Saturday, April 7, 2012

5 ways social media shape riots, revolution and pro-democracy change

Are social media responsible for the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia? Interesting question indeed. What role did social media play in last year’s riots across the UK or in Vancouver during the race for the Stanley Cup? Here’s my take.

I don’t question that social media played a role in Egypt, Tunisia, the UK and Vancouver. I might even argue that social media were both spark and accelerant, playing an integral role in five key ways.

Social media: spark and accelerant

1.      From flashpoint to grassroots mobilization

One cannot discount that three decades of despotic rule were already fuelling Egypt’s revolutionary fire. Conditions in that country were conducive to protests even before Egypt decided to block Twitter and Facebook and shut down the Internet and mobile devices. Yet, social media did play an instrumental role in organizing and mobilizing people. There was, among these revolutionaries, a sense of solidarity: social networks gave that solidarity a voice. In Tunisia, likewise, corruption and unemployment were the rallying point. The same is true in Britain, where there was chronic economic malaise, police brutality, a lack of jobs and a growing chasm between rich and poor. In sum, the climate in all three nations had reached a flashpoint, and, in all three, protests were organized and supported through Twitter and Facebook.

Britain distinguishes itself from Tunisia and Egypt on one key aspect, however. Some point to ideological differences as the reason: in the Arab world, social media facilitated the overthrow of dictators and despots. In the West, on the other hand, protesters are rioters, looters and opponents crying out against capitalism and corporations. They use social media not as a tool to catalyze pro-democracy change, but as a tool to coordinate attacks, stay ahead of authorities, and direct others to areas of untapped riches.

Since a riot is highly unlikely to alter the outcome of a hockey game, it is a bit of a stretch to compare the riots across the UK to those in Vancouver. Drawing a comparison is not the point, however; rather, it’s likely that the rioters in Britain, like the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia, feeling disadvantaged and powerless, hoped their actions just might bring about political change, and hence their use of social media.

2.      Organize the rise of civil society active citizenship

In Egypt, volumes of information flowed from such social networks as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. That Mubarak’s regime fell in a mere 18 days speaks to the potent—and astonishing—impact of social media. Yet bloggers and digital activists, under violent repression, had been working on reform for some time.

Similarly, in Tunisia, Facebook was the tool for organizing activists and sharing videos, which were then migrated into Posterous, uploaded to YouTube and shared on Twitter. In fact, young Tunisians are so prolific online that the Tunisian government felt compelled to block and disrupt bloggers and anyone else deemed an opponent.

3.      Counter rumor and propaganda

As the burgeoning revolution in Tunisia gathered momentum, the minister of youth and sports, known as @slim404 on Twitter, inspired bloggers by providing insight into Tunisia’s inner workings and shedding light on the position of police, looters and snipers.

In Egypt, thirty years of despotism and abuses by police and state security officials were so common that the case of Khaled Said, beaten by police and left dead on a street in Alexandria, was a ready rallying point for a diverse network of outraged Egyptians. Among these was 30-year-old Google executive Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” not only undermined official explanations of Said’s death, but also tracked other accounts of police abuses, wrongful arrests, torture in detention and corrupt government. Ghonim became a symbol of Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising after he launched the original Facebook page credited with sparking the initial protest.

“If you want to liberate a country, give them the Internet,” says Ghonim, fully aware of the power of social media to catalyze pro-democracy movements.

Facebook acted like an accelerant to conditions already present within Egypt and helped organize revolutionaries inside the country. At the same time, Twitter and YouTube amplified messages, helping to disseminate them to the world and galvanize international support. In addition, social media also transmitted hope to other repressed nations in the Middle East, caused shifts in foreign policy and had an impact on traditional media.

4.      Resetting the narrative

The relationship between social media and traditional media is undeniable. Not only did Al Jazeera make its news available—for free—to other broadcast media, but consider also the New-York based blogger who debunked the notion that then-president Hosni Mubarak had engaged young men to toss Cairo in an attempt to make the protests seem like dangerous anarchy. She urged the media to use the words revolt, uprising and revolution rather than unrest and chaos. Soon after her interview with CNN, the network changed its headlines: Chaos Uprising in Egypt.

Although mainstream media are more open across the UK than it is in the Arab world, the riots in the UK are no less interesting a case study. This is because local voices, for the most part, were not represented in mainstream media, although they expressed—sometimes vociferously—their concerns over unemployment and inequality across the social web.

Each of these examples demonstrates clearly to what extent social media reset the narrative.

5.      Reshaping foreign policy

When faced with the possibility that an ally’s government could fall, Washington has, more often than not, sided with the authority in power. Yet, given the copious amounts of information coming out of Egypt in favour of the protesters, Washington could not downplay what was happening and consequently altered its position, no longer explicitly expressing its support of Mubarak.

Viral violence or viral silence?

In Egypt and Tunisia, the social web increased the speed at which events unfolded and, in the UK and Vancouver, summer riots were allegedly exacerbated by social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet, in evaluating social media’s role in times of unrest—whether in the Middle East or in the West—one has to wonder how prudent it is to shut down social networks. Doing so during times of public unrest could have effects as deleterious as viral noise, warns the four-member Riots Communities and Victims Panel when asked to report on the five days of rioting in the UK.

The question of viral violence versus viral silence also underlines the double standard in social media. Used by protesters to overthrow corrupt regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, social media made possible citizen journalism when mainstream media were shut down. Again, social media reshaped the narrative and were lauded as tools for democracy. Yet, these same communication tools, when used in the West, were condemned.

The condemnation may be hasty, however. It is true that social media are used to share ideas, thoughts and other digital content, including video. It is also true that, used this way, social media document the chronology of events “on the ground”. At the same time, however, one mustn’t forget that this same user-created content may constitute evidence.

While social media did accelerate events and document the worst of the violence in the UK and in Vancouver, it should also be noted that they are being used to identify the worst of the culprits and bring them to justice. Facebook user and Vancouverite Robert Gorcak created a Facebook page titled “Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos” to gather photos of the perpetrators in the hopes of bringing them to justice. Fans of the page, who number over 70,000, took screen captures of Facebook status updates posted by rioters.

The Vancouver Police Department took to social media and sent out Tweets asking people for photos to help identify riot suspects. In November 2011, the department thanked individuals for sharing their digital evidence. (At the time of this writing, 207 criminal charges have been laid against 78 suspects.)

Similarly, British police are posting photos taken by surveillance and security cameras to their website in the hope of identifying and convicting hooligans and looters. As in Vancouver, Britons are using Facebook and Twitter to help identify suspected rioters.

I’m not here to discuss whether social media should be used as an extension of local law enforcement any more than I’m here to justify—or condemn—the ushering in of a new era in cyber surveillance. What I will say, however is that social media, whether tools for good or evil, are not only alternative forms of communication, but also, due to their ubiquity, a fact of life.

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