Political Unrest and Social Media

In the spring of 2011, the world watched as revolutionary fervor swept the Middle East, from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Syria and beyond. Startling images captured by civilians on the scene were viewed by people around the world, courtesy of distribution via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even mainstream media. There can be no doubt that information and communication technologies, in particular burgeoning social media, played a part in the upheavals. But, questions continue to dog political theorists and social scientists.
Rita Safranek, in her journal, “The Emerging Role of Social Media in Political and Regime Change” pushed forward the question that has been on everybody’s mind: just how much of a role did the different media play and which ones in which countries provided the biggest impact?

The Philippines

On January 17, 2001, during the impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, loyalists in the Philippine Congress voted to set aside key evidence against him. Less than two hours after the decision, activists, with the help of forwarded text messages, were able to organize a protest at a major crossroads in Manila. Over the next few days, over a million people arrived. “The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response – close to seven million text messages were sent that week – so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. … The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader” (Shirkey). On January 20, 2011, Estrada re-signed.


The first widely-recognized use of social media as a tool of political revolution occurred in Moldova in 2009. Activists used Facebook, LiveJournal (an electronic diary service/social network), and Twitter to organize protests and bring attention to the political unrest in the former Soviet republic. Interestingly enough, during the protests, Russian-language Tweeters debated the role of social-net-working tools in organizing the demonstration (Hodge). On April 6, 2009, following disputed general elections, protests broke out in the capital. On April 7, protestors were joined by opposition leaders in front of government offices in the capital. The demonstrators’ numbers had grown from 10,000 the day be-fore to nearly 30,000, in a metropolitan area of about 900,000. “Word had been spreading rapidly via Twitter and other online networking services. The official media carried no coverage, but accounts, pictures, and video of the rally were appearing in real time on Twitter and YouTube” (MungiuPippidi & Munteanu). Although the protestors failed to prompt a change of leadership or a new election, they got the world to focus on a small, remote country, and digital activism became recognized as a source of political power (Amin).


In June 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan and some friends headed to the center of Tehran, Iran, to join an anti-government protest following the disputed presidential election. Stuck in traffic, she got out of the car. Agha-Soltan was shot and died. Video of her death was captured on a cell phone. “With links to the video posted on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the amateur clip eventually harnessed the attention of the mainstream media, grabbing headlines on CNN and in the ‘New York Times.’ Agha-Soltans’ death became a symbol for the Iranian anti-government movement, and online social media amplified that symbol for the rest of the world to see” (Amin).


In December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself – “a desperate act of defiance following his denied attempts to work as a street vendor to support his family. … The scenes of his self-immolation captured by passers-by and posted on YouTube as well as those of the mass protests that followed his funeral, quickly circulated in Tunisia and beyond” (Cottle).
On January 11th protests reached the centre of the capital city Tunis, and Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali responded by ordering in the army and imposing a night-time curfew. The next day, tens of thousands took to the streets in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city (“International: No Sign of an End”). On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled the country, ousted by a spontaneous populous uprising. “Tunisia’s population of 10 million people, known for their high levels of education and civic pride, became the first people in the Arab world to take to the streets and oust a leader“(Chrisafis).


Google executive Wael Ghonim helped spark Egypt’s 2011 unrest. Egyptian businessman Khaled Said died after being beaten by police, who had videotaped themselves taking confiscated marijuana. Hoping to draw attention to police corruption, he copied that video and posted it to YouTube. Ghonim created a Facebook page called ‘We Are all Khaled Said.’ It featured horrific photos, shot with a cellphone in the morgue, of Said’s face. That visual evidence undermined the official explanations of his death. The Facebook page attracted some 500,000 members (“In-formation Age: Egypt’s Revolution”). Protestors flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square under the watchful eye of a military that was loath to turn on citizens.


“Occupy Nigeria, a socio-political protest movement began in Nigeria on Monday, 2 January 2012 in response to the fuel subsidy removal by President Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday, 1 January 2012.
Facebook groups were created to spur Nigerians globally against the fuel-subsidy removal. One of them called “Nationwide Anti-Fuel Subsidy Removal: Strategies and Protests” which was created on 2 January had over 20,000 members by 9 January 2012. Twitter is also being extensively used as a connect platform for the protesters across the nation, and the world.
Protests have taken place across the country, including cities of Kano, Lagos, Abuja, the Nigerian High Commission in London, World Bank Complex, Washington D.C, Brussels in Belgium, and South Africa. At least 16 people have been killed, all shot dead by the Nigerian Police Force.
Protesters shut petrol stations and formed human barriers along motorways…they believe the time is not right for such a drastic move as the average citizen’s income is a pittance (N18000 = $110). The minimum wage has still not been implemented across many states in the country”. (Wikipedia)

Lebanon, Syria, and Libya

“As the protests spread across the Arab world, activists in Lebanon began to unite with the goal of ‘ousting the sectarian system.’ These activists managed to reach around 15,000 people through a Facebook group entitled “In favor of ousting the Lebanese sectarian system – towards a secular system.” The group is comprised of youth from different sects, regions, and cultural backgrounds” (“Social Media Creating Social Awareness”). However, it was the sectarian and divided nature of Lebanese youth partisanship that rendered it difficult to use social media to mobilize young people through a common goal (“Grasp of Social Media”).

“Twitter Revolution” Critics

The importance of social media in this latest wave of political upheaval has political theorists and social scientists lining up in opposing camps. “While techno-utopians overstate the affordances of new technologies (what these technologies can give us) and understate the material conditions of their use (e.g., how factors such as gender or economics can affect access), techno-dystopians do the reverse, misinterpreting a lack of results with the impotence of technology; and also, forgetting how shifts within the realm of mediated political communication can be incremental rather than a seismic in nature” (Christensen).

“Twitter doesn’t start revolution, people do” (Luke Allnut).

There are two arguments against the idea that social media will make a difference in national politics. The first is that the tools are themselves ineffective, and the second is that they produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent (Shirky).

“Facebook and Twitter have their place in social change, but real revolutions take place in the street. One of the biggest obstacles in using social media for political change is that people need close personal connections in order to get them to take action – especially if that action is risky and difficult. Social media always comes with a catch: It is designed to do the very thing that isn’t particularly helpful in a high-risk situation” (Rosenberg).

For anyone who ever doubted the saintliness of new technology, here is a grisly proof:
“Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you.”
That was one of the text messages that fueled the 2010 interreligious violence in the Northern part of Nigeria. Mosques and churches were torched; hundreds were killed, their bodies burned and dumped in wells and sewage canals.

For all that it does, social media is no “silver bullet” when it comes to political change. “The use of social media tools – text messaging, e-mail, photo-sharing, social network, and the like – does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes” (Shirky).
“The real lesson is that the cyber-verse gives no side a decisive, unassailable advantage” (Carfano). For groups that have felt powerless against repressive regimes, social media’s technological leveling of the political playing field provides one of the most important components of any successful revolution – hope.


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