Sunday, February 6, 2011

Are we overhyping social media as a tool of movements for democracy?

Social media was widely recognized as a tool for popular movements demanding democratization in June 2009 when twitter feeds played a major role in eruption of street protests in Iran following the country’s fraudulent presidential elections. Then came Tunisia in December 2010 when a facebook page on the harrowing event of a 26 year old protester Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself ablaze fuelled wide scale street protests finally culminating in the overthrow of  the regime President Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali .The genesis of the present unprecedented mass upsurge could be traced to the killing of Khaled Said from Alexandria, beaten to death by Police in June 2010. Said’s death spurred the creation of widely supported Facebook group-“We all are Khaled Said”. The recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have both seen an increased use of social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter to help organize, communicate and ultimately initiate civil-disobedience campaigns and street actions.

The media observers are carried away  by the capability and outreach of social media to track events and cover diverse locations, perspectives and demographics in real time. However, some experts have a very different take on this. Experts Marko Papic and Sean Noonan observe-“A revolution is far more than what we see and hear on the Internet — it requires organization, funding and mass appeal. Social media no doubt offer advantages in disseminating messages quickly and broadly, but they also are vulnerable to government counter-protest tactics. And while the effectiveness of the tool depends on the quality of a movement’s leadership, a dependence on social media can actually prevent good leadership from developing.”(Social Media as a Tool for Protest, Marko Papic and Sean Noonan , Startfor Global Intelligence, Feb 3,2011)

They maintain that   key for any protest movement is to inspire and motivate individuals to go from the comfort of their homes to the chaos of the streets and face off against the government. Social media allow organizers to involve like-minded people in a movement at a very low cost, but they do not necessarily make these people move. Instead of attending meetings, workshops and rallies, un-committed individuals can join a Facebook group or follow a Twitter feed at home, which gives them some measure of anonymity (though authorities can easily track IP addresses) but does not necessarily motivate them to physically hit the streets and provide fuel for a revolution. At the end of the day, for a social media-driven protest movement to be successful, it has to translate social media membership into genuine and effective street action.  Evgeny Morozov, in his recently published book “The Net delusion” makes a very intersting remark-“ Supporting a cause on Facebook and Twitter is an activity that  requires something quite different from what political action demands- the willingness to risk one’s stability and comfort, not to mention the possibility of physical confrontation with the forcces of repression”.  Before getting carried away by such hype, it is time to take a pause and ponder- is it realistic to imagine revolutions by downloads?

1 comment:

  1. Strongly agree. The social media movement may prevail while confronting a "soft" regime. However, when the case is that there were a very tough opponent who is ditermined to use all means to crackdown any protest, the social media movement would be far from enough. A successful people's uprising requires not only passion and swift communication, but also real courage and sacrifice. Last year, an article published by The New Yorker also addressed this point. Please see