Social Networking Media to Mobilize Society, Essay Example
Social media technologies can be web- or mobile-based and allow interactive dialogue between individuals or groups of people anywhere in the world. They take the form of forums, blogs, wikis, photographs and videos, podcasts, text messages, etc. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and LinkedIn are what are commonly thought of as social networking media. The original use of social media (for social networking) has evolved far beyond its creators’ visions, and has made a massive contribution to lives of long-oppressed sections of society all over the world. This has been powerfully demonstrated by the events of ‘the Arab Spring’ and the global distribution by protestors of photos, videos, and other information documenting human rights abuses and official corruption (including election rigging). (Howard, P., 2011)
It seems as though the traditional control of information in any authoritarian regime (governments, military, religious leaders) in which social networking is available, is now gone, and the only way this control can be regained is to disrupt internet access or join the new world of communicating using social media. Social media networking is probably the best manifestation in recent history of the phrase ‘information is power’ and much of that power is in the hands of citizens rather than politicians.
The Iranian 2009 elections
As of 2011, 50% of the population or Iran had a mobile phone, there are 80 internet service providers used by 25% of the population of 70 million. This, together with an estimated 100,000 active blogs, has given the country a very lively social media environment, despite the government arrests and fines imposed on opposition bloggers. (Howard, P., 2011)
The results of the 2009 Presidential elections were announced so fast that the people knew it had been rigged, especially in urban centres where opposition candidates had strong support. This lead to violent demonstrations, lasting several days in Tehran and other cities, but did not result in the kind of regime change that was seen elsewhere. (Howard, P., 2011) Leading up to the election, opposition candidates were banned from using the traditional channels of communication – TV and newspapers, but became skilled at using social media to communicate where and when they would be speaking and building political campaigns. Just prior to the polls opening, the government started blocking websites, disrupting mobile phone services and jamming Farsi language satellite TV. After results were announced, and the protests grew, they also started to monitor traffic and shut down the internet for nearly 20 hours. In response, the opposition set up servers that were unknown to the government censors and hackers started to attack state media websites and government information systems to the point where they became unusable. Proxy servers outside of Iran were also used to “bypass the government’s censorship efforts.” (Howard, P., 2011)
After a massive increase took place in the use of all social media in the weeks following the election in support of collective action, Iran’s government and religious leaders responded by implementing a number of traditional responses such as expelling foreign newspaper correspondents, blocking phone lines, etc. They also built a deep packet inspection system which formed a single alert point for identifying who was using the digital infrastructure and for what purpose. They also debated whether to add the building of opposition websites and blogs to the list of crimes attracting the death penalty, and some website builders and bloggers have been detained by security personnel.
Therefore, although social networking failed to bring about political change in Iran, it alerted similar regimes in the region and around the world to the fact that information about social injustices could now be viewed by everyone with access to minimal technology, and hiding behind a media shutdown was now impossible.
Egypt and the ‘Arab spring’
Between January and April 2011, the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Syria and Libya demanded the ousting of recalcitrant regimes. As a result, Tunisia’s Ben Ali and President Mubarek of Egypt were both gone by May and Libya had fallen into civil war. Many promises were made to citizens at that time including the re-allocation of billions of dollars in new social benefits, including food subsidies and affordable housing. (Howard, P., 2011)
In Egypt, Mubarek tried to reduce the impact of social media networking by closing down the larger internet service providers and cutting off phone lines. However, the country’s engineers were slow to respond which allowed sufficient time for tech-savvy students to arrange for satellite phone connections and dial-up internet links. However, householders who were used to having access to the internet at home, were unable to obtain information and took to the streets instead. (Howard, P., 2011)
Once again social media networking helped extend the time that social unrest persisted and the government found that cutting off the internet for extended periods of time seriously damaged the economy. (Howard, P., 2011)
Kuwait social uprising
In October 2012, Kuwaiti citizens protested the Amir’s changes of election rules that would mean citizens had to vote for only one candidate instead of the usual four candidates, thereby weakening the opposition. (Black, I., 2012) People protested not only the change, but also the fact that neither parliament nor the people had any say in it. The call to protest was sent out on Twitter and 20% of Kuwait’s population of 3 million took part in a march (named ‘A Nation’s Dignity’ march). It even attracted support from politicians across all parties. (Kareem, M., 2012)
Marchers were met with police beatings, tear gas and stun grenades, all documented using photos and videos taken on cellphones, and subsequently posted on websites, such as GlobalVoicesOnline.org. (Kareem, M., 2012)
This was the latest protest against the ruling family of Kuwait that started in November 2011 with protests against government corruption, lack of ministerial accountability and political deadlock between the emir and MPs. The state hands out subsidises regularly and is slow to update infrastructure such as hospitals and airports, or promote economic diversification away from oil production. Consequently, this social activism is not as ‘revolutionary’ as previously seen in the region during the Arab spring. This is a call for more political participation and equality before the law – issues of social equality and poverty are rare in Kuwait because of its oil wealth. (Black, I., 2012)
There are also underlying tensions building from Kuwait’s tribal roots and the younger generation’s impatience in wanting to move away from the ‘tribal mentality’. This is compounded by suspicions surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood presence.
Restrictions on social media for societal mobilization
Movements promoting democratisation have always been in existence long before the internet and mobile technology became commonplace. Now that all forms of social media have been adopted as a tool for those movements, Western governments are also using social media as part of their foreign policy to support the spread of democracy. As of 2011, the US government provided $28 million to “Internet Freedom programs.” (Howard, P., 2011)
A study (Howard, P., 2011) undertaken in 2011 analysed an ‘event history’ of incidents where governments went further than just surveillance of internet traffic, but actually took measures such as disconnection or restriction of communication. The database gathered found 606 incidents in 99 countries from 1965 to 2011, and 39% occurred in democracies, 6% in emerging democracies, 52% in authoritarian regimes, and 3% in ‘fragile states’. They found that more incidents occurred in democracies, but authoritarian regimes restricted or shut down networks more frequently. The three countries with the most events were China, Tunisia and Turkey, and many of the interventions in democracies were to protect children, preserve religious morals, culture or individual privacy, or to restrict criminal activity. (Howard, P., 2011)
China has blocked Twitter, FaceBook and other social media altogether but they have their own internal equivalents, the most popular of which is Weibo. Weibo has 324 million users (as of July 2012) and Sina Weibo, a microblogging site, has 300 million users, and is growing fast. (Hewitt, D., 2012). They are used by individual citizens to expose corruption in local officials, and local officials also use Weibo to obtain feedback from citizens on local issues. However, any criticism of the government using any of the key words that are monitored by the authorities is communicated to the local police.
The Chinese government’s restrictions on the use of social media include limiting the number of re-tweets and posts for specific subjects or users, thereby controlling the pace of protest and stopping mobilisation from being realized. There is a degree of tolerance for social media discussions because, as was found in Egypt, the authorities use it as a way to monitor dissent and find it useful in allowing citizens to ‘let off steam’ about injustice or corruption.
In China and around the world, people have now tasted freedom of speech and they will fight to retain it. Any censorship or control is not going work indefinitely due to the large amount of information and communication flowing through social media. (Hewitt, D., 2012)
Some recent examples of the use of Twitter to spread what turned out to be false information ‘virally’ (i.e. fast and widespread), have raised concerns even in democracies such as the UK that restrictions should be placed on social media. (Rentoul, J., 2012) These concerns are largely about protecting social media users from themselves, e.g. not exposing themselves to legal action for defamation (libel or slander). Despite these concerns, social media are here to stay and the benefits of their use in exposing social injustice far outweigh these concerns.
It is clear that social media networks have become an incredibly powerful means of influencing change and communicating during political crises. They have become the foundation of communicating social injustices both locally and globally, which has led to the rapid mobilisation of millions of people in support of those hungry for change.
People, particularly young people, everywhere are infused with a new feeling of hope that they can influence oppressive regimes toward social change or more democratic representation. (Howard, P., 2011) However, those same people must be vigilant in fighting the increasing sophistication of disinformation and disruption in communication infrastructures. Governments are acutely aware that disrupting internet and phone services might reduce opposition, but it also causes disruption to the economies of the countries they represent. (Howard, P., 2011)
Black, I., 2012. Kuwait emir’s change to election rules stirs signs of Arab spring. [Online] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/25/kuwait-elections-unrest-emir-change-voting-rules [Accessed 29 November 2012].
Howard, P., 2011. The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Howard, P. e. a., 2011. When Do States Disconnect Their Digital Networks? Regime Responses to the Political Uses of Social Media. The Communication Review, 14(3), pp. 216-232.
Kareem, M., 2012. Kuwait: The Country’s Biggest Protest?. [Online] Available at: http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/10/23/kuwait-the-countrys-biggest-protest/ [Accessed 29 November 2012].
Rentoul, J., 2012. Twitter has changed the rules of the game: Users have to be more careful than pub gossips. [Online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/twitter-has-changed-the-rules-of-the-game-8326432.html [Accessed 29 November 2012].
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