Social Media: An Untapped Resource for Analysis of Major Social Movements
In the contemporary difficult and constantly changing political and social environment, to get an idea of the most recent protests and uprisings in the world one can just surf the Internet. Even though a revolution is not a new way to change the government, it became much easier to coordinate the actions of revolution participants with the appearance of social media. The new media is connected with three main issues. First of all, it gives a push for the development of cyberactivism, which enables street activism in its turn. It also helps to organize and mobilize protests. In addition, it promoted an absolutely new for the Arab world form of citizen journalism and the freedom of speech for ordinary people. Social media platforms have increased people’s capability to receive information from different sources and critically analyze it rather than depend on the traditional mass-media.
Social media is one of the fastest ways of mass communication nowadays. Its role in revolutions and protests has acquired remarkable media attention in recent years. Social media is the tool that allows revolutionaries to economize money and time on organization, recruitment, and training. The main issue in any social movement is to find the way to motivate and inspire ordinary people to participate in the movement actively and make leave the comfort zone. Reading the thematic Facebook groups or following them in Twitter, anyone can support the movement. Social media had made it difficult to maintain an authoritarian regime and strict censorship. In his interview, the U.S. President Barak Obama compared social media to the guarantor of the universal rights such as freedom of speech.
It is indeed an untapped resource for analysis of major social movements with significant geo-strategic implications.
It is difficult to underestimate the importance of social media in the contemporary revolutions, which can be analyzed using the examples of the Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution in particular and the riot in Ukraine.
Social Movement as a Notion
Gadi Wolfsfeld and William Gamson claimthat social movements aim at achieving three main goals. Among them is broadening the radius of the conflict, fighting for the acceptance of the demands, and gaining political support.
It is possible to say that the nature and the quality of the media coverage of the uprising significantly influences the way this event is perceived by the wide audience. To some extent, the way mass media presents the situation determines the destiny of the social movement.
Social movements that are effectively organized and supported by the society are comparably less dependent on social media in terms of survival because they are popular. However, social media coverage might be critical for the less well-known and numerous social movements as they need to gain popularity among the citizens.
Traditional protest activities include street manifestations, strikes, demonstrations, pickets, and even armed revolts. Such activities are extremely important in expressing the public opinion, just like the elections and the exit polls. They help the citizens to express their dissatisfaction with their government or with the state of things in the country.
Sometimes the governments operate in a dictating and oppressive way, and the demonstration might damage their authority. When the government refuses to hear its people for a long period of time, a peaceful demonstration and a strike might turn in an armed revolution, as it was in the cases of Ukraine and Egypt. Sometimes mass media does not think that it is necessary to cover the uprisings and analyze the political and social situation from all sides. In this case, people get tired of such censorship and begin to act, which might bring many problems to the government. Linda Kensicki writes:
There are repeated cases of slanting, trivialization, and outright omission of those who deviate from the norms of an elite media and form a political movement to combat injustice. Negative media frames have been discovered in the antinuclear movement, the womens movement, and the gay and lesbian movement, and the National Environmental Policy Act faced a media blackout.
It is also necessary to define what a social movement is so that the further investigation into the issue would be more precise. According to Herbert Blumer:
Social movements can be viewed as collective enterprises to establish a new order of life. They have their inception in the condition of unrest, and derive their motive power on one hand from dissatisfaction with the current form of life, and on the other hand, from wishes and hopes for a new scheme or system of living.
Chin-Chuan Lee and Joseph Chan analyzed the protest paradigm in 1984 for the first time and showed how the media is used to focus on certain aspects of social movements, managing to present the activists as the others – the alien force that tries to destroy the order and the regime. This method was actively used by the media that was pro-governmental in the revolutions in Egypt and Ukraine, while social media was trying to present the real information.
The Arab Spring
In his book, Nick Couldry investigates into the problem of the neoliberal society and how a possibility to express the point of view and to be heard influences the political and social life in the country. He notes that narration and the freedom of speech are crucial in social experience. Without giving the citizens a potential for voice or a capacity for narrative, the government denies the basic needs of people. This leads to the social recession and uprisings sooner or later.
The case of Egyptian revolution in 2011 is a bright example of how the state has been underestimating the basic need of people to have the freedom of speech. The traditional mass media underwent strict censorship and control from the side of the Egyptian government; that is why people found a way out of the problem by means of the new media. The examples of the new media are blogs, YouTube, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others. The state was not able to control the political discussions Egyptians had in the Internet, which finally led to multiple uprisings in the country. Now it is possible to say that the new media enhances the democracy in the society and it is evident from the example of Egypt.
It is necessary to describe the overall political situation in the Muslim world in general and Egypt in particular. Three years have passed from the beginning of revolutions that shook the Arab countries. It is early to summarize the results of the phenomenon known as the Arab Spring, though some of the results of these uprisings are evident even now. The main achievement is the revolution in minds of the Arab people they changed the perception of the nature of power and its key functions.
In December 2010, the Tunisian salesman Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the administration of a small town of Sidi Buziz as a protest against local authorities. It was difficult to imagine at that time that this suicide will give a start to changes that are comparable in consequences with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
A relatively bloodless uprising erupted in Tunisia after the self-immolation. Local President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was expelled from the country and took refuge in Saudi Arabia. This event literally exploded the Arab world: almost simultaneously people chanting anti-governmental slogans invaded the streets in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Several smaller-scale protests took place in Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.
It seemed that the Arab world was awakened after a long sleep. People started to recognize themselves as real citizens – politically conscious and willing to take responsibility for their own destiny. However, this regained political awareness did not solve all the existing problems. The citizens of the Arab countries faced a fundamental question: what direction to choose now? At the moment, there is no single answer to this question that will be good for all Arab countries, and its search involves serious challenges for people and state regimes.
The majority of Egyptians welcomed the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. However, after his resignation, the people faced confusion and doubts – their future was uncertain. Muslim Brotherhood, which was close to the Tunisian organization Nahda, stood for the Islamization of everything. The Left parties, which have been popular since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, promoted socialism. Few liberals dreamed of building a society of European type, and the supporters of the hard hand wanted to restore the lite version of Mubarak regime.
Just like in Tunisia, the radical Islamists won in the free and democratic elections. Soon they demonstrated a complete incompetence in the economy with a penchant for authoritarian decisions in the social and political spheres. The new President – Islamist of Egypt- Mohammed Mursi rejected numerous requests of the citizens to stop imposing his will saying that his power is from God.
The President’s rating has fallen dramatically. The only way to remind him of the existence of other people in the country was conducting a new revolution. In summer 2013, Mursi was arrested, his party was banned, and the constitution created by the Islamists was abolished. Egypt now waits for a referendum on a new constitution and special elections. The analytics think that the military elite of the country that rules the state now might win the elections.
This might return Egypt to the military dictatorship of the Mubarak style as it was till 2011. There is a hope that the third President elected during the last three years will understand the lessons from the experience of his predecessors and will not impose his own vision of welfare on the citizens. Nowadays, the most populous Arab country is still torn apart by socialism, Islamism, and dictatorship. The political future of Egypt is still being discussed.
Perhaps the appearance of the citizens that are able to defend their interests that are different from the official political viewpoint is the most important result of the uprisings in the Arab world. They will not obey without saying a word if the majority of the community does not want to obey. Now the politicians have to listen very carefully to the opinions of the citizens of their countries.
The power itself finally lost its sacred character in the Arab world. It became a good tradition to overthrow the President that does not listen to the opinion of his nation. The Egyptian experience supports this idea. It can be said that now the Arab world goes through the transition from feudalism to the creation of national states. The influence of hundreds of years of life under the absolute monarchy is still strong and it is reflected in religiousness and clan identity. People are too used to live in the country where nothing depends on them. However, the freedom of speech in the new media and the newly gained civil rights make those people realize that the quality of their lives depends on the decisions they make not on the will of a particular ruler.
Online social media is characterized by a high degree of efficiency, relevance, rapid changes of information, instantaneous spread of news, and an opportunity to comment and participate in the discussion. Compared to other traditional media like television and newspapers, the Internet prevents monopolization of sources of information, thus providing the most democratic way of data supply. It is difficult to imagine the Egyptian revolution without an active update and involvement of online resources. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were not only the means of spreading hot news but also a quick way to organize the community.
There was no freedom of speech in the Arab world until the Internet was popularized. The mass media was under strict control and censorship from the side of the state and the citizens had no opportunity to participate in the political discussions with the government.
According to Howard, those citizen journalists who are not satisfied with traditional medias version of events are telling their own stories through social media. He also notes that these patterns of political expression and learning are a key to developing democratic discourses. He notes that social media is not only the way to give a start to democracies, but it also helps to develop the existing ones. Howard observes that the networked design of social media is the key factor threatening authoritarian regimes, since these are the communication tools for the wealthy, urban, educated elites whose loyalties or defection will make or break authoritarian rule.
It is impossible to imagine a civil society without the free media. The new media refers to the so-called public sphere. According to Downey and Fenton, the new media takes part in forming the public opinion as it is one the most effective ways of public communication. It monitors the democratic development of the state and helps to share community and democratic values among people. Downey and Fenton underline that the public communication is not a descriptive characteristic of the civil society. Together they form a democratic political community.
There is another notion that is important in understanding of the impact the new media had on the Egyptian revolution and the enhancement of the democratic background in the Egyptian society. It is the civic society, which cannot be disintegrated from the democratic political society. Diamond defines it in the following way:
Civil society is the realm of organized social life that is open, voluntary, self-generating, at least partially self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules. It is distinct from society in general in that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions, preferences, and ideas…to hold state officials accountable.
The Egyptian people developed a new image of a citizen in their country with the help of the new media. It promoted the image of a politically active person that is not afraid of expressing his/her opinion in the street. In other words, it can be called civic engagement. The Coalition for Civic Engagement and Leadership at the University of Maryland defines it in the following way:
Civic engagement is acting upon a heightened sense of responsibility to ones communities. This includes a wide range of activities, including developing civic sensitivity, participation in building civil society, and benefiting the common good. Civic engagement encompasses the notions of global citizenship and interdependence. Through civic engagement, individuals as citizens of their communities, their nations, and the world are empowered as agents of positive social change for a more democratic world.
It is possible to say that the popularization of the Internet gave a serious push to the development of the new civil community. The new media, which consists mostly of the independent Internet resources like social media, greatly enhances the democracy in the country. It guarantees the freedom of speech. In social media, people are able to discuss the most urgent issues of the life in their country, which is impossible in the censored official mass media.
As it was mentioned before, the new media in Egypt encouraged the development of cyberactivism. Before the revolution, many of the Egyptian people were unaware of the political situation and the spread of urgent information became a primary issue during the uprisings. Social media were extremely important in the process of spreading the hottest news and mobilizing people. Those who had access to the social media and were involved in the so-called cyberactivism made their best to let others learn about the street activist movements.
There were several active revolutionary groups that found new members and promoted their activity through social media. The first group was called the April 6 Movement, and it started functioning even before the uprisings began. It started on the day of a labor strike in El-Mahalla el-Kubra on April 6, 2008. The group actively used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and mobile phones to spread information about the movements of the police and about the time of strikes. They also provided legal help for those people who were arrested during the riots. However, their experience showed that there is a slight drawback in cyberactivity. Even though it was not a problem to organize thousands of Egyptians online in the Facebook, it became impossible to organize them all in the streets. Many of those who supported revolution online did not want to participate in the uprisings offline.
People were still not ready to go and fight for the freedom of speech and democracy. Yet, even the fact that they expressed their opinion in the Internet is a big step towards the better future of Egypt.
Then the April 6 Movement affiliated with another group called We Are All Khaled Said in Facebook and then in real life. There were more than 350.000 members of this Facebook group up to January 14, 2011. The movement was named in honor of a young Egyptian man who was beaten in the street to death by the police a year before. The majority of Egyptians started to understand that they did not want to pay the taxes to the government that would kill them someday. The new media raised an active protest against the lawlessness in the country.
The cyber activists actively used and developed new social media platforms during the Egyptian revolution. The resources like Facebook and Twitter were used for multiple reasons. Their main functions were to mobilize people for uprisings in real life, to broadcast urgent and general information about the political situation in the country, to transfer money, and to support legally those who got into trouble with the police. It is possible to call the Egyptian revolution not only a political battle between the state and the citizens but also a communicational one.
The activists used such systems as Tor and Hotspot Shield that guarantee anonymity for people online. The new media underwent serious changes in Egypt during the revolution. It became the monitoring system of the governmental regime, the eyes and the tongue of the nation. It is difficult to underestimate the impact it had on forming a democratic society in Egypt.
The medieval vision of political Islam among the uneducated population of Arab countries is one of the most serious obstacles on the way of formation politically engaged and democratic societies in the Arab world. Their faith in the fact that the Islamists in the government would magically solve all the problems raised serious doubts. Now more and more people in the Arab countries realize that imposing of religious norms does not guarantee prosperity. The majority of people start to understand that the results of the Islamic dictatorship will be absolutely opposite to their expectations. At the same time, liberal democracy also causes frustration of the Arab people. The free and fair democratic elections in Egypt led to the rule of Psalmists, which resulted in the economical stagnation.
There is still a hope for improvement in the Arab world. The active participation of the new free media in the political life of the country led to the appearance of politically conscious citizens in Egypt, who are ready to fight for the better future of their state. Perhaps, the Arabs will find their individual way of development of such discussions in the media. It might be a new approach that has no ideological component and no paternalism, to which the Arab world is used. The new media that consists mostly of the social media guarantees the freedom of speech and the rapid spread of information via the Internet.
Ukrainian Revolution 2014
The political situation in Ukraine and the way people started and organized the uprising are similar to the Egyptian scenario. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Vkontakte became the sources with help of which the actions of the people were coordinated and other citizens were informed about the state of things. Even though the political situation was not that bad as it was in Egypt and the level of life was certainly higher, the country broke up into two opposite ideological groups. One group, which is geographically located in the Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine, were supporting the pro-Russian direction of the countrys development, while the Western and the Northern parts of the country were pro-European.
The protest started peacefully in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. However, it led to deaths when the government of Viktor Yanukovych ordered the Ukraininan special police Berkut to fight with the demonstrators. The Euromaidan the citizens who protested – won and all the governmental administrations were freed from the previous officials. Berkut was reorganized. This event became a bright illustration of the brutality with which the government treated its citizens and even more people in the country began to express their active political position. The majority of people in Ukraine were tired of corruption, abuse of human rights, violation of power, and economical stagnation. Yet, the country was divided on the cultural basis. The problem of the Russian language, which was not the official one anymore, made the ethnically Russian Ukrainian citizens start their own revolution. In the end, the Crimean peninsula proclaimed its desire to join the Russian Federation, and now, the situation in Ukraine is in the ore-war stage.
The Ukrainian government had one policy towards the mass media the situation in the country was shown from the only perspective – the one that was beneficial for the government. Yanukovych and his government were not allowing the traditional mass media to cover the revolutionary events and protests in the country and it led to the appearance of alternative ways of spreading information through the Internet. Thousands of people were watching online what was going on in Kiev and it led to the appearance of live channels on YouTube. Many people participated in the political discussions. The situation in the country was not far from the civil war. When the opposition became the leading power in the country, it blocked the news on the Russian TV channels, claiming that the government of Putin gave the false information and aimed at worsening the image of the Ukrainian revolution.
The social media and the Euromaidan gave the Ukrainian people a possibility to set their political priorities and express their opinion. Even though the government tried to manipulate the citizens’ viewpoints, the nation made its choice to become active when it came to the questions concerning their own destinies. Now the information is available in all kinds of social media.
It is difficult to underestimate the role social media plays in coordinating and making people understand social movements. It is not dependent on official mass media, which covers the situation in the country from the governmental perspective. It presents a possibility for development of the freedom of speech and citizen journalism. Social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Vkontakte encouraged street activism in Egypt and Ukraine. They also led to the active involvement of the majority of people in the countries in the political situation. The Ukrainians were initially living in a more democratic society and had a certain freedom of speech; that is why the social media did not become something extraordinary and revolutionary for them, as it turned out to be for the Egyptians. There was no need to fight with the state control of the Internet in Ukraine. Even though it was easier for the Ukrainian people than it was for the Egyptians to access the information about the uprising, the role of the social media in the organization of both revolutions is great. The possibility to find the uncensored information and to share the opinion with others is one of the key principles of the democratic society. Egypt and Ukraine went through the difficult period of fighting the regime, and now these countries are fighting for the new way of living with the help of the new media.
Thus, social media is an untapped resource that can be used to analyze major social movements with significant geo-strategic implications. The political and social situations are different among the countries; that is why in more democratic countries, the social media is just another way of coordinating the actions and an alternative source of information. In less democratic countries the social media is the only possible source of information that does not correspond to the governmental position.