The phrase ‘Twitter Revolution’ is catchy. It makes Twitter and revolution sound like they were created for each other. Would you like some revolution with your Twitter? It was popular in Moldova. It was a hit in Iran. It triumphed in Tunisia. Egyptians are ecstatic about it. It grabs attention. It finds its way into headlines and bylines. It makes revolution (and social media) seem simple and easy.
‘Unlikely activist sparks monumental protest with the click of a mouse’ read the byline of an article on Egyptian protester Wael Ghonim in the Atlantic. It sounds like Ghonim was messing around on the Internet, clicked a button by accident and started a revolution.
Ghonim was an activist on purpose. He organized protests online and attended them in person. He put his safety at risk. He had links to organizers in the United States and contingency plans if he got arrested. He was arrested and interrogated because of his Facebook activity. Social media was influencing the Egyptian revolution. According to Ghonim, “this revolution started online.” Still, there was a lot more going on than the click of a mouse. It doesn’t seem simple or easy.
I think the relationship between social media and protest is more complicated than some media admit. If social media is a useful tool for the democratic and progressive, is it just as useful for the conservative, oppressive or violent? Is it inherently democratic? Here are a couple examples of social media uses that are less than revolutionary:
• Two men in England were given four years in prison for inciting riots on Facebook. Neither Facebook post resulted in rioting.
• In Tunisia, government officials hacked into citizen’s email and Twitter accounts to search for intelligence.
• In Syria web-surveillance has led to the arrest of protesters.
•The CIA warned that North Korea is using YouTube and Twitter to spread propoganda.
As social media becomes less of an innovation and more of an institution, will it continue to favour progressive, democratic people over conservative or oppressive organizations?