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Protest at the speed of light: social networking the revolution
[See also "Egypt: Much more than a `Facebook revolution'".]
By Roberto Jorquera
May 8, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Increasing access to the internet, together with the development in social network sites and mobile devices, has resulted in the ability for individuals and communities to be able to quickly share information, ideas and proposals for action to an ever-increasing audience. This has allowed protest movements to promote and have their voices heard outside traditional mass media outlets and government institutions that have excluded them in the past.
The development of social network sites has provided an easier opportunity to build online networks but has also impacted on social networks outside the internet terrain. This article will discuss the significance and impact of social network sites on social change focusing on the “Arab Spring”. It will work towards an assessment of how online social networks can impact networks in broader society that result in social change.
Social movements such as the democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt have successfully used social network sites to not only publicise information but also to help expand and organise online and off-line communities. Sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube are increasingly being used to form new networks and quickly and effectively get information and proposals for action out.
The ability and scope of protest movements to utilise such sites has had a variety of successes. The social network sites have played an important role in promoting alternative information and proposals, not only on a national level but also across the globe.
In Tunisia and Egypt, for example, repression by government authorities in late 2010 and in the first few months of 2011 was captured via video and photos and quickly shared around the world via social network sites. This is significant considering that “Facebook is the second most accessed Website in Egypt after Google and there are more Facebook users than newspaper readers … Youtube is also very popular among the Egyptian youth. It ranks the fourth most visited Website” (Lim 2012, p. 235). Soon after the distribution of video footage showing repression it quickly spread among the population in Egypt.
The ability for more and more people to access and use social network sites (SNSs) has impacted significantly on communication, organisational capacity and information distribution among alternative groups and social movements around the world. “Through status updates and feeds, SNSs enable individuals to broadcast both major life changes and ephemeral activities to their broad network, allowing others to engage in lightweight social surveillance” (Ellison 2009, p. 7). Furthermore, technological changes such as the smart phone and relatively accessible internet plans tied to the smart phones has resulted in the internet being accessible to users on a 24-hour basis.
Allagui has argued that “in Tunisia and Egypt, we have witnessed a new genre of revolution whose distinguishing feature lies in its organization by networks and particularly in social networks, which played an important informational and organizational role” (Allagui 2011, p. 1435). However, on the other hand, Stepanova argues that “social media had little to do with the underlying socio-political and socio-economic factors behind the protest movement” (Stepanova 2011, p. 2). That is to say that though it did have an impact on the revolutionary changes that occurred, the key to the change was the already underlying social conditions that existed in society.
An important impact of social network sites has been that they have helped in the democratisation of information distribution and shareability of that information. In 2011 an Egyptian activist was quoted as saying, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world” (Howard 2011, para. 2).
These sites have different user profiles that specify what content the user would like to share and view. For example “Twitter lends itself to cause and action. Every day, we are inspired by stories of people using Twitter to help make the world a better place in unexpected ways” (“Twitter” 2013). Similarly, Facebook promotes in its mission statement that its role “is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (“Facebook” 2013).
Activists have taken to these online spaces to help them promote their ideas and proposals for action, and help them distribute them to a broad community.
The increasingly ubiquitous nature of social network sites has dramatically democratised information sharing on a mass scale. In large sections of Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East, news and information can be accessed outside the mainstream media outlets. Through the use of social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube any individual can not only share their thoughts, ideas and proposals for action with potentially thousands of people instantly, but also receive information that in the past would have been extremely difficult to access. Media censorship in Egypt had been rife before the revolutionary upheaval, Mackell writes:
It is hard to imagine a more perfect example of media malpractice than the events of 9 October (2011). Unarmed protesters were being shot and crushed to death under army vehicles, literally within spitting distance from the famous Maspero building, where state media is headquartered… Meanwhile, inside, state TV anchor Rasha Magdy was reporting the opposite: armed “Christians” had attacked soldiers, killing three, she said. She went on to call for “honourable citizens” to come to the streets and defend the army (Mackell 2011, para. 5).
Boyd (2007) argues, “What makes social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks” (Boyd 2007, p. 211). Social network sites in the case of Egypt were able to work outside government censorship parameters but also the censorship that existed within mainstream media outlets themselves.
Social network sites have also began the process of transcending the framework we have been used to in terms of time and space. People no longer need to wait for the daily TV news or “tomorrow's paper”. In Egypt that process had been happening for a number of years. Lim (2012, p. 232) argues “that social media have been an integral part of political activism of the Egyptian for years, showing, for instance that 54 out of 70 recorded street protests from 2004 to 2011 substantially involved online activism”. Furthermore, not only did social media play a vital role in the removal of the Egyptian regime but it also facilitated in the building of opposition networks themselves, “hence, the power of networked individuals and groups who toppled Mubarak presidency cannot be separated from the power of social media that facilitated the formation and the expansion of the networks themselves” (Lim 2012, p. 232).
In the case of Egypt, social network sites have been able to provide the opportunity for real-time news and information distribution to others online. Furthermore, social network sites have been able to not only help organise small communities but also play a role as a rapid response network organising large numbers on a variety of issues.
The development of social network sites has increasingly captured the attention of a variety of individuals and alternative organisations. One of the earliest examples of the use of the internet to promote a cause was that by the Zapatista movement in the early 1990s, which “quickly dramatised how new media and grass roots progressivism might synergize, excite the world, and challenge status quo culture and politics” (Kahn 2004, p. 87).
Since then various organisations and individuals have logged on for social change. Jeroen (2009) argues that “on the one hand, the Internet facilitates and supports (traditional) off-line collective action in terms of organisation, mobilisation and transnationalisation and, on the other hand, it creates new modes of collective action” (Jeroen 2009, p. 231). For the opposition movement in Egypt social network sites helped in bringing together weak and fractured communities so that they could be united against a common cause.
“Around the world, in open and repressive nations alike, internet-based communications challenge the traditional regimes of public mass communication and provide new channels for citizen voices, expression of minority viewpoints, and political mobilization” (Etling 2010, p. 7). In the case of the political uprisings in the Arab world, sites such as Twitter and Facebook were used to expose repression where it was occurring and then help in the organisation of a response.
Dynamics for change
What has become known as the Arab Spring took many people around the world by surprise. For decades a number of repressive regimes such as in Egypt that had seemed invincible came crashing down in a relatively short period of time. Opposition movements and groups had existed for many years prior to the overthrow of the regime, however they had not been able to successfully harness a large enough public profile and thus make significant headway in the social, political or economic transformation of society. In Egypt “the increase in popularity of … new communication tools coincided with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003” (Tarkowski 2011, p. 2). The social network sites that had gained support alongside these revolutionary movements for change offered a means to organise and share information in a way that had not been able to be achieved in the past.
Rather than simply concluding that the revolutions happened due to the use of Twitter and Facebook it is clear that the dynamics for change existed prior to the introduction of these tools. Gladwell (2010) argues, “With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns” (Gladwell 2010, p. 1) . “Deplorable economic conditions, political deprivations, corruption, and social repressions are ubiquitous among most Arab countries and represent the motivating factors for these revolutionary actions” (Allagui 2011, p. 1436).
In the case of Egypt they did play an active role providing the essential information and organisational structure that was needed to push the regime over. Lim argues that “social media may be viewed both as technology and space for expanding and sustaining the networks upon which social movements depend” (Lim 2012, p.234) . Twitter itself states, “And with just a Tweet, millions of people learn about or show their support for positive initiatives that might have otherwise gone unnoticed" (“Twitter” 2013). Anderson also asserts that social network sites “were able to act as a tool used to ignite revolutionary thought across the country as well as the world” (Anderson 2011, p. 11). As in the case of the revolutionary process that unfolded in Egypt in 2010-2012 and throughout the Arab world, social network tools were being utilised as a means to distribute information and organise protests on a large scale.
What was unique during 2010-2012 was that social network sites filled a vacuum that had existed for the opposition movement. In Egypt, the brutal bashing of Khaled Said by police offices in front of many witnesses which was captured through photos and then shared via Facebook was a turning point for the opposition. Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive in the Middle East, had been secretly utilising Facebook to spur protests under the guise of El Shaheeed. After seeing the photos, Ghonim created a new Facebook group title, "We Are all Khaled Said". Ghonim anonymously called for Egyptians to participate in a mass demonstration against the Mubarak regime. His request was answered, "as the page’s following approached 400,000 people" (Anderson 2011, p. 12).
However it is important to note that these regimes did not enjoy popular support in the first place. “The Arab World set the bar by using Twitter as an effective tool to mobilize the public. Protesters used Twitter to send short status updates about when, where and how to organise and mobilise during the events that have become known as the Arab Spring” (Yette 2012, p. 10).The role of social network sites was to provide a voice and organisational structure to the movement which it did not have before.
With mass opposition to the regime being clear, the central question for those who wanted change was how to organise and inspire the population to achieve it. “Using Twitter as a means of communication, indeed, as a means of motivation and mobilisation, allowed protesters to circumvent censorship and detection by government and military authorities” (Yette 2012, p.11). However the impact of social networking sites on the revolutionary process that unfolded in Egypt also reflected the increasing role that such sites are having on social movements overall. “The Arab revolts exemplify how online social networks facilitated by social media have become a key ingredient of contemporary populist movements. Social media are not simply neutral tools to be used or adopted by social movements, but rather influence how activists form and shape the social movements” (Lim 2012, p. 234). In the case of Egypt the opposition movement continues to use social network sites even after the collapse of the Mubarak regime, however discussion is now around what new role it should have.
The use of social network sites by movements in opposition to government structures and or policy has been significant in the case of the Arab Spring. They have played a key role in the ability of those movements to share, communicate, discuss and set political action. Social network sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube have also democratised the distribution of information providing the power to do this to the individual through the software and hardware application itself. The ability of smart phones to be able to take quality photos and video and share them instantly has also been a vital step forward in information sharing.
It is clear that in Egypt social network sites have created a new form of political participation, engagement and information sharing that allows individuals to bypass traditional media outlets that have censored their participation in the past. Social network sites played a critical role in sparking the revolutionary uprisings that led to the removal of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. On the other hand, social network sites also helped reshape the opposition movements that utilised those very same platforms.
[Roberto Jorquera has been active in socialist politics since 1987. He is on the national coordinating committee of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network and is a member of Socialist Alternative in Australia. This article is based on a paper written for an online conference as part of Curtin University Netstudies. See networkconference.netstudies.org/2013. ]
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