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.

Week 5 Blog: Networks of Social Interaction

social media timeline

This week’s reading by boyd and Ellison (2008) focuses on the definition and history of Social Network Sites (SNSs) and their progression as the Web has advanced.  I agree with the distinction made between the terms social network site and social networking site; although these terms are often used interchangeably, boyd and Ellison (2008) decided to use the term network rather than networking. Networking ‘emphasizes relationship initiation, often between strangers’ (boyd & Ellison 2008, pg 211) but this is not the primary function of many SNSs. Most users of SNSs are not ‘networking’ as in attempting to meet new people, but are connecting with people already in their social network (boyd & Ellison 2008).

A history of SNSs is explored in the article (2008), demonstrating their transformation as the popularity of such sites has increased and the capabilities of the Web expanded.  Early SNSs such as SixDegrees.com, Friendster and Ryze were eventually replaced with sites such as MySpace and Facebook that are highly user-responsive and able to be easily manipulated by users to suit their own personal tastes and preferences.

I believe that SNSs are popular because they provide a simple way for people to remain in contact regardless of their geographic location.  However, there is also an element of self-presentation; friendship links ‘serve as identity markers for the profile owner’ (boyd & Ellison 2008, pg 220) and affect how we are seen by others.  SNSs raise many privacy issues as they are ‘challenging legal conceptions of privacy’ (boyd & Ellison 2008, pg 222) and have been the source of moral panic in the past. Most SNSs have responded to these concerns through amendments to privacy policies and by raising awareness of these matters.

– Katie Challita 3663620

References:

boyd, dana & Ellison, Nicole (2008), ‘Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship,’, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, vol.13, pp.210-230

Image sourced from http://janeknight.typepad.com/socialmedia/2009/10/a-history-of-social-media.html

Week 4 Blog: Facebook – The Commodification of Socialisation?

FaceBook

This week’s article by Cohen (2008) focuses on Facebook and the issues of privacy, the commodification of information, and the potential for social networking sites (SNS) to be used to create alternative messages. These areas were analysed through a gender-based lens, concentrating on young women and their perceptions of these issues.

The focus groups in the study found that SNS ‘present few opportunities for disseminating alternative messages or images about female sexuality’ (Cohen 2008, pg 211). I agree that the design constraints of Facebook limit the ability to communicate messages; however, I think that Facebook is a valid tool for raising awareness of social issues and could be used in conjunction with a more direct and proactive approach. High exposure and the possibility of online peer-to-peer communication and sharing indicate a possibility for wide-spread distribution of positive messages.

Participants of the study failed to see the potential of Facebook for communicating alternative messages due to its commercial aims – user-provided information is sold to third parties who can then specifically pursue their target market (Cohen 2008, pg 211-212).  When I turned eighteen I noticed an immediate change in the advertisements on my Facebook page.  My age (eighteen), gender (female) and relationship status (single), resulted in advertisements for dating websites featuring images of young men – these advertisements would not have appeared if I was under 18, male or in a relationship.

The focus groups determined that whilst they were ‘enthusiastic about the social possibilities of Facebook’ (Cohen 2008, pg 212), the commercialistic nature of Facebook and its functional constraints limited the potential for SNS to be used to project alternative messages especially about female sexuality.

– Katie Challita 3663620

References:

Cohen, N 2008, ‘Gendering Facebook: Privacy and Commodification’, Journal of Feminist Media Studies, vol.8 issue.2, pp. 201-214

Image from Facebook.com‘s Official Facebook group