**Earlier this year, Wael Ghonim, a mild-mannered Eygptian national and Google product and marketing manager for the Middle East and North Africa found himself the unlikely symbol of a revolutionary wave that rocked his country and ultimately toppled President Hosni Mubarak from power. Ghonim is famous for his Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said”, which grimly featured pictures of Khaled Said, one of Egypt’s many victims of police violence. Said had been dragged into the streets from an internet café and beaten to death after posting a leaked video of police officers divvying up confiscated drugs. The page rallied more than half a million members and became a mobilizing cry that stirred up over 30 years of repressed outrage among Egyptians.
Social media as a human right
Across Syria, Bahrain, Libya, and even iron-fisted Saudi Arabia, social media tools like Twitter and Facebook are being touted as the catalysts of revolutions and protests, inspiring people into organized action. University of London professor Annabelle Sreberny, author of ‘Blogistan: The Internet and Politics’ in Iran has argued that social media has boosted the worldwide democracy movement—and should be protected like any other human right.
For all the heaped praise, the use of social media in political action and social movements has been around a long time. Thomas Paine’s famous tract, ‘Common Sense’ riled up American colonists and spread through taverns and town halls, sparking the American Revolution. The predecessors of our modern day bloggers and journalists, like Paine, fired scathing words before firing their musket rifles. During the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, one campaign called the ‘Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964’ used social ties to spread the word and amass volunteers. It wasn’t so much ideological fervor that drew people— but personal connections. In the same way, that people joined the campaigns in Mississippi, people joined Facebook pages in Egypt— because their close friends and family were involved.
Still, many people have lionized Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools as something new. Mark Pfeifle a former national security advisor, referring to the uprising in Iran in 2009, extolled that “without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” and called for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. According to James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, sites like Facebook “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists”. In a personal blog post, Othman Laraki, the Director of Search and Geo at Twitter, mused that Twitter was part of a “revolutionary equation” that tipped the scales toward action for dissidents by “reducing the cost of dissent and [increasing] the cost of suppressing it”. Simply put, individuals take action and rise up from years of oppression and apathy because their access to social media provides the necessary spark.
5 ways social media can spark political action (…and kick dictator ass):
1. Social media speeds things up. We live in accelerated times. In the democratic movements in the Middle East and North Africa, social media may not have started political action, but it certainly increased the speed as which ideas spread. In today’s frenetic internet environment, information can spread and encircle communities and populations at a phenomenal rate. People can quickly mobilize themselves into groups through news feeds on their social media accounts.
2. Social media makes things transparent. Social media let users share videos and photos of abuse and tyranny on YouTube and Flickr. News networks picked up on these videos and beamed those images across the globe. You don’t need news crews on the ground— which can be easily restricted by authorities. You just need brave, ordinary citizens with cell phones cameras.
3. Social media decentralizes a movement– and thus makes it harder to kill. The wave of insurrections that started in Tunisia last December, unfolded across Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Libya under leaders and groups that mostly stayed behind-the-scenes. Their lack of visibility allowed them to maneuver and plot without raising too much attention— gathering followers and momentum on social media channels. The movement passed virally from household to household, from fringe groups to the mainstream through social media channels. A movement like this without a unified leader at the helm also makes it harder for authorities to decapitate.
4. Social media makes it easy to reach wider audiences. People from all over the world were able to get involved, ‘rushing to the scene’ by sharing information on topics such as, ‘how to protect yourself from tear gas’. Social media also made it easy to verify information by engaging multiple streams of information.
5. Social media makes it safe to express discontent. In many ways, social media creates ‘safe spaces’ where people can voice their dissent and connect with others who share the same sentiments. It creates a group dynamic where people leap from being early adopters to part of the majority— with minimal risk. Clicking ‘Like’ on popular Facebook causes and retweeting can be a sign of solidarity and a badge of our democratic spirit— even if it is a far-cry from the full-throttle, engaged social activism of, say the Civil Rights Movement. But virtual protests can easily transform into emboldened, real protest on the streets.
Why social media needs to be protected
The use of social media has opened the door to dramatic new political possibilities, but it’s a double-edged sword. Many critics (most notably Malcolm Gladwell, Golnaz Esfandiari, and Stanford University’s Evegeny Morozov) have said that the role of social media in championing revolution is overblown—and can be easily harnessed by dictators themselves. These governments can hold their bloggers under the fire as dissidents. Dictatorial regimes with just the right degree of technical savvy can track social media footprints to monitor individuals as well as marshall the internet for their devious plots to spew propaganda and sabotage grassroots organizations.
The Human Rights Watch non-governmental organization has teamed up with media heavyweights like Yahoo and Microsoft to develop the Global Network Initiative, which sets out to create a social media ‘code of conduct’ to protect what makes social media a great tool for political action and social change—while urging vigilance against creeping censorship, particularly in authoritarian regimes like China, Myanmar, and Iran.
Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China have already expressed interest in joining the social media savvy ranks— possibly fine-tuning their censors and Big Brother surveillance by blithely becoming Facebook friends and Twitter buddies. President Hugo Cha
vez of Venezuela has almost 1.5 million followers on Twitter. Some say that this constructs the illusion of democracy, offering just enough scant concessions to influence citizens and block critics. To capitalize on social media to spread freedom, we must also recognize its shortcomings and loopholes, too.