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The Emerging Role of Social Media in Political and Regime Change
(Released March 2012)

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  by Rita Safranek  

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In 2004, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook as a way to connect with fellow students. Initially adopted by high school and college students, the social network, according to its 2012 initial public offering filing, has grown to 845 million active users worldwide, with approximately 161 million active monthly users in the US, making it the premiere social media service in the world. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest behind China and India. Launched in July 2006, Twitter is an online social networking and microblogging service that has grown to over 300 million users as of 2011, according to account tracker Twopcharts. It allows users to exchange photos, videos, and messages of 140 characters or less. Founded in 2005 by Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, YouTube provides a forum for the distribution of video content – everything from cute kittens sleeping to first-run television programs to eyewitness videos of political protests. The two created the site based on their own frustration when trying to share video files.

global Twitter use
Chart showing unique visitors to Twitter.com, monthly, in millions and by geographic region; the social networking site is growing globally

Part of the attraction of these “big three” social media services and independent blogging is that the average person, with little or no advanced computer skills, can have good success using them; content can be created and accessed with as little as a smartphone; and it can be easily intertwined. Links to videos posted on YouTube can be embedded in blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. A Twitter post can appear on a Facebook page. In other words, large numbers of people can be easily and inexpensively contacted via a variety of services.

Social media also lowers traditional socio-economic barriers to commanding the spotlight. You don’t have to “be somebody” to “be somebody” on social media. Whether it is a suburban high school girl singing her ode to Friday night, a pair of octogenarians figuring out their laptop’s camera, or dogs that sing, social media has vaulted them into our consciousness. Politicians, regimes, and activists look to purposefully tap into the potential of social media. “The Internet, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have reconstituted, especially among young people, how social relationships are constructed and how communication is produced, mediated, and received. They have also ushered in a new regime of visual imagery in which screen culture creates spectacular events just as much as they record them. Under such circumstances, state power becomes more porous and there is less control. Text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Internet have given rise to a reservoir of political energy that posits a new relationship between the new media technologies, politics, and public life” (Giroux). These digital technologies influence the formation and activities of civil society groups: mobs, movements, and civil society organizations. While mass popular protests are by no means a new phenomenon, digital tools are facilitating their formation (Etling et al 38).

The Middle East and North Africa region has one of the most youthful populations in the world, with people under 25 making up between 35-45% of the population in each country. They make up the majority of social media users, including about 17 million Facebook users, 25,000 Twitter accounts and 40,000 active blogs, according to the Arab Advisors Group. YouTube is extremely popular, with an average of 24 hours of video uploaded from the region every minute (“Middle East”). The Dubai School of Government has issued a report indicating that the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world increased by 78% during 2010, from 11.9 million in January 2010 to 21.3 million in December 2010 (“Social Media a Catalyst”).

Go To Political Unrest and Social Media

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