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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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Social Media's Role

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The question arises – once the dust has cleared, where does social media fit into the new paradigm? “What we are seeing is revolutions where the lowering in the cost of transaction of organizing is allowing for these decentralized forces to actually push revolution but without creating those kinds of long lasting structures which, for example, can become political parties after the regime has been toppled” (“The United States Institute of Peace”).

Manuel Castells has conceptualized how new network configurations can lead to new political movements by allowing previously disconnected, undeveloped political identities to take shape and rise to a prominent position (Castells). This is particularly applicable to Arab countries where religions and ethnic divides previously prevented networking. “Many Arab regimes banned the creation of political parties and limited the right to associate or create civil rights groups. This meant that there was little space where religious, ethnic, and cultural groups could meet and interact. … But social media has helped such groups discover one another and break the psychological barrier of fear between them” (“Social Media Creating Social Awareness”). Political discussion in blogs presaged the turn of popular opinion in both Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, conversations about liberty, democracy and revolution on blogs and on twitter often immediately preceded mass protests” (“New Study Quantifies”).

TwitPic of Egyptian protests
A picture posted on Twitter's photo-sharing website TwitPic by the user madyar shows supporters of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi taking part in a rally in Tehran on June 17, 2009

According to Srdja Popvic of CANVAS, a group that teaches democracy movements how to engage in nonviolent struggle, social media has three uses: “It is an efficient and cheap way to give members information – much better than putting up posters. It also conveys to members the highly motivating realization that they have big numbers – people who know their pro-democracy Facebook group has 70,000 members will be much more excited and less fearful than people unaware they are part of a big group. And it is an efficient way to transfer skills and information” (Rosenberg).

One of the leading social-media movement proponents in the US is New York University professor Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody. He believes that “the more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere” and “social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. Larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns that were previously reserved for formal organizations. For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls ‘shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand, but also understand that everyone else does too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks. Political culture heightens the conservative dilemma by providing cover for more political uses of social media. Tools specifically designed for dissident use are politically easy for the state to shut down, whereas tools in broad use become much harder to censor without risking politicizing the larger group of otherwise apolitical actors” (Shirky). Regime shutdowns, which technologically-savvy protestors have proven to be fairly adept at subverting, alert the international community to problems within countries.

 “New media can have an impact by helping to transform individuals and give them new competencies that empower them in politics. This can be something as simple as taking a picture or a video with a smartphone, uploading that image of that footage to YouTube” (“The United States Institute of Peace”). A second impact is “the way that new media draws external attention from citizens and governments outside the country or the region to that country or region to the place that is experiencing protest or conflict” (“The United States Institute of Peace”). In this sense, the new media are a megaphone. “It is difficult to prove that communication via new media or social media is actually what brings people to the streets, especially in societies which have relatively low degrees of Internet penetration and Internet access. Perhaps the best illustration of the threat this information poses to authoritarian governments is their reaction to it. States have made a number of efforts to rein in Internet speech, including Internet” (“The United States Institute of Peace”).

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