Social Media & Politics
The role which social networking websites played in organizing the demonstrations that helped out President Hosni Mubarak from power, ending his 30-year old rule was a unique incident. This particular incident is unique in many aspects. For starters, this could very well be the first (recorded and public) instance of a person being named after a social network, instead of it being the other way around (remember Orkut?). More importantly, it reverberates the elevated status attributed to the all-pervasive social media during the recent regime-ousting political campaigns erupting in North Africa and Middle East.
Since the last 2 years, social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been extensively used to coordinate demonstrations and update the global audience about the situation on the ground through tweets, videos, and images of the protests in the region. In January 2011, Tunisians took to the streets to protest widespread unemployment, government corruption and the lack of opportunities. These demonstrations came in the wake of the self-immolation of 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, after his informal vegetable stall and sole means of livelihood was shuttered by the police in the southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. An unemployed college graduate, Bouazizi did not die a quick death; he suffered from his extensive burns till January 4, 2011.
According to Al Jazeera, Bouazizi was not the first Tunisian to set himself alight as an act of police protest. However, what set the incident apart was the determination of the people of Sidi Bouzid to reach out and get noticed. On December 17, two relatives of Bouazizi posted a video of a peaceful protest led by the young man’s mother outside the municipality building. The video was aired on Al Jazeera after its New Media team picked up the footage via Facebook. In contrast, apart from a solid core of activists, most Tunisians did not have the courage to “report” or “like” videos on Facebook – that’s why trend of hiring a proper social media agency grown up for the purpose of spreading message and taking a much solid protest against government.
The Social Media Revolution
The role of social media in mobilizing the people (and subsequently falling victim to internet censorship) was once again brought into focus during the mass protests in Egypt, in January 2011. Motivated by Tunisia’s success in driving president Ben Ali from power, a protest against unemployment, government corruption, poverty and the rule of president Hosni Mubarak was planned on January 25, 2011. The message was put out on Facebook pages such as the ‘April 6 Youth Movement’ as well as circulated through tweets. As a result, Egypt’s political revolution grew and persisted. Eventually, amidst massive international pressure and widespread protests in the country, President Mubarak announced his resignation on February 11, 2011 – making the end of his three decades in power and the culmination of the 18 days of public demonstrations in the country.
As protests spread from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and Libya, information and communications technologies (ICTs) helping protesters aggregate, and disseminate news and updates, have turned into a source of contention for media analysts and Web 2.0 advocates. Attributing full credit for the recent political revolutions to the technologies used to propagate the message, many social media enthusiasts are eager to classify these people-led mass protests against authoritarian regimes as “Twitter Revolution” or Facebook Revolution” or even “Revolution 2.0”. Opposing these beliefs are those who acknowledge social media tools in helping spread message, yet maintain that tools are only as effective as the way people use them. For them, revolutions happen when the bulk of the population propelled by grievances, ideology, outrage and courage, rises up against a government.
It is said that the ‘strong will of people is needed along with technology to make revolutions’. In this case, the collective will and effort of the people is needed to revolutionize the network and make it resilient to state censorship and outages, and to ensure that the conversations continue unhindered online.