01/15/2013 12:17 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Can a Hashtag Really Influence Politics?

Social media isn't a replacement for real-world action -- it's a way to coordinate it. The fact that apathetic Internet users who plague our respective newsfeeds cannot click their way to a better tomorrow does not mean that dedicated actors -- those who would be in the trenches regardless -- cannot employ social media effectively.

FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2011 file photo, a magnifying glass is posed over a monitor displaying a Facebook page in Munich. Facebook is letting its nearly 1 billion users vote on changes to its privacy policy beginning on Friday, June 1, 2012. This is the second time Facebook let users vote on policy changes. The first time was in 2009 when Facebook was a much smaller, privately held company with about 200 million users (AP Photo/dapd, Joerg Koch)

In graduate school, I spent a lot of time looking at the political significance of social media, and all I can say with absolute certainty is that every interpretation of Internet activism is draped in a blanket of geographic and cultural relativism.

There are the idealists, those who believe that social media affords a palpable voice to disenfranchised citizenries around the world -- a direct and unfiltered democracy which serves as an invaluable public forum for critique, debate, and assembly.

And there are the pessimists, those who see social media as a distraction, a trend, as indifference par excellence -- a way for angsty 20-somethings to feel both political and important without having to do so much as get up from their iPads.

Personally, I think that both camps are missing the point entirely. Social media isn't a replacement for real-world action -- it's a way to coordinate it.

The fact that apathetic Internet users who plague our respective newsfeeds cannot click their way to a better tomorrow does not mean that dedicated actors -- those who would be in the trenches regardless -- cannot employ social media effectively.

While all very different narratives, #ArabSpring, #Occupy, and now #IdleNoMore, are testaments to the fact that staunch activists can circumvent rigid hierarchies and successfully engage interactive web platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness, manifest demonstrations, and sustain diverse exhibitions of dissent.

After all, there is something to be said for the encroachment of political issues, however superficial, into the average person's everyday life -- formerly dominated by the consumerist apprehensions of a mundane day-to-day existence. Give me an informal discussion of aboriginal rights over an episode of reality television any day.

Moreover, speaking of television, while anchors and hosts sever the link of common humanity between audiences in one part of the world and victims in another by monotonously presenting muddled issues in orderly packages on nightly newscasts and talks shows, the information on social media is more holistic, more visceral.

By showing us drawbacks and unverified stories, by bringing us words, links, and images directly from victims and protesters on the ground, social media figuratively curtails the divide between those who are directly experiencing, reporting, and living an event, and those of us who are safely in another part of the world.

In short, for all the time it lends itself to procrastination, social media has given us the tools for the coordination of de-structuralising protest movements, a medium with which to casually engage more frequently in political conversation, and a closer sense of connectivity with people suffering through far-away crises and disasters.

Yet, social media isn't necessarily the great alternative to a bias and corrupt mainstream media as many idealists bill it to be either. Interactive web technologies and news aggregators are plagued by censorship too -- they're just better at hiding it.

For starters, the white knight that is Facebook pays foreign workers around one dollar an hour to delete undesirable content based on a comprehensive 17-page censorship manual. Pornography and breastfeeding are first to go, but so is anything breaching Facebook's policy of "international compliance," such as pages belonging to Palestinian resistance movements and groups critical of Atatürk -- Turkey's founder.

A year ago, Twitter unveiled a new policy of region specific-censorship regarding tweets which are deemed counterintuitive to local laws and customs. Meaning that now government officials, corporations, or other outside parties can insist on the removal of content they consider to be illegal or blasphemous -- a policy met with a fair bit of trepidation when it was invoked for the first time in Germany last October.

YouTube -- the third most visited site in the world, is gradually getting a reputation for its blatant and whimsical censorship practices as well. Examples of which include removing videos criticising the British government's official sanctioning of Sharia law courts by comic Pat Condell, as well as shutting down the account of award-winning Egyptian anti-torture and human rights activist Wael Abbas.

While Reddit -- a popular user-driven news and entertainment website owned by Advanced Publications, goes as far as to censor entire classes of news media. The site's WorldNews category, which has 2.5 million subscribers -- more than most TV newscasts, censors all blogs, refusing to consider them as real sources. Unfortunate considering that most independent experts have their own blogs, and these blogs serve to debunk many of the myths that slip through traditional media outlets.

So clearly social media isn't the uncensored news pipeline fueled by a free market of populism that the idealists would like have us believe it is. But neither is it merely some sort of temporary fad, as the pessimists contend. I think that it is equally naïve to believe that social media can save us all, as it is to believe that it can ruin us.

What we should believe is this -- for better or worse, social media has become fused into our collective cultural consciousness. Not through platforms or technologies per se, but because social media allows us to rediscover the sorts of social interactions that defined human relationships before they were interrupted by mass migrations to the suburbs -- which replaced a sense of community with a television set.

Thanks to social media we can now reconnect socially, politically, and culturally in order to form groups, share passions, and voice concerns. Of course we need to be aware of the fact that we tend to connect with, and befriend those whose interests mirror are own, but regardless, social media provides a vital service by employing a digital medium to refill that communal void.

Social media is by no means unflawed -- it's market-driven after all -- but as media theorist Marshall McLuhan contends, we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

That is exactly what social media is doing -- it's shaping us, engaging us, entertaining us, and while it can be both a trivial distraction and a revolutionary tool depending on the context and the user, one thing we should all acknowledge is that it's not going anywhere.

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