In 2006, I had the privilege of being part of a mass protest in the city of New Delhi. It was a Friday and the group that had gathered included a few B-grade Bollywood celebrities and most of the Capital’s fashion frat pack. Wearing black arm bands, holding candles and placards emblazed with ‘Justice for Jessica’, the noisy, yet peaceful procession cut two figures of eight around the India Gate monument and headed towards the Rashtrapathi Bhawan. Over the next few days the papers read, “5,000 assemble at India Gate to support Jessica,” “Government comes down hard on Courts,” “Swift action promised, after 9 years” and finally “Manu Sharma to receive sentence”.
Far too involved in the sentiment behind our screaming that day, I, like the rest of world, hadn’t given much thought to the dynamics that went into organising our little act of solidarity. That is off course, until years later, when the Arab Spring began and everyone started talking about social media with a newfound sense of professionalism and potential. Just as Delhi had used SMSs, Facebook and YouTube, to co-ordinate and report on one of the biggest organised protests the country had ever seen; the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia (to name a few) had all harnessed the power of online social platforms to draw people into their struggle, unite them in the name of freedom and finally, report daily progress. So timely-relevant was social media for the latter, it’s said that, for the first time, over 80 % of the news broadcasted by international news agencies was taken from verified YouTube videos made by protestors and tweets from activists, present in the field at the time.
Was social media the only galvanising factor in the Arab Spring?
As the world watched Arab citizens in North Africa and the Middle East gather to protest against authoritarian governments, restricted freedom, and poor economic opportunities; they credited platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Audiboo with helping to propel the ‘revolution’. But in countries like Egypt, where only 20% of a population of 80 million people have ever used the Internet, or Libya and Tunisia where Internet penetration is merely 5% and 34% respectively, the question is not if, but how did social media become the conduit for tens of thousands of protesters?
Social media alone did not facilitate the Arab Revolution. It however, was a very important catalyst. A common tool for the tech-savvy youth in each country, social media was combined with myriad methods of digital and traditional media to form, what we refer to today as – a new social media formation . Technological advances like cell phones, video cameras, blog posts and Facebook, in conjunction with more traditional media outlets like Al Jazeera, created the circumstances for the most honest and timely information dissemination, the world had ever seen.
Digital media has always provided the outlet for free expression that government monitored traditional media has not. The content shared, featured videos and images by people from all classes, not just the wealthy, and was captured by cellular phones and point and shoot cameras. Twenty-four-hour news channel Al Jazeera, curated and collected the raw, immediate content citizens were sharing from each and every country, and made all that content available to television viewers as fast as possible. According to the Allied Media Corporation, Al Jazeera reached over 40 million viewers in the Arab world. Their extensive coverage of the uprising and willingness to broadcast both original citizen journalism and diverse views allowed Arab citizens without computers to see the digital content being shared by their neighbours and countrymen.
Social media helped large groups to gather in a short amount of time. It also provided a platform for people to express their solidarity, both within the country and with others in the region and beyond. Egyptians heard about Tunisia from Tunisian citizens instead of the national news media. Word was spread so quickly that enormous numbers were able to congregate in just days, and even hours – because someone knew someone who knew someone on Facebook. Of course no single Tweet or Facebook group compelled these thousands of people to march. But a combination of both – a new social formation, facilitated communication between and within oppressed nations, and aided in a collective struggle.
The advantage of new social movements and it’s formation in the Middle East
There are many reasons for the success behind such social media movements.
As we saw in Egypt, young people often rely on sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in order to communicate and organize. These new media sites promote a decentralized social structure: people with different backgrounds and interests link together over a shared set of demands. The spectrum of involvement has the power to move from a few hundred to a few million, within hours.
New media social movements combine technology with spontaneity, offering a new way of interacting with the world. Faster and with minimal chance to mould opinion or censor, these movements are harder to control or predict and ultimately more difficult for a government to suppress.
Manipulating media trends and stories is not a new concept; political parties have been wrongly doing it for decades. But with the current generation of tech-savvy youth, who have grown up in a media-saturated world, dominating sources with their own brand of social media movements is a way to once gain ensure personal empowerment and an unbiased mass participation.
Social media formations also bridge the gap between online assembly and off-line demands. By coming together under a set of common goals, people from different social, political and economic backgrounds are able to form a united front to challenge a status quo. New media technologies often facilitate this type of coalition politics because the Internet itself is based on linking together different sites and people. The decentralized nature of social media also makes it hard for one group to control and dominate a topical conversation.
The future of social media movements
While the innovative combination of reportage is being heralded as ‘next generation’ by truth seekers from around the world, to those in power, it poses a new threat. Harnessing social technology to revolutionize political dissent, governments are racing to develop strategies to respond to, and even control, the new player in the political arena – social media. Diplomats at every level are being trained to use it to explain policy and, more importantly, listen to what is being said and written in the countries in which they operate. The Holy Grail is now “to beat the news,” as governments are investing huge sums of money in social platform analytics, to be able to predict a specific riot or protest at a specific location and time. Much of the interest in that technology is seen coming from intelligence and national security agencies, but private companies and investors are also taking notice and new firms are springing up, offering a range of analytic products.
Censoring social media
In India, Twitter, Facebook and Google have managed to run rings around Kapil Sibal’s attempts at censorship, as the public becomes more and more outraged, each day, with the telecom minister’s “idiotic” countermeasures. British Prime Minister David Cameron was widely criticized, even within his own party, for threatening to impose censorship and shutdown social media and messaging platforms in response to London’s August riots. San Francisco’s BART transit system faced widespread anger and accusations of breaching the U.S. constitutional guarantees of free speech when it sought to shut down mobile phone services within the system in an attempt to stymie protests after a shooting, by a transit authority police officer. There might however be some positive to the immense negativity in sentiment – “social censorship” has brought about. China, through its use of a sophisticated system to monitor and sometimes censor online debate, recently managed to avoid the widespread street protests they saw happening elsewhere.
This new social formation both reflects and produces new media. In other words, not only are people using new media to organize political protests, but these protests themselves tend to mimic the structure and methods of new social formation. A wake-up call to the oppressed, a threat to autocracy or the most honest and effective form of new coverage in a long time, all I can say is within a month after our candle vigil in Delhi, Jessica Lal’s trial was fast tracked and justice delivered – a case that had otherwise dragged on for almost a decade.
Written by Suhail Bhandari for Image Management