Social networks and popular uprisings: what is the link?
By Fiorenzo Conte
In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, there has been a general excitement about the pivotal role that social networks can play in spurring popular revolts. Social networks have even been credited as the major factor in igniting such uprisings, insofar as they offered a platform for political mobilization. According to Ghonim, marketing manager of Google, who was one of the main organizers of the mobilization in Egypt, Facebook is to be thanked for the freedom achieved in Egypt given that “the revolution started online”. On the basis of this widely accepted narrative social networks are increasingly feared by authoritarian regime. China makes no exception:
The lesson Beijing has taken from the Middle East uprisings is that the Internet can be the starting point of large-scale popular protests and that it has indeed contributed to the spread of “global values,” such as freedom of expression and human rights. In the minds of the leadership, these factors generate an urgent need to reassert control.
However, if one looks at other countries, the link between social networks and popular uprisings is not as straightforward as it appears to be. In some cases social networks undermine rather than strengthen anti-government protests. For instance, in the Philippines, social networks offered an alternative way to young people to express the discontent. As a result, the appeal to join the anti-government armed struggle has been drastically weakened. In the words of the Chief Negotiator Alex Padilla:
Leftist rebels are being pushed into oblivion by Facebook and the Internet as rebellious youths now vent online instead of taking up arms against the state (..) the Internet had helped steer university students away from the rebels, whom (..) had been reduced to recruiting school dropouts and the unschooled
In other cases, social networks can be utilized by the regimes to single out and crack down on the protesters. In Iran, for example, Facebook posts and tweets were used as evidence against protesters that organized the failed Green Revolution.
Social networks have been heralded as key vehicle for popular mobilization, as protests are gaining ground in the Arab world. Yet, other stories show that the picture is more nuanced and that social network can fragment as much strengthen mass mobilization. Only time will say which of these trends will prevail.