Social media is changing the way people communicate, organize, protest, and revolt.
Most revolutions have a revolutionary—a name that in history books becomes synonymous with the ideological change that followed it. With only some exceptions, the uprisings that have shaped our world, even those with the most socialist ideals, have been lead by a single voice. The year 2011 changed that trend.
It started in Tunisia at the end of 2010. A revolution overthrew the government within a month, and the only name that stands out is Mohamed Bouazizi who was a catalyst for the protests when he set himself on fire and subsequently spent the remainder of his life and the movement he inspired in a coma.
The unrest was contagious for many reasons and spilled over into the neighbouring Arab countries. The next government to fall was Mubarak’s in Egypt. What revolutionary stands out there more than Wael Ghonim? He is said to have sparked unrest only by starting a Facebook discussion group called “We Are All Khaled Saeed” that expressed sympathy with a man who had allegedly been beaten to death by Egyptian security forces six months earlier.
The year 2011 saw a surge of public uprisings: from the Tunisian revolution to the Libyan civil war; from the Spanish “Indignants” protests to the Chilean education conflict; and from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the economic protests it inspired the world over. The year stands out as one of riots, protests, revolts, and revolutions. What each event was called depends in part on its motivations and largely on its measure of success, but one common theme exists: the use of the Internet and online social media.
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube form the core of social media on the Internet. They are what experts call Web 2.0, sites for which the users generate the content. Before professional news has a chance to report on an event, it can be read about on the Twitter accounts of people who are witnessing it live. More than a collection of anecdotal information, however, social media is a connected network in which information is both shared and discussed.
It has been argued that a focus on the Internet’s role in the uprisings of 2011 downplays the causes of unrest and the role of those who marched in the streets. Researcher Evgeny Morozov argues in The Guardian that the use of the Internet will be little more than a footnote in future analysis of these uprisings. He compares its importance at his most generous to Radio Free Europe that was broadcast across the Berlin Wall. Technology always plays a role, but like the use of the tape-recorder in 1979 Iran and the fax machine in 1989 China, its significance is eventually only “of interest to a handful of academics.”
In the long run, he may be right, but for the time being, how social media is affecting communication in our new decade is of critical interest to today’s governments.
A succinct example of how technology has changed public uprisings comes from the August riots in London. The riots broke out shortly after a solidarity march for a man who had been killed by police two days earlier. Lacking leadership, the mobs were only loosely politically motivated and their activities were primarily destructive. In previous decades, this might have lasted only until dawn. Through the use of mobile communication networks, however, the mob dispersed by day and reformed on two subsequent nights. There was not a single leader who could have been arrested who was instructing like-minded individuals when and where to meet. Instead, the mob mentality carried over into cyberspace where conflicting opinions met, but the most popular message won out. The police could not predict when or where the mobs would meet next.
The leaderless nature of the uprisings of 2011 stands out, and it is in large part due to use of social media. Single-party dictatorships had long perfected silencing a single voice that threatened to gather like-minded dissidents. Social media is the way today’s uprisings are adapting to that threat. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out, these movements are no longer being organized on a “one-to-many” basis in which a single leader broadcasts by radio or television to rally supporters. Instead, social media allows for a “many-to-many” method of communication whereby everyone’s voice is heard. On the Internet, anyone can suggest that like-minded individuals take action. Every participant is a potential leader.
The Occupy Wall Street protest in the United States and the hundreds of similar occupations that it inspired the world over are a clear example of a leaderless movement organized through social media. It can be argued that the lack of leadership both helped and hindered the movement, but that is beside the point that thousands of people coordinated protests worldwide without a centralized voice.
In the countries that gave rise to the Occupy movements, however, people were free to publicly criticize their governments. Social media’s role in uprisings is even more crucial in societies where the freedom of assembly is restricted.
By giving everyone a voice, social media also offers a method through which the popularity of political dissent can be gaged. Like all media, social media can be persuasive, but its greatest effect is letting people know their opinions are shared. The ability to know that you are not alone in your thoughts is why the freedom of assembly is so crucial to political movements.
In his work, Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker outlines how the ability to gather publicly is central to a revolution because of the nature of mutual knowledge. Individually, everyone may be unsatisfied with the current government. But when people are isolated, no one knows to what degree others share their sentiments. When people are allowed to assemble, this dissatisfaction can be seen openly and becomes mutual among peers. With the aid of social media, the assembly is moved to the Internet, and people can more safely gage the popularity of their beliefs before attempting to march in the streets.
In an interview with Wired, Cairo writer and activist Issandr el-Amrani estimated that only a quarter of Egyptians had Internet access in 2011 and explained that the street protests had grown the “old-fashioned way: by leaflets and spontaneous amalgamation.” He insisted that social media should never be given as much credit for the Egyptian revolution as the people who camped in Tahrir Square. Social media was merely a voicing of opinions; the crowds in the streets brought about the change.
Amrani makes a significant point, but in Egypt, the revolution was a largely urban phenomena where a much higher percentage of Egyptians had internet access or at least a cell phone with Twitter connectivity, and it is worth noting that the first gathering of the revolution on January 25th was a formal Facebook “Event”.
The influence of social media was noticed by the Egyptian government. In 2011, the world not only saw how social media could encourage public uprisings but also how governments responded to its threat. When authoritarian regimes could no longer find a single leader to silence, they took aim at the technology that gave everyone a voice.
In Egypt, the government cut off whole areas from the Internet and even cell phone reception. In Tunisia, the state run Internet service provider blocked access to certain websites and is accused of stealing social media account information and using those IDs and passwords to delete users’ own posts. In both of these cases the government was later overthrown. It was obviously too little too late.
In China, a country that saw no significant uprisings in 2011, similar measures are already in place. The government can sever entire regions from the Internet as need be and heavily restricts access to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. China allows only domestically run social media sites that bow to government censorship laws prohibiting the discussion of inharmonious thoughts. Their agencies also regularly lax or tighten censorship as need be. During the 2009 riots in the northern city of Ürümqi, social media sites were shut down and even web searches using the city’s name were blocked.
It is important to note that even if it is uncensored, social media has another weakness that can hurt uprisings. Anyone can track what is said publicly on the Internet. A movement spread by social media risks being out-manoeuvred by a watchful government. If the movement is in a free country, it is to everyone’s benefit for a government to learn what dissatisfies its citizens. Not every movement, however, is lucky enough to have a concerned opposition, and it is those uprisings against oppressive regimes that have the most to gain. Worse still, if a movement organized through social media fails, a record exists of what has been said, and governments can use it to punish the dissenters.
As a direct result of the Arab Spring, the United Nations in June of last year declared the right to free speech on the Internet an extension of the freedom of expression. Frank La Rue, a UN Special Rapporteur, observed that “the unique features of the Internet, which allow individuals to spread information instantly, to organize themselves, and to inform the world about situations of injustice and inequality, have also created fear among Governments and the powerful.” The report not only stated that information should be allowed to flow freely on the Internet as unhindered as possible, but that governments should seek to make the Internet as widely available and affordable to their population as possible.
It goes without saying that every generation of the 20th and 21st century has seen the way it communicates profoundly affected by new technology. The rise of social media is no exception to that trend. The year 2011 has demonstrated how social media is changing the way public movements communicate and organize. Social media did not cause the uprisings of 2011, but it did encourage them.
As the Internet becomes more prevalent in developing nations, understanding the implications of social media is crucial to understanding how the political movements of our new decade will unfold.
In light of the recent protests in Russia over the election results, it can be seen how the trend of social media’s influence in uprisings will not be limited to 2011 alone.
Bloomberg News reported in December that three in four Russians ages 25 to 34 go online every day. In an interview, Russian blogger Marina Litvinovich is summarized as saying the people protested against the election results “informed by the blogs”, “summoned by Facebook”, and “hurried along by Twitter”.
“What did the Internet give us?” she asked. “It gave people the opportunity to get united, and people did it with pleasure.”