Tweeting for Democracy?

 

This week in DIGC202 we looked at what has become known as the “Twitter Revolution” – the Arab Spring and the debate about whether social media has the power to drive political change and activism.

The Arab Spring is a series of protests and demonstrations occurring in the Arab world which commenced in December 2010.  The Internet and social networking sites are being used by citizens in countries such as Syria, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring for three main purposes: to mobilise protests quickly; to undermine the legitimacy of a regime; and to increase both the national and the international exposure to a regime’s atrocities (Sanders 2011).

There are two main opposing views about the role that social media has the ability to play in a revolution. The two sides are headed by:

CYBER-REALISTS: These people discredit the claim that social media caused the revolutions in the Arab World.

CYBER-UTOPIANS: By contrast, cyber-utopians are ‘adherents of the view that digital tools of social networking such as Facebook and Twitter can summon up social revolutions’ (Morozov 2011).

Morozov (2011) notes a common conclusion that is come to by journalists and activists:

“Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = democracy. QED.”

He believes that declaring causation between social media use and the achievement of democracy during the Arab Spring and other political uprisings is technologically deterministic and inaccurate.  Morozov considers his school of thought to be that of ‘cyber-realism’; he argues that technology is ‘not enough to cause a revolution and in some cases new technologies can actually be counterproductive to the goal of regime change’ in terms of surveillance and censorship (Al-Jazeera September 1 2011).  In this way, according to Morozov, social media affords dictatorships and authoritarian governments greater power to control citizens.

On the opposing side, many people believe that Twitter and other social networking sites have been a major cause of the revolutions in the Arab world.  It is undeniable that social networking sites have been used to organise protests and have led to increased awareness both within involved countries and around the world about the events occurring during these uprisings.  Popova (2010) believes that the strength of social media lies in the progression of its three capacities: to inform, to inspire and to incite.  The Internet has the ability to generate a level of awareness that Popova deems has the power to overcome injustices. Twitter has been used to mobilise people to action on the streets and as a tool for activists to distribute valuable to-the-minute information.

Is social media a legitimate weapon in the fight for democracy? The reaction of Arab governments to this phenomenon demonstrates a governmental fear of the power that citizens with an Internet connection have against governmental control and authority.  The Syrian government has employed tactics such as ‘periodic shutdowns of the internet and mobile phone networks, intensified filtering of websites, and various sophisticated means of monitoring and tracking internet users’ online activities’ (Freedom House 2012).  Syria, Libya and Egypt also experienced total Internet shutdowns, and many dissidents have been arrested and several killed due to their online activities. Syrian citizen journalist and blogger Abu Hassam was targeted by regime forces and burned to death in his own home after actively filming and reporting on the events of the revolutions (Greenslade 2012). The murder, which occurred in September of 2012, was reported by Greenslade as being ‘the latest in a string of killings and kidnappings of citizen and professional journalists in Syria since the outbreak of the revolt in March 2011’.

So what do you think? I think social media has many characteristics that mean it can be a powerful tool when utilised properly. I believe it does raise awareness and can be a useful organisational tool to mobilise citizens and keep them informed. However, my opinion is that social media did not cause the revolution; I agree with Sultan al Qassemi (quoted by Flanagan 2011) who stated:

 

“It did play an important role. But social media facilitated – it did not cause [the uprisings].”

 

Thanks for reading!

Katie

References:

Al Jazeera 2011, Cyber realism versus Cyber-utopians, September 1, accessed 13/10/2012 via <http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/cyber-realism-versus-cyber-utopians>

Flanagan, B 2011, ‘Facebook revolution ‘a myth’, critics say’, The National, May 18, accessed 11/10/2012 via <http://www.thenational.ae/business/media/facebook-revolution-a-myth-critics-say>

Freedom House 2012, ‘Freedom on the Net 2012 – Syria’, accessed 30/9/2012 via <http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2012/syria>

Greenslade, R 2012, ‘Syrian blogger burned to death’, The Guardian, 21 September, accessed 10/10/2012 via <http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2012/sep/21/journalist-safety-syria>

Morozov, E 2011, ‘Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go’, The Guardian, March 7, accessed 10/10/2012 via <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/07/facebook-twitter-revolutionaries-cyber-utopians>

Popova, M 2010, ‘Malcolm Gladwell is #Wrong’, Design Observer, accessed 14/10/2012 via <http://changeobserver.designobserver.com/feature/malcolm-gladwell-is-wrong/19008/>

Sanders, T 2011, ‘Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s role in Arab Spring (Middle East uprisings)’, Social Capital Blog, January 26, accessed 10/10/2012 via <http://socialcapital.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/twitter-facebook-and-youtubes-role-in-tunisia-uprising/>

Image sourced from here.