Table of Contents
1. Social Media Platforms
2. Social Media and Activism
2.1. Hashtag Activism
2.2. Social Media and Information Sharing
2.3 Networks and Ties
4. Downsides of Social Media
5. Digital Divide
Over the past decade and especially since revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the impact and the importance of social media in social protests have become a widely discussed topic among scholars.
New studies are now looking at social media as a tool in shaping social movements’ agendas and helping collective action both online and offline at the local or global level. The most fascinating ability of this new tool is that it allows ordinary citizens to connect and organize themselves at a cheaper to no cost and to get worldwide attention, bypassing traditional media and addressing straight to the people.
The role of Social Media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube as both organization and communication channels have been explicitly underlined by protesters involved in the recent socio-political movements.
The Egyptian activist Fawaz Rashed said through a post on Twitter on March 2011: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”1
Back on 25 January 2011 hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered on Tahrir Square in Cario to revolt against the dictatorial regime and claim democracy. After weeks of protests Mubarak stepped down as president and the demonstrations spread throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
While the nature of each pro-democracy uprising and their ultimate success varied wildly from country to country, they had one defining characteristic in common: social media.
The use of social media has been linked to the spread of political protest in many cities around the world, including Moscow, Kiev, Istanbul, Ankara, Cairo, Tripoli, Athens, Madrid, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Ferguson, Missouri. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a protest that does not have its own distinctive hashtag on Twitter: OWS (Occupy movement), Jan25 (protests in Egypt), #UmbrellaRevolution (protests in Hong Kong), #BlackLivesMatter (protests in Ferguson).
From terrorist attacks and high-profile deaths, to discussions about social issues, hashtags have given social media users the opportunity to take part in the big conversations happening online.
Green Movement in Iran has often been described as the “Twitter Revolution”, the term Arab Spring has become interchangeable with “Facebook revolutions” or more broadly with “Social media revolutions.” These concepts have been equally strongly disputed, and these labels expressively rejected, often by protesters and reporters on the ground. Hamid Tehrani, Iranian journalist, researcher and editor of the blogging network Global Voices said in an interview to The Guardian: “The west was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of western technology, Twitter was important in publicising what was happening, but its role was overemphasised.”2
The advent of social media did not cause the uprisings of the 2011, but played a pivotal role, by “gathering real time information, by facilitating the weak ties, that is, the physically distant and socially diverse relationship across the globe.”3
Indeed, the revolution in social media has made it easier for likeminded people to gather and voice their opinion on a subject of common interest. These media have increased the rate at which relationships develop, information is generated, transmitted and spread. Especially in countries with state-controlled media, they represent a way to get the word out, to pierce the media blackout.
This paper will explore the effect of social media tools and tactics on contemporary socio-political movements, how these tools are used, and to what effect. Emphasis will be placed on media struggles in raising awareness, organizing actions, building networks and creating communities. It reviews the literature on Occupy movements, Black Lives Matter and other recent social protests, and then focuses on problems related to the use of social media that might undermine the success of internet-based movements as well as the significance of digital divides that cut across social movements.
The first chapter will provide a broad definition of social media along with a description of the features of the three most used social media platforms
1. Social Media Platforms
To begin with, social media will be defined as follows: “Social media are web-based communication tools that enable people to interact with each other by both sharing and consuming information.”4 It includes a large variety of websites; Microblogs (e.g. Twitter, Tumblr) are applications that allows users to publish short text messages within a character limit. The messages can be public or available to a selected group of users only and they are chronologically displayed as in a blog. The Social Bookmarking Websites (e.g: Del.icio.us, Blinklist, Simpy), where users interact by tagging websites and searching through websites bookmarked by other people; The Social News Websites (e.g: Reddit), where people interact by voting for articles and commenting on them; The Social Networking Websites (e.g: Facebook), where users interact by adding friends, posting comments, photos, videos, links to other pages, creating and joining communities and having discussions; The Social Photo and Video Sharing Websites (e.g: YouTube, Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram), where people interact by sharing photos or videos and Wiki Websites (e.g: Wikipedia, Wikia), where users interact by adding information on various topics and editing existing articles. Any other website that allows its users to interact with the site and other visitors is a social media website.
The following section will give an overview of the three most popular social media websites.
Launched February 2004, Facebook is the most popular networks worldwide as of April 2018. It was the first one to surpass 1 billion registered accounts and currently sits at 2.2 billion monthly active users.5 Despite the latest lack of data privacy revelations,6 Facebook currently remains the top social network on the web both in terms of total number of users and name recognition.
The membership is free, but a user has to create an account with a valid email ID. Facebook has various features; every member has his “Wall”, a page that allows the posting of messages, often short or temporal notes. A user's Wall is visible to anyone with the ability to see his or her full profile, and friends' Wall posts appear in the user's News Feed; “Status” allows the user to share and inform his friends of his updated location and activities; “Photos” allow the user to upload pictures; “Poke” allows members to send each other virtual pokes, “News Feed” which highlights information that includes profile changes, upcoming events, and birthdays, among other updates. Users have the option to post and comment and add photos on their profiles and their friends’ Walls, and other personal information. They can keep in touch with their friends through status updates, messages or instant messaging (Facebook Messanger). A Facebook user can send a message to any number of his/her friends at a time and also to himself/herself. They can also create and join interest groups and “like” pages including pages created for brands endorsing advertisements. Facebook can be used to browse and join different common interest groups, organized by colleges and workplaces, pull contacts from a web-based e-mail account, find friends using a search engine, and exchange messages including automatic notifications.7
“With more than 336 million monthly active users worldwide as of the first quarter of 2018, Twitter is one of the biggest social networks worldwide.”8
Twitter messages - so-called tweets - are limited to 280 characters and users are also able to upload photos or short videos. Messages on Twitter are automatically posted and are publicly accessible on the user’s profile page on the Twitter website. Anyone with internet access can instantly see a tweet and respond to it. One does not need even to “know” the other user or have their permission to direct a tweet at them.9 In fact, part of Twitter’s appeal is the ability of users to follow any other user with a public profile, enabling users to interact with celebrities, politics, public people who regularly post on the social media site. Twitter has also become an important communications channel for governments and heads of state.
Though restricted to few characters, Twitter has methods of connecting tweets to larger themes, specific people, and groups. Tweets can be categorized by a “hashtag”, which is preceded by a hash sign. Twitter also displays a “feed” of tweets of users one is “following” (i.e. users you have selected to receive tweets from). These users can be friends, people you are interested in, organisations, magazines, newspapers. This feed of tweets, known as a ‘timeline’, appears when you log into Twitter (either from a computer or mobile device). The aggregation of a user’s tweets on one’s Twitter page is considered a “microblog”, a web “log” that consists of short messages rather than long ones. Among microblogging services, Twitter is the most popular one.
Founded in 2005, YouTube is with 1,57 billion users worldwide10 the biggest online video platform worldwide featuring a wide variety of user-generated and corporate media content that include music videos, TV clips, as well as other video clips such as video blogs, short original videos, instructional videos on every topic, from entertaining videos to those with educational content. YouTube provides a unique space for creativity that can easily be tied to activism and global issues. Whether it is a specific person or an organization, a YouTube channel can be the tool for a movement.
Many governments have filtered YouTube in order to limit public exposure to content that may trigger social or political unrest, others have blocked specific videos when the content of a video violates national law. In certain countries, in China for example, YouTube has been completely blocked.
2. Social Media and Activism
In recent decades, one major change in activism practices has been the introduction of social media and other online tools to help activists spread messages about their work. Occupy and Black Lives Matter are two well-known movements that has placed social media at their core. In response to these movements and other popular youth-led uprisings around the world, a large body of literature has emerged focusing on the effectiveness and possibility of using social media and digital spaces for political engagement and social activism.
Starting in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement was the first to spark hope for Facebook and Twitter as instruments of social change. What began as a small protest rapidly turned into an international movement, drawing awareness to the concentration of money in a few wealthy "one-percenters." Wall Street occupiers managed to do this by using Twitter to spread their message. While Occupy was, by many accounts, a fragmentated, leaderless, and arguably failed movement11, its success in mobilization has marked a watershed moment which has given input to subsequent activist campaigns.
Advocacy organizations and activists have started to turn to social media as a channel to bring attention to social and political causes, as a tool to organize activities, spread news and create a worldwide network.
2.1. Hashtag Activism
In recent proceedings like the #FamiliesBelongTogether demonstrations against Trump's border policies, social media is acting as a tool to get people altogether and carry out the protests and uprising. The hashtag named after the protest – along with similar others such as #ReuniteFamilies and #StopSeparatingFamilies - is has been used by politicians, celebrities, activists, and the general public since it has appeared in June on Twitter.
Social media has made the hashtag a pervasive part of Internet culture, starting with Twitter and expanding to other sites. Historically, hashtags developed as an informal method of highlighting ideas in unformatted text and trying to grow conversation around a topic. In 2009, Twitter began to hyperlink and compile hashtags, making them searchable and increasing their function as identifiers. While most hashtags are developed spontaneously, some groups deliberately use hashtags to promote a message.
Originally designed for categorizing posts, the hashtag has now become a tool used by activists to identify their messages and show solidarity.
Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, #MeToo, are all significant cultural and political movements that began simply with the convergence of ideas and experiences around the pound symbol.
The movement Occupy started when Kalle Lasn, the editor of Adbusters, a Canadian anticonsumerist magazine, created a new hashtag on Twitter hoping to provoke an uprising from the American political left. The hashtag in question was #occupywallstreet and it first appeared on 4 July 2011. After that, the Vancouver-based Adbusters continued to tweet about #occupywallstreet but received almost no mainstream media coverage. All that changed on September 17, when thousands of women and men gathered in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district, and sit there for weeks.
The first two weeks of the movement were slow, media coverage was slim, and little happened beyond the taking of the concrete park itself. But then a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge led to hundreds of arrests and the spark was ignited.
Social media have played a crucial role in the Occupy movement by providing an online forum, links to articles, photos, manifestos and live video of events such as police raids of the campsites. Beginning with 1,000 protestors in New York City, the movement could rapidly spread across the globe via social media. According to the list published on 14 November 2011 by the British newspaper The Guardian, protests as part of the Occupy movement took place in 951 cities in 82 countries.12
1 Fawaz Rashed, quoted in Shearlaw M. (2016, January 25). Egypt five years on: was it ever a 'social media revolution’? The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/25/egypt-5-years-on-was-it-ever-a-social-m edia-revolution
2 Weaver M. (2010, June 9). Iran's 'Twitter revolution' was exaggerated, says editor. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jun/09/iran-twitter-revolution-protests
3 Chebib, N. K. & Sohail, R. M. (2011). The reasons social media contributed to the 2011 Egyptian revolution . International journal of business research and management (IJBRM), 2(3), 139-162, p.151.
4 Nations D. (2018, June 6). What is Social Media?What are Social Media Sites?. Lifewire. Retrieved from: www.webtrends.about.com/od/web20/a/social-media.htm
5 Statista. The Statistics Portal (2018). Most famous social network sites worldwide as of April 2018, ranked by number of active users (in millions). Retrieved form: https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/ Cadwalladr C. & and Graham-Harrison E. (2018, March 17). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election
6 Cadwalladr C. & and Graham-Harrison E. (2018, March 17). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election
7 Facebook. (n.d.) in Wikipedia. Retrieved on 25 July 2018, from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook
8 Statista. The Statistics Portal (2018). Number of monthly active Twitter users in the United States from 1st quarter 2010 to 1st quarter 2018 (in millions). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/274564/monthly-active-twitter-users-in-the-united-states/
9 Although tweets can be “protected”, a status by which only approved followers of their tweets have access to them.
10 Statista. The Statistics Portal. (2018). Number of YouTube users worldwide from 2016 to 2021 (in billions). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/805656/number-youtube-viewers-worldwide/
11 White M. (2017, August 28). Occupy and Black Lives Matter failed. We can either win wars or win elections. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/29/why-are-our-protests-failing-and-how-can-we-achieve-social-change-today
12 Rogers S. (2011, November 14). Occupy protests around the world: full list visualised. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/oct/17/occupy-protests-world-list-map#data