Social Media: Revolutionary as a tool for social activism and societal change
Social media for all its faults and criticism has been revolutionary and a positive force as a tool for social activism and societal change has been the most profound evolution of Web 2.0. This conference paper will explore how social media has changed the way people can mobilise and further social protest, using social media as a tool in social justice in totalitarian countries such as Egypt and China. This paper will also discuss how social media has been used in social movements as seen in the Arab Spring as a voice of protest and coordination among protestors, shaping online political debate that spread revolutionary conversations preluding and supplementing offline protests where social media spread democratic ideals across international borders, forming communities of protestors on the internet that spread through social media networking.
Siddiqui & T Singh in their paper ‘Social Media its Impact with Positive and Negative Aspects’ argue that ‘Another positive effect of social networking sites is it unite people on a huge platform for the achievement of specific goals. This brings positive change in the society’ (Siddiqui & Singh, 2016)[i], this can be especially seen during the Arab Spring in 2011 where social activists used social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests in totalitarian countries[ii]. Social media is here to stay.
Keywords: Social media, activism, social justice, protest, Web 2.0
With the rise of Web 2.0 on the internet that gradually shifted static, blocky looking websites with little to no user interactivity to elaborate, flashy websites with user generated content and participation, social media emerged from the development of Web 2.0 and with that new ways to communicate with each other. Social media defined as ‘collective term for websites and applications which focus on communication, community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration’ (Wigmore, 2020)[iii]. With this new evolution of the internet, transformed activism to the web to supplement physical protest with web activism where protestors can mobilise through the internet, collaborate and share information, a new tool of protest unjust regimes and a new means to establish social change. Social media is not without its flaws, those very sites collect and harvest personal information in pursuit of a profit for companies involves, privacy concerns that expose activists and journalists to governments that can have grave consequences as well as the spread of misinformation that can illegitimatise and discredit social movements desiring change. This paper will focus on how social media has been used in the pursuit of toppling totalitarian regimes as platform of protest, exploring the methods and movements of these social movements that highlight how social media has been a driving force in forming and spurring societal change.
Social Activism & The Need for Social Media
Not all countries are democratic or upload the ideals of democracy, some countries have no freedom of assembly or protest permitted with censorship an active government policy in some countries like Iran and China, with social media however offers another method of social dissent despite the best efforts of these governments to hamper progress. As a prelude to the Arab spring, a dark picture can be painted of the state of liberty and freedom in the Arab world, ‘Authoritarian states, buttressed by flawed constitutions and unjust laws, often deny their citizens their rights. Arab countries either prohibit the formation of political parties or impose restrictions on the functioning of opposition parties’ (Frangonikolopoulos & Chapsos, 2012)[iv]. Corruption, kleptocracy and authoritarianism is widespread with few countries upholding ideals of democracy such as free elections and poverty being widespread offering little hopes of economic freedom, with a survey in the Middle East and North Africa finding that ‘out of 3,079 respondents, a combined average of 57 percent said corruption is the leading problem in their home country.’ (Khamis, 2020)[v]
Even in democratic countries such as the United States in 2011, where the Great Recession and frustration from wealth disparity as well as ‘the relationship between government and the financial sector’ (Sapra, 2020)[vi], spurred the #OccupyWallStreet hashtag a that trended on social media and the movement gaining traction gave notice to conditions common in the western world, the need for change was on the horizon. These conditions that the modern world find itself in lays the foundation for the rise of social media to be used as a key tool for social movements to lay the foundation of political dissent against tyrannical regimes.
How Social Media Spreads Social Activism.
Social media diversifies the way which protest movements spawn and activists communicate with each other, allowing the spread of information in rapid time and as a mean of communications to further social dissent, showing that social media is not just a novelty and something to waste time on. Web 2.0 having evolved the way we use the internet, spawned blogs, forums, social media, online media such as YouTube and so on, all aid social movements as a viable tool to further social movements. During the Hong Kong protests, protestors spread images of an injured female protestor by the police and videos of police brutality among social media designed to ‘galvanize demonstrators’ (Shao, 2019)[vii] into action against Chinese authorities.
Contrary to traditional activism, online activism allows activists the ‘promotion of goals and activities that can reach further and more quickly than is the case with traditional activism, potentially reaching beyond its contained status’ (Newsom & Lengel, 2012)[viii], with social media allowing past social movements to be recorded and passed on, distributing valuable knowledge to future social movements[ix]. The above methods all combined can spur social dissent to revolution or protest, which social media provided a platform for dissenters to discuss and rally against authoritarian actions & regimes, as seen in the Arab Spring being the most notorious case study of social media spurring a social movement into action.
Case Study: Arab Spring
Perhaps some of the most significant and influential ways social media has had real world impact on changes has been the involvement of social media during the Arab Spring. While the long-lasting impact and extent it played is debated, the role social media played in the Arab spring is a prevalent example of the good it can come from a social movement adapting to modern technology. The Arab Spring is the term coined for a serious of protests that occurred in the Arab world from 2010-2012 due to low standards of living and oppressive governments In the case of Egypt and Tunisia whereas a result of the Arab Spring those respective governments were toppled, Howard, Duffy, Freelon, Hussian, Mari & Mazaid (2011) noted that social media has three key impacts: which social media shaped political debates, online revolutionary conversations preluded physical on ground events and social media spread the ideas of democratic across international bordersin[x].
Governments are not blind to the power social media can wield in times of social unrest, noted that “In many countries, the governments have also recognized the importance of social media for organizing and have shut down certain sites or blocked Internet service entirely, especially in the times preceding a major rally” (Skinner, 2011)[xi], highlighting the extent that governments during the Arab Spring feared social media and the internet itself, seeking to contain the viable tool in the arsenal of protestors. While there has been some pushback from what role social media played in the uprisings, Huang noting from observations made by the Dubai School of Government that ‘with some camps labelling them [social media and its activists] the main instigators and others relegating them to mere tools’ (Huang, 2011)[xii], though regardless of doubts casted upon the extent social media played, nearly nine in ten Egyptians and Tunisians surveyed of March 2011 used Facebook to organize protests and spread awareness of protest movements, with Facebook usage in the Arab region either increasing or doubling between January to April, 2011 during the height of protest movements in the Arab region.[xiii]
Despite the mixed results of the Arab Spring, social media help cause radical change in shaping the landscape of the Arab Spring, with Davison noting that ‘the use of social media during the Arab Spring revolts was significant to the movements, not only because it was the main form of communication, but also because without its use, the breadth of the movements would have been limited and, perhaps, unsuccessful’ (Davison, 2015)[xiv]. The use of social media brought attention to the wider world, with Western social media users spreading news and updates of the Arab Spring, even going as far to lend a hand when Egypt cut off the internet for its citizens during the height of civil uprisings, Google and Twitter offered alternate ways of communication to prevent users from being cut off from the outside world, extra pressure that helped aid the protest movements in the Arab world. Involvement on social media during the Arab was not strictly limited to anti-government protestors, either, while it was commonplace for anti-government protestors to form Facebook pages to gather information, distribute news and information about protest movements, pro-government supporters and regimes weaponized social media to distribute government propaganda and disrupt these pages by flooding pages with pro-government propaganda[xv]. Though these pages would not exist in the first page were it not for the anger of people witnessing heavy-handed tactics from government forces in the first place, an example of this seen with an Egyptian named Ghonim who “decided to create the Facebook page in 2010, after seeing another post on Facebook: a photo of a young Egyptian businessman, beaten to death by police after trying to expose police corruption” (Emmanouilidou, 2020)[xvi], an example of how frustration at the sight of brutality led to people using the internet to show these actions in an effort to spread awareness and bring sympathy towards protestors. Following up on this, it was noted that “Part of the success of the movements comes not only from organizing via social media, but sharing insights with other protesters and learning from their experiences, such as what to do to reduce the effects of tear gas” (Skinner, 2011)[xvii], allowing protesters to collaborate and spread information among each other.
What was the result of the integral use of social media during the Arab Spring? The removal of the authoritarian rulers of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, with the President of Tunisia, Zein El Abidine Ben Ali stepping down peacefully after twenty-years of rule due to the intensity of the Arab Spring, the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak due to mass demonstrations that ended his thirty years of authoritarian rule. Despite these two cases of peaceful demonstrations causing resignations of two authoritarian leaders, President Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya met a violent end after attempting to suppress demonstrations at the hands of NATO and rebels, though reforms were made in Morocco and Saudi Arabia because of the Arab Spring that resulted in financial relief in Saudi Arabia and constitutional reforms and voting for a new constitution in Morocco[xviii].
With Web 2.0 comes the rise of social media as a dominating method of communication on the internet due to the high user-interacted and generated content, allowing for ease of messaging that transcends physical borders where anyone regardless of computer skill can use social media. With this ease of use and communication gave rise to social activism that protestors in totalitarian and undemocratic countries have used to varying degrees of success in opposition of their governments and using social media for good. Examples of varying degrees of social movements spurred by social media seen in the Arab Spring and Hong Kong protests while more often than not achieving the intended goals seen in Hong Kong or long-term success coming in question as seen in Egypt and Libya with the former under a military junta or latter plunged into civil war. Social media has given voice to people all around the world regardless of race, age, sex or religion, people who tire of living without liberty or freedom and despite the best efforts of governments to curtail freedom movements through censorship and outright blocking the internet in times of social upheaval, the use of social media as a positive force for mobilization and bringing social and government change, puts social media as a force for good in the struggle for freedom.
[i] Siddiqui, S & Singh, T (2016) “Social Media its Impact with Positive and Negative Aspects”, 73, Retrieved March 25, 2021 from https://jogamayadevicollege.ac.in/uploads/1586197536.pdf
[ii] Stepanova, E (2011), “The Role of Information Communication Technologies in the “Arab Spring”, 1, Retrieved March 25, 2011 fromhttp://ponarseurasia.com/sites/default/files/policy-memos-pdf/pepm_159.pdf
[iii] Whatis.com. (2020), Social media In “Whatis.com – Targetech”, Retrieved March 25, 2021 from https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/social-media
[iv] Frangonikolopoulos, C.A & Chapsos, I (2012), “Explaining the Role and the Impact of the Social Media in the Arab Spring”, 12, Retrieved March 26, 2021 from https://www.academia.edu/download/30406181/Global_Media_Journal.pdf
[v] Khamis, J (2020, October 13), ‘Arabs fed up with corruption, survey suggests’, Arab News, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1596116/middle-east
[vi] Sapra, B. (2020, January 15th), “The last decade showed how social media could topple governments and make social change — and it’s only getting crazier from here”, Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com.au/social-media-activism-facebook-twitter-youtube-power-2019-12?r=US&IR=T
[vii] Shao, G (2019, August 15th), “Social media has become a battleground in Hong Kong’s protests”, CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/16/social-media-has-become-a-battleground-in-hong-kongs-protests.html
[viii] Newsom, V.A & Lengel, L., “Arab Women, Social Media, and the Arab Spring: Applying the framework of digital reflexivity to analyze gender and online activism”, 32, Retrieved March 28, 2021 from https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com.au/&httpsredir=1&article=1004&context=jiws
[ix] Murthy, D., Introduction to Social Media, Activism, and Organizations, 1, Retrieved March 29, 2021 from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2056305117750716
[x] Howard, N.P., Duffy, A., Freelon, D., Hussian, M., Mari, W., & Mazaid, M (2011). “Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring”?, 2-3, Retrieved March 26, 2021 from https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=454026098004122084031111104084015093000085002012023032095093079109069081095003114006057018122039107109012088107117020031074078025094036037013095096069111079109026029024044005069012070117123086123029082119098002108004027023007006106127123096026081085030&EXT=pdf&INDEX=TRUE
[xi] Skinner, J (2011), “Social Media and Revolution: The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement as Seen through Three Information Studies Paradigms”, 3, Retrieved March 27, 2021 from https://aisel.aisnet.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1482&context=sprouts_all
[xii] Huang, C (2011), “Facebook and Twitter key to Arab Spring uprisings: report”, 1, Retrieved March 30, 2021 from https://www.hlt.inesc-id.pt/~fmmb/wiki/uploads/Work/misnis.ref01.pdf
[xiii] Huang, C (2011), “Facebook and Twitter key to Arab Spring uprisings: report”, 1, Retrieved March 30, 2021 from https://www.hlt.inesc-id.pt/~fmmb/wiki/uploads/Work/misnis.ref01.pdf
[xiv] Davison, S (2015), “An Exploratory Study of Risk and Social Media: What Role Did Social Media Play in the Arab Spring Revolutions?”, 21-22, Retrieved on April 2, 2021 from http://www.qu.edu.qa/static_file/qu/conference/jmem2017/Vol/11/En/An%20Exploratpry.pdf
[xv] Emmanouilidou, L (2020), “Arab uprisings: What role did social media really play?”, Retrieved on April 25, 2021 from https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-12-17/arab-uprisings-what-role-did-social-media-really-play (Fix for APA referencing please)
[xvi] Emmanouilidou, L (2020), “Arab uprisings: What role did social media really play?”, Retrieved on April 25, 2021 from https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-12-17/arab-uprisings-what-role-did-social-media-really-play (Fix for APA referencing please)
[xvii] Skinner, J (2011), “Social Media and Revolution: The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement as Seen through Three Information Studies Paradigms”,3, Retrieved March 27, 2021 from https://aisel.aisnet.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1482&context=sprouts_all
[xviii] Mushtaq, A.Q & Afzal, M (2017), “Arab Spring: Its Causes And Consequences”, 7-8, Retrieved April 1, 2021 from http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/HistoryPStudies/PDF_Files/01_V-30-No1-Jun17.pdf
10 thoughts on “Social Media: Revolutionary as a tool for social activism and societal change”
An interesting read! Like you mentioned social media has given voice to the world and plays a big role in activist communication, organization, and mobilization of social and political issues. Social media like Twitter has been adopted for collective action by protestors and activists for their movements where connective action extends the idea of collective action within protests that are both generic and activism related, where people form groups to canvass for change (Highfield, 2016). Such collective action brings together numerous perspectives and issues around a common context and involves numerous players, tools, issues that utilise the affordances provided by social media platforms like twitter for organizing, promoting, collaborating, and communicating (Highfield, 2016). Hashtags on Twitter like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, facilitate visibility and support for issues being campaigned collaboratively. It was interesting to see how Arab Springs movement brought about change and how countries brought about reform to avoid uprisings.
However, social media platforms like Twitter have been criticized for citing ‘slacktivism’ and ‘hacktivism’. A number of users support issues without getting really involved, they use social media to maintain their presence which is ‘slacktivism’ whereas some users resort to ‘hacktivism’ where they use social media platforms like Twitter to control and adjust issues for their own benefit, some examples being Wikileaks and Anonymous, the groups associated with hacktivist activities (Houghton & Chang, 2011; Milner, 2013 as cited in Highfield, 2016). Despite these critical views, the role of social media platforms in promoting social and political issues to bring about change cannot be denied.
Would love to hear your thoughts on my paper.
Highland, T. (2016). Collective and connective action. In Social media and everyday politics (pp.
102-121). Polity: Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/reader.action?docID=4901669
Thanks for your comment! I will be checking out your paper very shortly, with slacktivism I do agree that things like changing your profile picture on Facebook or liking a comment about an event going on doesn’t really help, but you know what does help? Using social media to actively share pressing news and circulating it, especially if it’s from a country where the main country isn’t English (the internet is generally an English orientated space for better or worse), even simple things like translating a video and circulating it under a hash tag is a really big help, or just translating things for a western audience from a western “slacktivist” helps. When the Arab Spring made its way to western social media and western public consciousness through social media it got a lot more attention and help, like Google, Facebook etc offering ways to bypass filters as I mentioned in my paper. Hacktivism I admit I’m not knowledgeable enough on (ironic since I work in IT/doing a Bachelor in IT) so you’ve given me some homework to brush up on and reflect!
I will check out your paper shortly, and your reference I will as well!
I hope all is well!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your conference paper on the power of revolutionary as a mechanism to remove existing oppression within society. The sudden increase of social media has become a world-renowned tool for activists, marketers and consumers to employ certain tactics to engage an audience to respond. Social media influences are able to educate users and sell a variety of products ranging from make-up to upcoming music. Last year was a large year for activism to occur globally, the tragic and unjust death of George Floyd in American society caused a major shift in educating the world of all the years of oppression and police brutality that the African American people have faced. This caused a global reaction to spark gaining the help from world reclaimed celebrities and activists to use the hashtag “Black Lives Matter” and asking the community to participate in order to remove the power from the political injustices going on. With your current example of the Arab Spring within your conference paper, do you believe it would have gained more traction if the use of many hashtags would have been employed?
This was a very well researched and excellent example of activism
I assume you mean hashtags in regards to the Arab Spring? Protestors during the Arab utilised hashtags to gain traction, often writing in Arabic but using English hashtags which helped gain traction for non-Arab world countries to take notice of the Arab Spring. Here’s an example of some hashtags used during the Arab Spring:
Given the use of social media to help spread news of happenings in Arab Spring, especially government crackdowns against protest movements and companies like Google showing people how to get around censorship (VPN’s, proxies, etc), it was pretty wide known! Though your question has made me think of how I should added on to my mentions of hashtags more extensively, so thank you for that and your kind words.
Hi Andrew! I really enjoyed reading your paper. My paper is very similar to yours as it focuses on social media activism and how it is more effective than traditional activism despite the several discourses surrounding it. https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/from-slacktivism-to-activism-exploring-the-increase-of-youth-participation-in-online-social-movements-through-twitter/
I was really interested by the way that you explored the link between online activism and totalitarian regimes. It is a topic that I should definitely read more about as the effectiveness of social media as a tool for activism is often overlooked due to the stereotypes of who is a ‘real activist’ or not. Do you think that the privacy concerns that you mentioned about will further increase this negative perception of social media activism and will keep this high standard of who a ‘real activist’ is?
I look forward to hearing from you!
Excellent question (and I will totally check out your paper and leave a question), I think privacy concerns tend to be more a criticism of social media itself rather than social activism, though it does present a risk towards people participating in social dissent in totalitarian countries for arrest and prosecution by said governments considering more often than freedom of assembly is just not a thing or heavily restricted to control assemblies. Nowadays, privacy is harder on the internet when you got social media sites like Facebook engaging in data harvesting, security leaks (Twitter and Facebook were rather infamous for it lately) and governments actively tracking citizens (NSA and Five-eyes intelligence agency comes to mind, which is why you never get a VPN in countries part of Five eyes). Serious activists will resort to apps/VPN’s with end-to-end encryption like Telegram, WhatsApp, TOR, VPN’s that don’t leave logs of users etc, though often as we saw in the Arab Spring there was no real golden standard of an activist on the internet, a majority of activists were younger crowds, male and people who grew tired of a lack of economic opportunities in corrupt countries and a lack of civil freedom.
Hope this helps your answer.
I enjoyed reading your paper. The Arab Spring is an interesting topic!
You presented a very optimistic view of the power of social media and the influence it can have on societal change, therefore, I would like to offer a counter argument:
I recently listened to a podcast which featured a brief interview with Egyptian journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy. In the interview he was asked if the situation now was better or worse after the Arab Spring. He described the situation as worse. The Arab Spring created a lot of upheaval at the time and managed to topple the regime heads. But ultimately the regime itself was not toppled and it fought back and came back stronger.
Social media was very good at informing the rest of the world about the situation in Egypt and Tunisia. It created a lot of change at the time, yet arguably it wasn’t able to make long term societal change. What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts. It is a very complex situation.
Ps – If you’re interested, this is the podcast. The interview starts about 7 mins in: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/arab-spring-did-social-media-ruin-the-moment/id1507116817?i=1000513587257
I missed the podcast I’m afraid 🙁 Though to your counter argument in my research of this topic it’s certainly been an opinion shared by many that the Arab Spring had no long term effects and casted doubt on the effects of social media, but i argue that social media is a positive tool to be used for social activism/protest and mobilising people together. Social media was effective as a tool to bring positive change, regimes were toppled, other governments such as Morocco who feared the Arab Spring brought about reforms to prevent uprisings and civil war seen in Syria and Libya that are occurring to this day, it has the potential to bring positive change and shed light to crimes committed by regimes, but untimely it’s up to people to shape their future governments, we seen this in the Russian Revolution(s) and French Revolution where initially things seemed good but the revolutions ate themselves whole. Social media can’t shape governments, it can mobilise people together to force change as a tool, we see this in Hong Kong where the end results are grim, but we in the Western world were brought to attention the Chinese Government’s actions and has the world cautious about China, something that always makes the news constantly (usually as a beating of the drum which no one really wants).
This question made me have a good think, thank you Elissa.
Thanks for such a detailed answer. It is an excellent point you make about Morocco making reforms to prevent uprisings such as Arab Spring from happening.
I agree with you all your arguments here. I am ultimately quite optimistic about the power of social media activism too. Social media is an excellent tool to mobilise people to protest and raise awareness. Where it can fail in one area, it can succeed in another. As you say – the Arab Spring brought about immense change at the time and that cannot be understated. Although the journalist I mentioned above was quite discouraging on the influence of the movement – he himself is still very active online consistently posting about the situation in the region and raising awareness- https://arabawy.org/
Thanks for a great discussion,
Thanks your speedy reply! With Morocco, here’s a bit of reading on the full background of it, including the concessions made:
Protests did happen and there some deaths which is still sad, but nothing on the scale of Egypt and certainly nothing compared to Libya/Syria. This topic is something actually I was rather unfamiliar and just threw myself in it with an opinion that I didn’t really feel strongly of before which made it more interesting for me personally. Outside of my paper the long-term effects of the Arab spring have been what many wouldn’t desire (Counter-revolution as stated by the author from your link, a very interesting read!), but I feel it is factors beyond the control of social media.
Thanks for the chat, going to read up on yours and shoot a question your way, was hoping to do it much sooner!