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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

We Are The 35%

Fighting tyranny with the TwitteR



In the wake of the Arab Spring, global Occupy movement and uprisings in Russia and Mexico, TIME christened 2011 the “Year of the Protester.”  The mood was indeed one of widespread dissent and what was arguably most striking about the protests was the way in which they were organised and lead. Not only were citizens employing flyers, billboards, graffiti and text messages to get their message across, but they were increasingly turning to the internet in particular, to social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in a bid to spread information, garner support, and mobilise thousands of citizens to fight for their cause.

In Egypt, following the death of an Alexandrian businessman at the hands of police, the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” was created. Administered by Google executive Wael Ghonim, (who went under the pseudonym ‘El Shaheed’), the page originally existed as a testimony to the murdered man, however, it quickly transformed into a campaign against police brutality in Egypt and finally into a fully-fledged human rights activism movement with upwards of 350,000 fans. Encouraged by the victories achieved in nearby Tunisia, the group set their goal as no less than to topple Egypt’s authoritarian regime. Despite the government’s attempts to stymie dissent by cutting off internet access, networking took place, protests were organised, and citizens were united by the hundreds of thousands. The rest, as we know, is history: Mubarak’s regime was toppled in a matter of weeks and in its place the Muslim Brotherhood was eventually elected to power.

To call the Egyptian revolution a “Facebook revolution” would be deceptive, even demeaning. Egyptians had suffered 30 years of economic and social hardship under a dictatorship and the rumblings of dissent were already distinct. Focusing solely on the influence of social media detracts from the achievements of the oppressed, implying that, had Egyptians not been equipped with this new technology, liberation would still be no more than a distant dream. On the contrary, it appears that change in Egypt, as in many Middle East and North African (MENA) countries, was inevitable, but Facebook and other social networking sites became tools to facilitate this change and to greatly increase the rapidity with which it was won. It should also not be forgotten that internet penetration in Egypt is far below the global average of 35 per cent, suggesting that more traditional forms of protest formed an integral part of opposition campaigns.  Just as other technologies have been embraced to positive or negative intent throughout time – think Martin Luther and the printing press or Adolf Hitler and the microphone – so too was it only natural for Egyptians and citizens of MENA countries to look to the internet as one means of many to achieving their goals.

The Arab Spring and the global Occupy Movement could be regarded as templates for modern protest movements – albeit with varying degrees of success. How was it then that, by making use of new technologies, they changed our traditional perceptions of political protest? One of the major advantages of social networking sites is the rapidity with which they operate. Such sites enable people to connect instantly, to drum up support networks over a matter of weeks and to organise calls to action in mere days. This saves money and resources and allows for a great degree of flexibility and efficiency. Co-ordinating demonstrations online is arguably much safer for protesters, since activists can run campaigns from the safety of their homes, often choosing to remain anonymous in order to avoid the suspicions of authorities.

This safety net behind the laptop screen may give a false impression, however, for with information so easily accessible there is little to stop governments and counter-revolutionary movements from monitoring sites and collecting invaluable intelligence information. Governments are also provided with a simple means to spread misinformation and propaganda and studies show that all around the world they are keeping educated as to how to employ social media to their advantage. If all else fails, many governments have systems in place to quickly sever connections with internet service providers and cut off internet communication. Internet censorship is notoriously used as a method of control in China. Despite the high level of restrictions, Chinese citizens have recently achieved notable successes such as convincing the government to abandon plans to build a copper alloy in the Sichuan Province, aided by popular support on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

A significant change in protest in the 21st Century is the absence of any clear leaders. Throughout history, it has been charismatic leaders who have instigated change, people like John Minto, Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela. But if asked to name the leaders of the Arab Spring uprisings, or the Occupy movement, you might well struggle. These revolutions were characterised by a lack (or an abundance, depending on your viewpoint) of leaders. New technologies enabled ordinary citizens to assume a degree of responsibility in promoting the cause of freedom and in organising events. This had its strength in that it gave people a sense of power, motivating them to increase their level of participation, whilst still helping them feel part of a wider movement. The pitfalls of leaderless campaigns are that they may become increasingly disorganised and chaotic. The Occupy movement in New Zealand has been criticised on this point, with some arguing that the lack of a motivational figurehead was partly to blame for the low turnout of demonstrators at some occupations.

If the protests in the Arab World and around Wall Street and beyond have taught us anything, it is that there is great potential in the internet as a tool of political dissent. No longer is Facebook simply a way to stay in contact with friends, share photos, or ‘like’ funny posts; it now provides an invaluable means for grass-roots citizens on a local and global level to share a common cause, communicate instantly and mobilise on a macro level. The internet’s importance should by all means be acknowledged and celebrated, but it should not be exaggerated. After all, it is people who found and use social network sites, it is people who are behind posts and profiles, hacktivism and hashtags. Furthermore, conditions must be right for change to occur; the air must be dense with the clouds of revolution. Even when conditions are right, social networking sites must also be used effectively to be successful: ‘it’s not the tweeting, it’s how we’re tweeting.’

From a means to be educated, to a way to communicate ideas and make contacts, to a tool of political protest, we are still now only becoming aware of the infinite possibilities of the internet. It is perhaps surprising to realise that global internet penetration is estimated at 35%. As citizens of a developed country, it often feels as though it would be near impossible to revert to BG (Before Google) time and it’s hard to believe that most of the world’s population is not yet online.  Dictatorships falling, cities throughout the world being occupied… and all this with just 35% of the populace. Imagine what is to come when this figure increases. ▲


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