Amidst the Syrian chemical attacks, the “million people” march in the Philippines and the anti-government protests in Bulgaria, critics have questioned and examined the role of Social Media in all these movements. The common theme that seems to arise in this discussion is the impact Social Media has and the extent to which it affects the people involved in the movement. Social Media has revolutionized how individuals communicate and has created an abundance of information sharing, but to what extent does it truly play a role in an anti-government protest or revolutionary movement?
Although some may argue that Social Media has propelled revolutionary ideology and information sharing among the masses, it does not indicate the creation of such sentiment. Instead Social Media has simply provided an avenue via which individuals can share their thoughts without the inherent censorship and regulatory drawbacks that traditional media outlets are subjected to in some countries. The unifying characteristic of Social Media in this discussion has always been the ability to overcome physical, geographical and technological limitations to share information on a truly global scale. The added incentive of using Social Media is the almost “real-time” sharing of information it provides. But knowledge does not necessitate action, and the sharing of information among Social Media influencers does not necessarily result in a revolution. So what does Social Media do in regards to these movements? And how does information sharing translate into activists who take action?
Two great examples of the benefits of Social Media can be found in the aforementioned movements in the Philippines and Bulgaria. The protests in Bulgaria started as anti-corruption measures fueled by the access to knowledge of the country’s role, or lack thereof, in the European Union. As this article in TechPresident points outs, the protesters comprise of a young generation who are motivated by “democratic transparency” and informed by the sharing of world news. The growth of Social Media has changed the political spectrum wherein leaders are expected to provide explanations for their actions and being an informed citizen has truly been redefined.
This new form of Social Media inspired action is especially evident in the “million people march” in the Philippines. The march was a result of an informed anger regarding corruption among government officials, which was originally generated via Facebook and Twitter. The alleged scam involving legislators from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) initiated the protest after critics identified the funding in “pork barrel” projects. The protest was peaceful in nature and ultimately resulted in the suspension of government spending in the PDAF, but the success of the movement was largely attributed to Social Media. Although the misuse of funds by government officials has been accepted in the Philippine political system, a series of news articles along with the call for action on Social Media helped generate supporters for the protest.
Although the protests in Bulgaria and the Philippines are attributed to Social networking sites, critics argue that Social Media does not create a movement or revolutionary ideology; it simply spreads the message among a wider audience. The prime examples of this premise are the Turkish protesters and Arab Spring activists. Turkish protesters are regarded as skilled users of Social Media who use it to promote their cause. The affinity that many Turks have with Social Media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has often times been attributed to Sedat Kapanoglu’s creation of Eksi Sozluk, Turkey’s first social network. This social networking site created a platform for user-generated ideology that often times provided context to meaningful discussions. With freedom of speech becoming an issue that often times resulted in imprisonment, individuals could anonymously share their criticism of the government without facing legal action. The use of Eksi Sozluk along with the introduction of Twitter and Facebook allowed protestors to share their viewpoints, which were stifled by traditional media organizations due to fear of regulatory taxes and fees from the government. Social Media, in this instance, helped promote free speech and provided an avenue for Turkish citizens to express themselves.
The Arab Spring activists benefited from Social Media by sharing information about underground communities that comprised of fellow citizens who shared their views. Although the protests were often times organized through Social Media, the ideology was not created by it. Activists used Social Media to coordinate the protests and inform the rest of the world about the proceedings. The Social platforms used in the protests did not cause the Arab Spring, but helped communicate information that aided the movement in the future. An important article in Smallwars Journal differentiates the use of Social Media to gain support for a cause from the actions taken to generate the cause itself. The article states that although Social Media helps users benefit from content and networking tools, it primarily relies on “weak links” or links that do no result in activism. Although Social Media helps facilitate interest in a movement, there is an important layer of personal investment required to actually execute it. The author concludes that the environment surrounding the uprising (Arab Spring) affected the movement more so than Social Media did.
In all the previous examples, Social Media has played a role in varying degree, but the extent to which Social Media has affected and will affect movements is still up for debate. Although supporters and critics continue to debate this topic, both sides agree that Social Media has one common denominator: sharing information. The impact with sharing information is evident in the chemical attacks that occurred in Syria. Social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and even Reddit have employed viral campaigns, hashtags, influencers and video uploads to spread the news. Social Media has allowed us to connect with others who have a pulse on the situation and lets us to stay informed on the latest developments. Social networking sites have broken barriers that previously restrained information and have provided activists with an opportunity to quickly share information. The discussion on whether or not Social Media has created these movements is an important one, but for now we can all benefit from the “real-time” spread of information using these social networking sites.