Social Media and Revolution

What follows is an old essay I did in my first year at UOW, debating the pros and cons of social media in such turbulent times as revolution. I stumbled across it while doing some digging and thought it wise to  pop it up on my blog for the sake of posterity 🙂


How does global media exacerbate conflicts and/or contribute to conflict resolution? Discuss with respect to a recent example such as the Iraq war.

This essay will aim to discuss the effects that both traditional media sources, such as newspapers, and alternative media like social networks have on ongoing protests, particularly those of the Arab Spring uprising in the 2011 period, and whether these mediums exacerbated the conflicts or made no impact. The focus on citizen revolutions as a ‘conflict’ instead of armed warfare means that a ‘resolution’ to the ‘conflict’ does not necessarily imply a positive outcome which one might argue it would in reference to a war, as revolutions don’t tend to just fizzle out and ‘resolve’ because of media reporting. Views such as that social media’s impact is felt most after initial protests instead of before, that the socio-political climate is always the primary propellant for change, and that online media triggered the first of major Egyptian protests as well as others will be explored in relation to the events of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.

The curious view that social media becomes more popular after initial protests is one supported well by its proponents. Wolfsfeld et al states that the focus needs to be first and foremost held on the political situation, and we need to know what’s driving citizens to revolt. Whatever these factors are, they are driving unrest and smaller protests will form before social media is utilised to help organise and exacerbate a revolution (2013 p.116). Unsurprisingly, the more hardship faced by those in a country is contingent with the number of protests experienced in that country (Wolfsfeld et al. 2013, p.124). It’s argued that depending on the level of access a people have to an uncensored media, they might be more or less likely to have feelings of discontent towards a particular regime, so a uniform correlation between revolutionary actions and social media activity cannot be easily distinguished and must be looked at in a case-by-case fashion (Wolfsfeld et al. 2013, p. 119). The paper notes that, should social media be a significant force driving revolutionary protests, then surely registrations for Facebook during that early period would rise dramatically and continue until after protests had ceased? Instead, they found that the number of registrations for the Arab nations unexpectedly slowed in this preliminary phase before protests, and only rose again during their labelled ‘protest’ period from December 2010 – April 2011. This data indicates that social media didn’t do much to instigate conflict, but the rapid growth in registrations undeniably contributed to an exacerbation of the protests after they were underway (Wolfsfeld et al. 2013, p. 128).

Whereas the previous source doubted the effect of social media on the initial phase of the Arab Spring revolutions, Eltantawy & Wiest’s study claims that social media does play an integral part in ‘the birth and sustainability of the January 25 protests’ and so too the exacerbation of the Egyptian revolution (2011, p. 1212). The article points to the murder of a young Egyptian man by the name of Khaled Said who was targeted by the regime’s police force after he leaked a video of police officials participating in a drug deal as contention. His death at the hands of corrupt police officers caused pictures of his corpse and story to circulate across the Egyptian social networks accompanied by phrases like ‘We are all Khaled Said’ and this dissemination helped drive already existing dissent towards the Mubarak regime (Eltantawy & Wiest 2011, p. 1212). While factors such as corruption, poor wages, police brutality and unemployment were some of the key contributors to the revolution, alternative social media meant that these injustices could be quickly and widely spread among dissidents, circumventing state-controlled traditional outlets of information. A second argument raised by this source is that the global nature of social media means, despite being physically distant, activists can still be involved in revolution.

Omar Afifi, a former Egyptian police officer, wrote a book detailing the optimal ways to elude police brutality in the inevitable future uprising but it was quickly banned by the regime and Afifi was forced to seek asylum overseas due to ongoing threats to his safety. Despite his forced departure, Afifi was still able to help those in his home country that were rising by advising how best to act and present themselves during the protests, and how to counteract police weapons such as mace all via social networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (Eltantawy & Wiest, 2011, p. 1213). In addition to support from those ousted from their country, the interconnected nature of the internet made it very easy to give voices of support to Egypt’s close neighbour Tunisia and support the citizen uprising there. The sharing of contact details, pictures, videos and other information gave Tunisian protestors support for what they were doing, which the Tunisians would reciprocate when the Egyptian people began major protests on 25 January (Eltantawy & Wiest 2011, pp. 1214 – 1215).
A final point made is that the government authorized internet blackout on 27th January 2011 wasn’t very effective, as the majority of previously potential protestors had already taken to the streets and become actively involved. Despite not being a key cause of revolution, the source sees the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution as a vitally important distribution tool because it, despite state-controlled media, enabled the arrangement and discussion of protests, provided a framework for the dissemination of vital information, as well as a platform for encouraging both protestors and to rally others in support (2011).

This third source again offers a different perspective. It compares the coverage of the protests in Egypt between a traditional news outlet (The New York Times), a NYT reporter’s Twitter feed, and the blog of ‘Global Voices’ which is a self-proclaimed ‘global community-based newsroom’ (Global Voices 2007). The source prefaces its findings by mentioning the well-known stance that traditional media takes on protest reporting, that of the ‘protest paradigm’ which focuses not on the actual motivations of the protestors, but the dramatic ‘spectacle’ of the event which takes away from the underlying purpose of any protest (Harlow & Johnson 2011, p. 1359). Paradoxically, the aim of a protest is to gather the government and public’s attention so as to bring about awareness and change. To achieve this, the media needs to widely distribute these principles, or the protestors will turn to alternative mediums such as online ‘social’ media. Harlow & Johnson make a concerted effort to evaluate whether or not online reporting has a similar ‘protest paradigm’ or has more of an opinionated, exacerbated style to it, and if so, why? To figure this out, they examined the portrayal of protestors, the level of information used provided by the protestors, and ultimately what media ‘frame’ is being used during the Egyptian revolution in each of the three mediums (Harlow & Johnson 2011, p. 1360). This analysis showed that Global Voices was far more likely to present things through an ‘injustice’ frame than either NYT (36%) or Nick Kristof’s Twitter (19%). Furthermore, NYT was, as predicted by the ‘protest paradigm’, much more likely (68%) to present its articles through a ‘spectacle’ framework than either Global Voices (49%) or the Twitter account (27%).
Global Voices, predictably, was most likely (84%) to present the protestors in a positive light due to their reporters’ close proximity to the conflict compared to either Twitter (17%) or the NYT (53%). Global Voices was similarly overwhelmingly reliant on citizen informants (90%) to tell their stories, where NYT preferred official sources (92%) with Twitter citing citizens 8% of the time and officials 18% (Harlow & Johnson 2011, pp. 1365 – 1366) .

From these figures we can discern that, while upholding journalistic integrity, the New York Times publication still adheres to the ‘protest paradigm’ by focusing too much on the inconsequential ‘spectacle’ and having little faith in first-hand citizen knowledge, choosing instead to rely on official channels. This approach isn’t necessarily inflammatory, but it does nothing to resolve conflict and instead arguably capitalizes off of it. The personal Twitter account didn’t fall into the ‘protest paradigm’ but, because of its character limit, is hard to discern anything other than its usefulness as a simple blogging tool with very little apparent bias by simply boiling down news into updates.  Global Voices, in the majority of its reports however, confidently stood on the side of the protestors. They avoided the ‘spectacle’ media frame and focused on the side of human suffering and the justification of protests, despite almost never including a chronological account of events so the reader can understand the reasons for revolution (Harlow & Johnson 2011, p. 1368).

Ultimately, we can conclude based on the assessed evidence that social media played an important role in the exacerbation of the Arab Spring revolutions. Despite whether that influence is felt before or after major protests begin its ability to spread information is an invaluable tool for the expression of a populace. We can also see observe that some of the tightknit nations like Tunisia and Egypt could use the internet to effectively provide support for one-another, bolstering resolve and conviction by thinking ‘if they did it, so can we’. Finally, we examined the statistical differences in media frames when comparing traditional legacy news to online, community-sourced reporting as well as the Twitter feed of a NYT writer. The takeaway being that the legacy media reported through a predictable ‘protest paradigm’ while the online news outlet was, for better or worse, more compassionate and sympathised with protestors due to a better understanding of local events.

 

References

Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., Sheafer, T., 2013, ‘Social media and the Arab Spring: politics comes first’, The International Journal of Press/Politics, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 115–137, accessed 14 September 2015,
http://hij.sagepub.com/content/18/2/115.short

Eltantawy, N., & Wiest, J., 2011, ‘The Arab Spring: social media in the Egyptian Revolution: reconsidering Resource Mobilization Theory’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 5, no. 18, accessed 2 November 2015,
http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1242/597

Harlow, S., & Johnson, T., 2011, ‘The Arab Spring: overthrowing the Protest Paradigm? How the New York Times, Global Voices and Twitter covered the Egyptian Revolution’. International Journal of Communication, vol. 5, no. 16, accessed 2 November 2015,
http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1239/611

Masouras, 2007, ‘…first global community-based newsroom’, Global Voices, Twitter description, unknown date, accessed 2 November 2015,

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