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e-Journal

 

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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Political Unrest and Social Media

Contents

The Philippines

On January 17, 2001, during the impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, loyalists in the Philippine Congress voted to set aside key evidence against him. Less than two hours after the decision, activists, with the help of forwarded text messages, were able to organize a protest at a major crossroads in Manila. Over the next few days, over a million people arrived. “The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response – close to seven million text messages were sent that week – so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. … The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader” (Shirkey). On January 20, 2011, Estrada resigned.

Moldova

Riot in Chisinau after the 2009 Parliamentary Elections
Protest riots in front of the Parliament of Moldova,7 April 2009

The first widely-recognized use of social media as a tool of political revolution occurred in Moldova in 2009. Activists used Facebook, LiveJournal (an electronic diary service/social network), and Twitter to organize protests and bring attention to the political unrest in the former Soviet republic. Interestingly enough, during the protests, Russian-language Tweeters debated the role of social-networking tools in organizing the demonstration (Hodge). On April 6, 2009, following disputed general elections, protests broke out in the capital. On April 7, protestors were joined by opposition leaders in front of government offices in the capital. The demonstrators' numbers had grown from 10,000 the day before to nearly 30,000, in a metropolitan area of about 900,000. “Word had been spreading rapidly via Twitter and other online networking services. The official media carried no coverage, but accounts, pictures, and video of the rally were appearing in real time on Twitter and YouTube” (Mungiu-Pippidi & Munteanu). Although the protestors failed to prompt a change of leadership or a new election, they got the world to focus on a small, remote country, and digital activism became recognized as a source of political power (Amin).

Iran

In June 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan and some friends headed to the center of Tehran, Iran, to join an anti-government protest following the disputed presidential election. Stuck in traffic, she got out of the car. Agha-Soltan was shot and died. Video of her death was captured on a cell phone.

“With links to the video posted on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the amateur clip eventually harnessed the attention of the mainstream media, grabbing headlines on CNN and in the ‘New York Times.’ Agha-Soltans’ death became a symbol for the Iranian anti-government movement, and online social media amplified that symbol for the rest of the world to see” (Amin).
Neda Agha-Soltan
CNN coverage of the death of Iranian student Neda Agha-Soltan, YouTube. The clip features graphic and violent amateur footage.

The emergence of such a video flew in the face of Iran’s strong media censorship. It forced not only new crackdowns but also a move by the ruling government to exploit the same digital interfaces that were used against it. “It posted erroneous information about protest meeting times and locations, and unsuspecting citizens showed up to be met by baton-wielding militia forces” (Amin). The regime also planned to mobilize 15,000 members of the Basij paramilitary forces to suppress demonstrators in Tehran (Hughes). Iran's civil resistance movement is unique because the government's tight control of media and the Internet has spawned a generation adept at circumventing cyber roadblocks, making the country ripe for a technology-driven protest movement (Schleifer).

Social media proponents promoted the technology’s role in the Iranian unrest, but a closer look reveals a more complicated picture. “Although there was a great deal of excitement about the role of Twitter in Iran after the presidential election more recent evidence indicates that twitter conversation about the Iranian protest occurred mostly among those in the West, and most likely was not used by Iranians to organize. Instead, Twitter and other social media were used to report protest events as they unfolded, replacing the foreign press and also creating international support for the movement” (Etling). Research into the Iranian blogosphere shows that political and religious conservatives are no less prominent than regime critics (“Reading Twitter in Tehran?”). While the movement was unsuccessful in forcing change, it continues to exist, still using social media as a way to communicate within Iran and with others around the world who are sympathetic to their cause.

Tunisia

In December 2010, Mohammed Bouaziz set fire to himself – “a desperate act of defiance following his denied attempts to work as a street vendor to support his family. … The scenes of his self-immolation captured by passers-by and posted on YouTube as well as those of the mass protests that followed his funeral, quickly circulated in Tunisia and beyond” (Cottle).

Mohammed Bouazizi
Amateur video footage of Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation, YouTube. This clip contains graphic and violent images.

On January 11th protests reached the centre of the capital city Tunis, and Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali responded by ordering in the army and imposing a night-time curfew. The next day, tens of thousands took to the streets in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city (“International: No Sign of an End”). On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled the country, ousted by a spontaneous populous uprising. “Tunisia's population of 10 million people, known for their high levels of education and civic pride, became the first people in the Arab world to take to the streets and oust a leader”(Chrisafis).

Although Tunisia’s government practiced some of the most repressive Internet censorship, the country has one of the most connected populations in the region outside the Gulf; 33% of the population is online, 16% on Facebook and 18% using Twitter. “Although the Ben Ali regime blocked YouTube during the month of unrest, it did not entirely block Internet access, and seasoned cyber activists played bridging roles, re-posting videos and Facebook content about protests from closed loops of private networks to Twitter and online news portals with greater reach.” (“Middle East”) Also, Tunisia witnessed a sudden eight percent surge in the number of Facebook users during the first two weeks of January 2011, coupled with a shift in the usage turned from merely social in nature into primarily political (“Social Media a Catalyst for Reform”).

The protests, nicknamed the “Jasmine revolution,” led to the installation of a coalition government following elections. While new technology helped opposition leadership organize protests and easily communicate with followers, “it is simplistic to say social media caused [Tunisia’s] Jasmine revolution; the underlying economic and political causes were decades in the making. It is also unlikely that Facebook and Twitter will fill the leadership vacuum that now exists in the country” (Rash).

Egypt

Google executive Wael Ghonim helped spark Egypt’s 2011 unrest. Egyptian businessman Khaled Said died after being beaten by police, who had videotaped themselves taking confiscated marijuana. Hoping to draw attention to police corruption, he copied that video and posted it to YouTube. Ghonim created a Facebook page called ‘We Are all Khaled Said.’

It featured horrific photos, shot with a cellphone in the morgue, of Said’s face. That visual evidence undermined the official explanations of his death. The Facebook page attracted some 500,000 members (“Information Age: Egypt’s Revolution”). Protestors flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square under the watchful eye of a military that was loath to turn on citizens. To thwart the protestors, the government sought to block access to Facebook and Twitter and severely restrict access to the Internet. The strategy failed because the insurgents, with help from supporters around the world, were able to subvert the censorship. Also, Internet restrictions negatively affected companies’ and the government’s ability to do business. Under increasing domestic and international pressure, longtime Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak resigned February 11, 2011, following 18 days of protests.

Editorial carton featuring Khaled Said and Hosni Mubarak
An editorial cartoon by Carlos Latuff depicting a Khaled Said holding up a tiny, flailing version of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

“With a population of about 80 million and median age of 24, Egypt has nearly 4 million Facebook users, representing about 5% of the population.” (“Middle East”) During the week before Mubarak’s resignation, the total rate of tweets from Egypt – and around the world – about political change in that country increased from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day. Videos featuring protest and political commentary went viral – the top 23 videos received nearly 5.5 million views. The amount of content produced online by opposition groups, in Facebook and political blogs, increased dramatically (“New Study Quantifies”).

“At its core, the revolution represents a force that is much more willing to criticize authority, and tolerate diversity, than perhaps mainstream public opinion. The original throngs that fought riot police drew on at least three major and messily overlapping constituencies. First were the activists - organizers of all political and religious stripes who had come to trust each other over years of strikes, tiny protests and mass arrests. Second were the politicized people previously afraid to challenge the regime but who brought to the protests a distinct agenda - labor unionists, socialists, liberal NGO [non-government organizations] workers and more conservative religious activists. Finally, there were the hundreds of thousands of angry and apolitical Egyptians sick of Mubarak’s police state” (Cambanis).

Lebanon, Syria, and Libya

“As the protests spread across the Arab world, activists in Lebanon began to unite with the goal of ‘ousting the sectarian system.’ These activists managed to reach around 15,000 people through a Facebook group entitled “In favor of ousting the Lebanese sectarian system – towards a secular system.” The group is comprised of youth from different sects, regions, and cultural backgrounds” (“Social Media Creating Social Awareness”). However, it was the sectarian and divided nature of Lebanese youth partisanship that rendered it difficult to use social media to mobilize young people through a common goal (“Grasp of Social Media”).

Social media played a different role in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s anti-government protests than in Libya and Yemen. “There is not the kind of strong tradition of online activism in Libya and Yemen as there is in other Arab countries” (Riley). In Libya, there is a lack of Internet infrastructure, online access is difficult, and the Gadhafi regime has limited social media. “In Yemen, government controls and extreme poverty limit Internet use” (Riley).
Unfortunately, in these countries, technological barriers to social media coupled with severe totalitarian regimes stymied reform efforts

Go To "Twitter Revolution" Critics

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