Social Media: An Essential Ingredient for Modern Democracy?
Online social platforms function not only as a means of communication, but as a multiplier of sentiment
By: Ellie Chan, Staff Writer
If the founding fathers of the United States were told that a little bird could start an upheaval and democratize a country, they would never give the idea a thumbs up. Yet, social media is about more than about untagging yourself from photos or following Justin Bieber, it is a revolutionary way to connect and communicate, enabling oppressed voices to be heard. It was true during the Arab uprising, and it is increasingly true for Western governments. Social networks are slowly becoming a building block in the modern face of democracy.
Without doubt, these social platforms do not have any legal power to oust dictators, but they can certainly shake things up by uniting the population together at the speed of a click. In the beginning of 2011, a Tunisian shopkeeper set himself on fire; then, an entire nation rose up because it shared his frustrations and fatigue with authoritarian rule. After Tunisia successfully toppled its dictatorial government, peoples across North Africa and the Middle East put aside their fears, risked everything, and protested against their own regime.
At the height of the Egyptian movement, pictures and videos of the collective power located at Tahrir Square spread like wildfire on the Internet, and quickly gained international awareness and support. When Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader, lost his throne, hope was extended to Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Syria, and Yemen, sparking a civil war and major demonstrations.
What occurred is written down in history. It is a historical fact that Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube have successfully mobilized people to take action for democracy. These social platforms are not merely tools for communication; they are a multiplier of sentiment, accomplishing goals at a faster rate and on a larger scale.
Today, anyone can coordinate actions within a moment, like the youths in the London riots and the Philadelphia flash mob.
It was social media that enabled people to 1) synchronize their views, 2) coordinate action in a split second, and 3) document and publicize activities. In the light of groups of disconnected and disaffected individuals who seek change but lack the power, social networks are neutral, cheap, and easily accessible spaces where groups with similar opinions can come together. When a solitary person realizes that there are tens, no, hundreds, no, thousands, no, millions of individuals who share the same beliefs, an empowering force is born, one that is feared by governments. After all, politicians are not afraid of opinionated people; they are afraid of a collective group with synchronized views.
Muammar Gaddafi, the former autocrat of Libya, banned soccer as the revolution swept into his country. He liked the sport, but feared a stadium gathering. He would use every measure possible to avoid public gatherings where people could synchronize their beliefs and coordinate their action. By the time Arab leaders recognized social media as the virtual stadium, it was too late.
The January 25 demonstration in Cairo was initially coordinated by youths on Facebook. It began with a courageous group of 50, marching from a mosque in the Mohandiseen neighbourhood. They were outnumbered by the police force. Tweet by tweet, the group grew from 50 to 2,500 to 10,000 strong, protesting at Tahrir Square, engulfing the police. The march did not start as a political movement; many of those who first participated thought it would be another small demonstration. However, what began as a small gathering slowly transformed into a revolution that overthrew a 30-year rule. Today, anyone can coordinate actions within a moment, like the youths in the London riots and the Philadelphia flash mob. For good or for bad, social media made this possible.
Social networks are neutral, cheap, and easily accessible spaces where groups with similar opinions can come together.
Many academics are presently debating whether a “Twitter Revolution”, a social network for social change, actually exists; however, whatever the outcome of the debate may be, the exciting thought of Twitter tumbling an entire political regime instils new hope in many nations, including the U.S. When Barack Obama was battling the deadlock in the U.S. Congress to raise the debt ceiling before a historic sovereign default, the president started a Twitter campaign to rally his country.
One week before the August 2 deadline, Obama, with 9.4 million followers on Twitter, tried to pressure the Republicans to a compromise. The president, himself, tweeted: “The time for putting party first is over. If you want to see a bipartisan #compromise, let Congress know. Call. Email. Tweet. – BO”.
The Americans called. They bombarded the Capitol switchboard and it operated at near capacity. The Americans tweeted. They spammed their representatives with the hashtag to #compromise. Obama spammed too. Over the period of one day, Obama posted more than 100 tweets, giving out more than 230 Twitter handles (or usernames) of Republican lawmakers.
Some liked the campaign, but the overall failure was too apparent. Obama lost an estimated 40,000 followers whose Twitter feed was flooded by his spam tweets.
@Matt9383: I don’t think @BarackObama understands that sending out massive amounts of tweets in a short period of time is really annoying.
@the_real_cwurst: I just have to feel that @BarackObama’s 9.3M followers are pretty pissed right now that he’s demolishing their feed. Inconsiderate.
@lukeneff: I did the math. It’s going to take @BarackObama six and half hours to get through all the states at this rate.
Success belonged to another Twitter hashtag during the U.S. debt crisis. Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, started the #F***YouWashington trend that has won him a hoard of new followers. Initially wanting to vent some anger, he tweeted: “Hey, Washington assholes, it’s our country, our economy, our money. Stop f***ing with it.” After discovering it was a common feeling, he followed by saying, “People, it’s time to get f***ing pissed off.” And then, “Can we start a Twitter chant: F*** YOU, WASHINGTON! Pass it on.”
The hashtag blew up to 20,000 tweets in an hour and more than 36,000 in a day. The network site tried to block the hashtag from trending due to profanity, and it kicked Jarvis off for tweeting too much. But Jarvis’ absence did not matter, because society adopted the trend and continued the conversation. A big speech bubble was created, containing the true voices of disappointed Americans, and if democracy means what it initially promised, these people need to be heard. Social media, once again, made it easier for the government to do just that. The question is whether politicians have the will to listen.
To relive Egypt’s historical moments, I recommend reading tweets by these tweeters: @Ghonim, @Gsquare86, @norashalaby, @Sandmonkey, @SultanAlQassemi, @tarekshalaby, @TravellerW
The details on Arab Spring organized by country, hashtags, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages: http://beforeitsnews.com/story/508/003/Arab_Spring_-_The_Ultimate_Social_Media_Guide.html
Tweets by locals:
@marwame: Finally, I have a country #Egypt #jan25
@SultanAlQassemi: Exact words: Omar Suleiman: Mubarak has resigned. He has delegated the responsibility of running the country to the Supreme Military Council
@Ghonim: Let’s not lose focus. Let’s keep reminding ourselves of #Jan25 demands. Our road to freedom is full of challenges that we shall overcome!
@bencnn: Can hear warplanes flying near #misrata. Heard steady intense bombardment in the distance much of the day #Libya #17feb
@TimHetherington: In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.
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