From the Middle East to Middle America
The Power of Social Media Is Revolutionizing Social Change
Chances are, most of you reading this are using social media in some form or another. Either to keep up with friends and family, fill spare time while you’re waiting at the doctor’s office or in line at the grocery store, or just to find out why “those damn kids” are putting the pound sign in front of words and calling it a hashtag.
In fact, according to “We Are Social,” a marketing organization that tracks social media usage for clients, there were more than two billion people (worldwide) active on social media as of August 2015. Two billion!
But aside from posting selfies with your “outfit of the day,” or photos of that delicious lunch you just ate, the Pew Research Center reports that three quarters of American news consumers now get their information primarily through social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and more than half then share the news again with others using those platforms.
As a result, both social media experts and political activists believe social media has taken on a much greater purpose in recent years. They say it’s become an important and effective tool in social movements–and even political revolutions.
Case in point: Lina Ben Mhenni. A native of Tunisia, she began writing her blog, “A Tunisian Girl,” back in 2007, a blog that ended up playing a small role in the “Arab Spring” movements in the Middle East, beginning in late 2010. Mhenni was one of many young people who wrote about their ideas for change and then promoted them through social media. This type of small-scale effort led to a groundswell, and ultimately resulted in the 2011 Tunisian revolution which ousted the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Mhenni says the inspiration to blog came to her after reading an article about blogging in a magazine. She’d done some writing about her thoughts about governmental change before but, only then, Mhenni says, did she “decide to share many of them with an audience.”
During the height of the revolution, Mhenni says, “We avoided communicating using phones, for example. We tried to communicate only using social media, mailing lists, etc.” She says activists did this out of necessity–because they could have been punished for their opinions. “Several bloggers and journalists were jailed under the regime [of Ben Ali],” she explains.
Dr. Leila DeVriese, professor and chair of the Global Studies Department at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, has been researching this social media phenomenon for more than a decade. DeVriese taught at American University in Dubai from 2004 to 2007 where she researched alternative, or nontraditional, strategies for mobilization for social movements and activists.
During her research, DeVriese initially found that because the United Arab Emirates “is such a closed society where there was heavy restriction on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the one thing that (activists opposing the government) were able to use to stay under the radar…was blogs.”
Then, DeVriese says that when Facebook in Arabic was introduced in 2009, “human rights activists, pro-democracy activists and student groups began to use it as a microphone to air their grievances. When they did that they started to congregate together and unify.” She says these groups were able to look at their differences and say, “we all have the same grievance and it’s this oppressive government that is nondemocratic and authoritarian.”
Furthermore, DeVriese explains, “In a repressive society, where there really is no other outlet, you need to think outside the box. You can’t speak your mind so you have to go underground. Social media was perfect [in these repressive societies] because, especially in the initial stages, the government had no way to block it or even monitor it.”
Mhenni says that once the government got wind of what was going on via social media, Tunisians had to be very careful about how they accessed sites like Facebook and Twitter. Activists then used proxy servers to circumvent censorship. (Proxy servers make it appear as if the user is accessing a restricted site from another country, where the site isn’t prohibited.) “Censorship was the rule,” Mhenni says of Ben Ali’s regime. “We did not have independent media. The media was under the control of the regime.”
DeVries says the online organizational efforts during the Arab Spring movements led to the development of a core group on the ground. “People just started coming out of nowhere, coming out of their homes and joining the crowd,” she explains. The online community gave them courage, she explains, and let the protesters know they were not alone in their grievances.
But as effective as social media was in the revolution, Mhenni makes it clear that its use wasn’t the main factor in creating social change in Tunisia. “We cannot talk about an Internet revolution,” she says. “Internet is just a tool. We cannot achieve a revolution just using the Internet. We had martyrs and several people got injured during the revolution. Actions on the ground are important.”
She reiterates, “The Internet played two roles: mobilizing and disseminating information in times of censorship.”
Activists in Hong Kong have also turned to social media to spread the word about their causes. Kong Tsung-gan is a member of Occupy Central, one of the main pro-democracy groups that is protesting the Hong Kong government over proposed changes to its electoral system.
Tsung-gan says that Occupy Central uses social media to get information out regarding its protests. “Groups [like Occupy Central] put out calls and say, ‘we need more people at this place.’ There are groups in charge of organizing supplies, and they post online a list of supplies that are needed and where they can be brought.”
He continues, “Social media is integral to information dissemination and communication, as well as creating a sense of community and a sense of movement with a common purpose.”
Like Mhenni, Tsung-gan also says that Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube and chat groups like Hong Kong Golden and WhatsApp have been useful. “Facebook is considered both a faster and more accurate place to get information than the mainstream media,” Tsung-gan says. “So many different groups have sprung up, all with a Facebook page.”
With YouTube, he says, “People swap videos and are constantly coming up with all kinds of fantastic stuff.” This footage has been used to show off the massive scale and size of the demonstrations in Hong Kong. He adds, “The videos and photos are also an important way to document police violence against demonstrators.”
Tsong-gan says Twitter has been used to communicate with an international audience. “[Facebook] is huge in Hong Kong, as is YouTube, whereas Twitter, for example, is hardly used,” he says. “Occupy Central’s role was more to use English (via Twitter) to communicate to the rest of the world what was going on here, especially in the lead-up to the occupations.”
The results, Tsung-gan says, have led to widespread awareness. “Once the occupations occurred, so many international journalists came to Hong Kong,” he explains. October 1, 2015, for example, marked an event called Global Day of Solidarity. “Demonstrations were held in 65 cities around the world and on 40 U.S. campuses. On top of that, 37,000 students and other people took part in Wear Yellow for Hong Kong,” Tsung-gan tells The Reporters Inc. “There was also an online petition to the White House to support the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement that garnered over 200,000 signatures and triggered a response from President Obama.”
In addition, Tsung-gan says young people in Hong Kong are breaking away from more traditional forms of media that disseminate information, such as print or broadcast news—media that he says, “are either controlled or strongly influenced by pro-Beijing forces.”
Still, social media isn’t free from interference either, he says. “Freedom of speech, communication and press are fairly well protected under Hong Kong law,” Tsung-gan explains. “But they are, in reality, constantly under threat of being undermined. The Hong Kong government has used laws created with clearly different intent, such as ‘use of computer with dishonest intent’ to prosecute a number of people in relation to last year’s demonstrations.”
Like Mhenni, Tsung-gan emphasizes that social media is just one component of successful social movements. “You’ve got to have a movement that exists in reality in order to be successful,” he says. “If you do, then social media can be effectively utilized to cultivate support, inform and communicate. But social media can’t create a movement out of thin air.”
He continues, “Social media can also be used to keep the flame alive in difficult periods, but it can’t substitute for on-the-ground-in-real-life advocacy, organization and mobilization.”
Of course, social media isn’t just being used for social movements internationally; it’s being utilized right here in the United States for important causes. #BlackLivesMatter is a movement that’s capitalizing on social media to spread awareness about racial injustice.
Claire Bergren, one of the organizers of BlackLivesMatter Minneapolis (Minnesota), tells The Reporters Inc. that its social media use has led to “the mobilization of hundreds of people [that] sometimes happens with less than 24 hours notice.” She further explains, “More people than ever are able to participate in discussion, debate, direct actions, and community building because of their access to our message online.”
BlackLivesMatter’s Minneapolis chapter has organized protests at the Mall of America (the United States’ largest shopping mall) the past two years to protest police-involved killings of African Americans. The group has also organized successful protests of the Minnesota State Fair (the largest state fair in the nation, based on daily attendance) and the 4th Minneapolis Police Precinct. The activists are currently protesting the shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year old Minneapolis native who was shot and killed by a police officer.
Bergren says that a majority of supporters, activists, and participants of BlackLivesMatter Minneapolis are young people under the age of 30. “To ignore the power of Twitter and Facebook would be detrimental to our ability to disseminate information and build power among our community,” she explains.
“However, there must always be an emphasis on face-to-face human interaction. It would be foolish to think that the real work of the movement-building rests in tweets and posts,” Bergren says of the limitations of social media.
“There is nothing more powerful in the world than direct, collective action and deep relationship building off of the computer screen,” Bergren says of BlackLivesMatter Minneapolis’ work. “Our voices have to be in the streets, our message has to be brought to the ballot box.”
Back in Tunisia, three years after its dictator fled, the political landscape of the country has dramatically changed. Repressive leadership was replaced with free elections. Yet Lina Ben Mhenni and some of her fellow bloggers face repercussions for disseminating their opinions. “I’ve been living under the close protection of the police for more than two years now,” she says. “I am threatened by terrorists today.”
Mhenni was one of the few activists in Tunisia who bravely chose to post during the revolution using her own name; other activists published content using pseudonyms. “This was my choice as a dissident blogger and activist,” she explains. “I totally believe that in order to have the support of people and to convince them to take part in your actions, you have to show your face and use your real name. You cannot ask people to take action while you are hiding and showing fear.”
Mhenni doesn’t believe the majority of the objectives of the Tunisian revolution have been fulfilled yet and admits, “revolutions are a long process with ups and downs.”
But she insists she won’t give up. “We just need to keep on fighting for real change,“ she says, no matter how many blog posts or Tweets it might take.
Kyle Kvamme can be reached at email@example.com
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