It’s clear by now that social media alone did not topple Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Zine al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, but they played an important role in mobilizing support and spreading the word to others that they, too, could stand up to demand their basic human rights. Social media and other Internet-based services are still playing a significant role in countries from Bahrain to Jordan to Libya and even in my own back yard in Wisconsin.
Having seen the success of democracy movements in Cairo and Tunis, I read this morning in the New York Times that the repressive Chinese government launched a major crackdown on calls for protests by freedom advocates hoping to start a “Jasmine Revolution” in China. Government forces fanned out across the country to show that they were firmly in control and had no intention of even allowing protests to start. In Libya, where the protests have raged for five days, the military forces have begun gunning down peaceful protesters with machine guns in an effort to gain the upper hand. Another report from the Times indicates that some organizers have turned to Twitter and Facebook to coordinate counter-rallies and aid convoys to tend to the wounded, although the danger of doing so appears to be increasing.
Of course, there are other ways to use social networks in the cause of liberty. The stories above are all about coordinating protests in the immediate future, but there is also a long game, whereby people build up support over time. One such example is the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, which used Facebook and Twitter way back in 2007-08 to mobilize protests and gather support against the oppressive regime. A Wired Magazine story from 2008 depicts the life of one of the movement’s leaders, Ahmed Maher and his struggle to balance the demands of political activism in the modern age. If they can’t meet and protest in person, at least they can see how many other people feel the same way. It is arguably a lot easier to stand up for your rights when know that you’re not alone. It’s fascinating to go back and read the article again now, in light of all that has happened. It is even more dramatic when you see how the group responded to the protests this month, as captured in a riveting documentary by PBS’s Frontline.
The problem of course is that the ‘social’ in social media is a double-edged sword. Not just content to shut down the Internet, as was done in Egypt and Libya on Saturday, but dictatorial regimes have no problem using it for their own purposes as well. It’s just as easy for government agents to spy on the discussions and messages going out and pinpoint who is in charge of opposition movements and stifle them right to the source. It’s a well-known problem, as noted in the Wired article, but then again, people who are determined and willing to march in the face of machine gun fire are able to find ways to speak out. For example, other aspects of the Internet are proving useful, such as the ability of to send out live video broadcasts to the world to document the events happening where few reporters can safely manage to tread. From the Times story,
Fathi Terbil [a noted lawyer and human rights advocate in Libya] had been released [from government detention] and set up a live online video broadcast that appeared to emanate from the roof of the Benghazi courthouse overlooking what residents call their Tahrir Square. “Free Libya Radio,” he called it.
Of course, other means of mass communication–even simple word of mouth–are important to protests on the ground, but it is the power to reach beyond one’s borders and find solidarity with other oppressed people that is truly inspirational. It is something that the people in power deeply fear because keeping the people in ignorance is one of their greatest advantages. The Internet, which is so much more pervasive today than it was even a few years ago, and accessible from so many sources, quickly turns those ignorant masses into people who can find common ground with others and join together in an almost unified movement against repression from one end of the world to the other. It is an awesome thing to witness.