The role of social media in regime change and protests has gained considerable attention since the Arab revolutions began. Social media gained notoriety for the role they played in instigating the colour revolutions in the former Soviet territories and have now garnered considerable media attention. Images of tech savvy youth coordinating the downfall of Hosni Mubarak are considered to have forced the Egyptian regime to shut down internet services in February 2011. As one Cairo activist put it: “we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”
Social media is being credited with making regime change easier and making it virtually impossible for an authoritarian regime to survive. Users of social media are being defined as those who want democracy, in a YouTube interview, Barack Obama compared social networking to universal liberties such as freedom of speech.
With the development of the internet and broadband speeds, rapid developments have taken place in online infrastructure which was not possible only a decade ago. One of these developments has been the emergence of social interaction through the internet, known today as Social media. Social Media is a tool for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques. Social media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are some of the most common forms of social media.
The Arab revolutions have seen the increasing use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter which has allowed groups to plan, carry out and communicate protests and street actions. The Green revolution in Iran in 2009 was closely followed by the Western media and this led to the West becoming hooked on such tools as they were able to see events as they happened at diverse locations. It should however be remembered that a revolution or change is much more than what we hear and see on the World Wide Web. It requires organising, public opinion and mass appeal. Social media definitely offer advantages in these areas, but at the same time they are vulnerable to government counter tactics.
The key thing for any group calling for change is to motivate and inspire others to leave their comforts behind and sacrifice for change. Such sacrifices will most likely include the chaos of the streets as seen in the Arab uprising. Social media presents a new tool for groups to disseminate their message and recruit individuals with similar ideas.
Working for change historically involved attending meetings, rallies and political struggle on the streets to change ideas and concepts. With the rise of social media one can join a Facebook group or follow a Twitter feed, all of this actually takes one away from direct contact with people in society. Fundamentally a social media driven group needs to translate online activity into public opinion.
A group relying on Social media would also have a handicap as most of the Muslim countries do not have access to internet. The OpenNet Initiative estimated in August 2009 only 15% of Egyptians’ had access to the internet. Whilst this is low by Western standards this is actually the high end of most African countries. In the Middle East Internet access rates in places such as Iran and Qatar are around 35% – a minority of the population. Creating public opinion requires support for the groups ideas from all strata’s of society, be they the labour workers, professionals or the elite. A large proportion of the Muslim world are living in rural areas, are poor, live amongst crumbling infrastructure and most certainly do not have access to the internet. A social media driven group will be unable to garner change by relying on social media to instigate change. A good example of this was the difficulties the Green movement in Iran experienced in 2009.
Any group calling for change would need to inspire and motivate people from the comfort of their homes to the chaos of the streets and possibly face off against the government. Social media allow groups with similar ideas to come together, relatively cheaply, however this does not mean society will move for change. The nature of the internet allows for a number of drawbacks which all have a massive impact on any movement using it as a key tool. Governments can disrupt the internet and can monitor and counteract groups. Social media has evolved with developments in intelligence. In order to obtain an operating license in any country, social network sites have to come to various agreements with national governments. In many countries, this involves getting access to user data, locations and network information. Facebook profiles, containing updates, photos and locations can all be used to determine location and activities and identify connections among various individuals.
In Egypt, around 40 leaders of the April 6 Movement were arrested in the early part of the protests, this was most likely due to Facebook.
Governments can also shut the internet down. This has been common in Iran and China during times of social unrest. Whilst users can get around this by using virtual private networks like many countries, Egypt has contracts with Internet service providers (ISP) that allows the government to turn the Internet off.
The Internet allows groups calling for change another tool to spread its message, it can also be used to spread its plans and programme. Social media allows this at a much faster speed with networks of friends and associates sharing the information instantly. YouTube videos allows groups to explain their ideas and methods and styles and means can be transmitted at speed allowing a national, regional or global movements to share and spread information without having to travel. This is particularly useful in many of the Muslim lands where congregating in any organised way raises the attention of the authorities.
Social media represent only one tool among many for any group to use. Groups are not successful if its leaders are in a basement in a virtual arena. The leaders of any organisation need to be known to the public as it gives face to the group. A group calling for change cannot rely solely on a tech-savvy leadership to launch a successful revolution any more than a company depending on the IT department to sell its product. Social media constituents one aspect of a strategy, it cannot be the sole strategy.
Instigating change requires a group to be established around some core ideas related to the nature of change and a method to achieving this. It will also need a blueprint which it will use to rule once change has been achieved. Social media is another tool like books, magazines, conferences and workshops have always been. With much of the world interconnected through the internet social media represents another tool for the group to spread its message.
It should be remembered that the type of change one is calling for is what the group is established upon. The effective use of social media and alternative means will allow a groups message to reach far and wide. Fundamentally social media is just another style, a group’s message and what it’s calling for is its defining feature. In the Egyptian uprising which eventually led to Hosni Mubarak being overthrown, it was not the use of social media that brought many together, it was the fact that decades of oppression by a leader drove many to come onto the streets. Social media allowed for some individuals and groups to organise, but how many in the world not just Egypt know what type of change the April 6 movement, which was central to the protests calling for? Social media can get a relatively small group, much online time if they pick and discuss the issues which are making the headlines, however this doesn’t mean the group who harnesses such technologies will be on the cusp of taking power. On the other hand the movement who does not take advantage of social media will find itself left behind by those who do harness the technology and will miss out on the opportunities of spreading its message further.