According to media coverage one could get the impression that the connection between Social Media and uprings is a new phenomenon. No, it’s not.
“Findings from the Arabic region suggest that the growing diffusion of the Internet can result in a crumbling erosion of the authoritarian regimes. This does not mean that the region will be covered by democratic governments. Nevertheless, it can be observed that in Arabic communities which are characterised by hierarchical structures, especially young people and women using the Internet begin to question structures that have long been taken for granted.”
I wrote these lines in a research paper two years ago. Attending the re:publica 2011 in Berlin I was reminded of this study since the revolutions and the use of the Internet and Social Media in North Africa had a big stake in the entirety of the sessions. An oft-discussed topic circled around the question whether social media caused or accelerated these revolutions.
Nobody of the speakers claimed that the Internet and Social Media caused the revolutions in the sense of being the one and only reason for it. The American journalist Cyrus Ferivar argued that the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt for several days at the time when the uprisings intensified is a proof for the fact that the Internet was not the decisive catalyzer. Egyptian human rights activist Noha Atef argued that social media definitely had its stake in the Egyptian revolution, for example by displaying the brutality of the Mubarak regime (see for example www.tortureinegypt.net).
In the light of debates on the role of the Internet and social media in the Arab revolutions and brandings like the Facebook revolution one could get the impression that this is a new phenomenon. But no, it’s not.
Former “Internet Revolutions”
The Orange revolution in Ukraine 2004 for example “may have been the first in history to be organized largely online”, says Michael McFaul. After the presidential elections state media proclaimed that Leonid Kuchma’s handpicked successor had won whereas several websites spoke of and intensely reported on fraudulent elections. As a result, Hundreds of thousands of people in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities spent many freezing nights in so-called tent cities to articulate their protest, many of them dressed in orange clothes which was the colour of Viktor Yushchenko’s pro-democratic movement “Our Ukraine”. SMS and the Internet played an important part in mobilizing people.
We should also take into account the role of social media in former uprisings that were not successful. In this regard the green revolution in Iran has been widely discussed. But you can also think of the Saffron revolution 2007 headed by Burmese monks. Bloggers and digital activists were very successful in flooding cyberspace with images and videos of peaceful demonstrations and the regime’s brutal reactions. These photos and videos were often taken with mobile phones and secretely uploaded from Internet cafés or smuggled out the country to be uploaded from neighbouring countries. Internet cafés have often installed foreign-hosted proxy sites like the popular Glite.sayni.net in order to circumvent blocking and surveillance of the Internet. This phenomenon is today called the Glite Revolution. Thus, the whole world was able to get a peek into the tide of events in Burma. The majority of the Burmese citizens, in turn, got their news from satellite TV and overseas radio broadcasts (e.g. BBC and Voice of America) so that the state mouthpiece with its television and newspapers could be circumvented. Compared to the uprising in 1988 when approximately 3,000 people were killed the number of protesters killed in the Saffron Revolution ranges from thirteen by the government to estimates of several hundred by pro-democracy groups. For this reason Mridul Chowdhury concludes: “It is possible that the Internet saved the lives of many protestors, because the Junta feared even greater criticism from images of troops killing monks and civilians. The presence of the Internet in a dictatorial regime may save lives.”
These incidents, however, displayed short-term effects of the use of the Internet. The same applies to the Arab revolutions. People keep asking for the role of social media in sparking the uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia (interestingly enough, Libya is rarely mentioned) and intensifying it. But what about the impacts of the Internet and Social Media in the long run?
Put simply, they have the potential to enable people to learn democratic habits that are then used offline as well. Since many societies are characterised by an underprivileged role of women it is enlightening to look at how and whether their self-ascription changes when they use the Internet.
“Empowerment of the Underprivileged”
As Deborah Wheeler emphasizes the crossing of gender boundaries is an important step to achieve more democratic circumstances. Usually the existence of gender boundaries means nothing else than the societal subordination of women. Yet, one can not speak of a real democratisation if half of the population is excluded from this process. A study from Seelampur, which is a Muslim dominated area in East Delhi, confirms that the Internet can help to cross gender boundaries. The UNESCO has started a project there which is called ‘Empowerment of the Underprivileged through the use of ICTs’. For the women in Seelampur patriarchy is a dominating element in their everyday life. Nevertheless, attending courses in the so-called Community Multimedia Centres (CMCs) not only provides the women with information or the opportunity to have frank online conversations but also with more self-confidence during discussions with other participants of the courses. This does not necessarily mean that these women will revolt against their husbands or families but it is at least an important step.
Now, what is my opinion concerning the connection of the Internet and the erosion or the sudden collapse of authoritarian regimes? Sure, naive cyber-utopian assessments should be avoided. It is not Facebook that toppled Mubarak or Ben Ali. But who would deny that it did serve as a catalyzer? I do not really get the point why people say that the Internet and social media can be misused by governments. Yes, they can. But mainstream media like TV or radio stations and newspapers often serve as propaganda instruments as well. Aren’t they? Would anyone question therefore their importance for free speech in a pluralistic society?
I think the Internet provides enormous potential for democratisational impacts in the short and long term. Euphoria is inappropriate but there is justified reason for confidence.
This article has originally been published by me on futurechallenges.org