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, social media have been a great tool to rally people without explicit leadership. Yet, it's one thing to paralyse a government. It's something else to win power and shape policy outcomes. For that, many young people, in Hong Kong and elsewhere, still need a political education and to become leaders.