Sunday, September 13, 2015

Social Media and the Arab Spring

Online social media was a crucial tool for activists involved in the social and political movements that spread across the Middle East and North Africa that would become known as the Arab Spring. At its best, the Arab Spring demonstrated that even the most authoritarian leaders can be taken down by peaceful protesters and activists who discovered through social media that they were not alone in their feelings towards the government and who learned that their collective strength was greater than their fear. At its worst, it demonstrated that even in the age of social media, an age where atrocities are reported in real time and information is always a click away, many of the world’s leaders remain far too apathetic to the suffering that continues to exist in the world.

The Arab Spring began on December 20, following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisia street vender whose act was an act of defiance against the Tunisia regime led by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was at the time one of the most authoritarian leaders in Africa. The story of Mohamed Bouazizi spread like wildfire across social media networks, and before long, peaceful protesters began taking to the streets to demand democratic reform in the authoritarian state. After less than two months of protests, El Abidine Ben Ali would step down from office on 4 January 2011, after 23 years in power and a transitional government was established. The Arab Spring would spread to other countries, including Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Syria. Egyptian protester and former Google employee Wael Ghonim would characterize the Arab Spring as “Revolution 2.0,” arguing that the tool of social media made it possible for the masses to successfully demonstrate against authoritarian by allowing the people to organize in masses and to supersede the government’s tightly controlled media outlets.

In his article, "The Blogging Revolution: Government in the Age of Web 2.0,” David C. Wyld notes that the countless blogs, articles, tweets and other social media comments on a certain issues may seem insignificant or even innocuous when viewed independently, but collectively may be “nothing less than revolutionary.” In a sense, the Arab Spring demonstrates this reality.  Before, single acts of dissent where punished severely and defiance was snuffed out by fear. However, the social media revolution and the proliferation of technologies that made the Arab spring possible, allowed the people to demonstrate as one.

The Arab Spring led to a successful transition of power in Tunisia and a successful (though short lived) transition in Egypt. While the transitions in Tunisia and the early days of the transition in Egypt remained peaceful, the demonstrations that began as part of the Arab Spring would lead to Civil War in Libya and Syria. During the early spring of 2011, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad began to turn their weapons against peaceful protests and began a civil war that would lead to the death of more than 300,000 people by April 2015 and create more than 4 million refugees and internally displaced peoples. Shortly after the start of the Syrian Civil War, the Assad regime began to expel foreign journalist from the country, making social media a critical source of news for residents of Syria and observers outside the country.

In a sense, the Syrian Civil War is the first major war in which social media has played a critical role. Social media was the tool of peaceful activists in the early days of the conflict and became the main source of information throughout the conflict.

Malcolm Gladwell argues that social media “shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability.” The adaptability of online social media for activists has been demonstrated by the Syrian Civil War. Social media has survived countless attempts by the Assad regime to snuff out the message of the opposition as well as countless attempts to prevent the outside world from seeing the truth about what is happening in Syria. Despite attempts to keep the message out, online social media has proven to be an incredibly adaptable tool for journalists, activists, governments and even ordinary citizens. Unlike other conflicts, where government agencies and state owned media outlets have controlled the messages their people, here, the internet age has allowed countless social media activists to report on the situation in Syria in real time. Organizations like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Violations Documentation Center in Syria have provided real time reporting on human rights violations committed by all sides of the conflict and have ensured that the stories of the Syrian people are shared with the world.

However, despite the fact that the world cannot deny the truth about the atrocities committed on a daily basis in Syria and despite countless calls for action, world leaders have reportedly failed to act to stop the suffering of the Syrian people. The United Nations Security Council has repeatedly failed to adopt a resolution to force Assad out of office or allow any real intervention in the country. Social media is a critical tool for 21st Century activism, but social media alone cannot change the status quo of inaction that plagues international politics.

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