The digital world has grown rapidly over the years since the invention of the World Wide Web. Consequently, it has become tremendously easy for persons to gather and share information across the globe within seconds. According to scholars, social media has played and continues to play a significant role in the emergence of national and global revolution. People have access to information that continues to alter their perceptions on each other and the political elite. Essentially, because of its accessibility and acceptance, social media has increased awareness among people from different divides; therefore, mobilizing them to take action against human injustices in order to promote democracy and human rights. This paper will argue that new technology, like social media, and its catalytic role in championing for democratic reforms across the globe.
Social media is often categorized as a form of novel communication technology, which is accessed via the Internet. Social media has some or all of the following characteristics; participation; openness; conversation; community, and connectedness. Participation in social media is evident because it encourages the audience to contribute to the discussion, as opposed to mainstream media, which does not create a forum for the audience to give their views (Wood 303). Social media is also open in nature because it creates an open platform through which the audience can give their feedback, comments, or share information without facing any barriers especially because they can remain anonymous. In addition, access to information and content is equally open as far as social media is concerned. Available literature also shows that social media is seen as conversation-geared, as opposed to the conventional media, which is broadcast-oriented. The development of social media also provides means through which individuals with similar ideologies can quickly form communities through which they can advance their beliefs and interests. Finally, social media has a connectedness attribute because they thrive on their links to other people, resources, sites, and etcetera.
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According to Scott, social media takes different forms to include wikis; social networks; blogs; micro blogs; forums; podcasts, and content communities (38). Wikis is a website database that allows users to add or edit content. Social networks are websites that allow individuals to create personal web pages through which they connect and share information with their friends. Blogs are online journals through which bloggers share their opinions on certain topics of interest. Podcasts are video and audio files that give users access to content upon subscription. Forums are online discussions created around specific interests and topics. Microblogs are a combination of social networks and bite-size blogs where users share limited contents, for instance, Twitter. Lastly, content communities are groups that organize and share particular kinds of content, for example YouTube, Flickr, Delicious, among others.
Studies have shown that the emergence and development of social media has contributed to the growth of cyber activism, which in turn has promoted collective action. In the past, computer savvy activists have used the Internet to organize and mobilize social movements in activities such as demonstrations, public protests, consumer boycotts, among others. Actually, Eltantawy and Wiestsocial cite that media has been used to advance the rights of victimized groups; promote connections among social groups; reduce confinement of political spaces; creating awareness of social injustices in order to attract support from the world (1208). For instance, social media was used to promote antiwar activism in Iraq and across the world; leading to the convergence of over 10 million participants in demonstrations staged in different cities in the world on February, 15, 2003. Moreover, there are several democratic groups supported by social media; chief among them being the World Social Forum, which helped in mobilizing global justice movements of about 100,000 activists in Brazil and Brazil in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
The revolution in Tunisia that ousted President Zine El Abedine is a prominent case of how new media has promoted democratic governance in the world. This move came as a surprise to many because the young generation of Tunisia seemed apolitical at the time. Tunisia was under authoritarian rule for 23 years, not to mention that the country witnessed alarming levels of corruption; widening gap between the affluent and the poor; weakening economy, among other socio-economic challenges. Moreover, it was almost impossible to increase awareness of these socio-economic injustices in an environment where the state controlled the mainstream media. Journalists were subjected to unrealistic restrictions or self-censorship (Zayani 3). However, the development of new media and the internet resulted in significant changes in Tunisia with the young and educated population using the platforms to gain and share information. At the time, the new media provided an open forum where persons could exchange information freely. Unfortunately, following the vast Internet audience, the government started monitoring Internet use, and political content that was perceived unfavorable to the political aristocrats was often blocked and made unavailable to the citizens. Additionally, Internet proponents were arrested, and several sites were shut down.
This led to an uprising, which was strengthened by continuous streams of newsfeeds, videos, and images of police brutality as they tried to contain activists. The content went viral on Twitter and Facebook both nationally and globally leading to widespread social connections and solidarity that fueled the revolution. Facebook among other social networks were used to expose the government’s dictatorship, as well as to garner support from the outside world. As the protests gained momentum, internet users became cyber activists actively seeking information, as opposed to the passive journalism, which culminated in outright confrontations and demonstrations. The government imposed a ban on mainstream media not to go on air, but news of the unrest continued to spread through social media. Eventually, the government could not control information flow, not to mention that the rest of the world was exerting pressure on the government to stop the bloodbath; thus, President Ben Ali was compelled to resign.
A similar uprising was witnessed in Egypt after it emerged that Tunisia had succeeded in expel dictatorial leadership. Social media was once again at the centre of facilitating information sharing and collection during the revolt in Egypt. Like their Muslim counterparts, the people of Egypt were dissatisfied with the leadership of President Hosni Mubarak, who was at the helm of leadership for 30 years, but failed to liberate the country from socio-economic challenges. Moreover, there was rampant corruption, and citizens lacked the freedom to express themselves. Consequently, the citizens turned to the social media to marshal mass protests, which began on January 25, 2011. Through social media, the people were able to transmit personal experiences, resist government censorship, access news from other sources, and get around state media monopoly forcing Mubarak to step down after 18 days of protests.
Democracy in Egypt, like Tunisia, was elusive before the rise of what is now referred to as The Arab Spring. A study by Eltantawy and Wiest reported that the government would detain citizenry for periods without undergoing formal trial, beat protestors brutally, and censor the mainstream media, among other forms of social injustices (1211). In addition, in 2007, Mubarak drafted constitutional amendments allowing him increased control. He allocated himself power to have civilians tried in military courts, impose restrictions on who could run for office, and rescind judicial supervision during parliamentary elections.
Bahrain was the third Arab country to join the Arab Spring bandwagon, which rocked Arab countries in 2011. The revolt in Bahrain started on February 14, 2011, when thousands of youths converged at Manama to push for political reforms. The protestors used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, among other social networks to organize the protests, and to garner support from other parts of the world. These channels provided a platform where people could share their ideas openly without the fear of being arrested, and detained. Furthermore, social media was useful in informing the world what was happening in Bahrain given that there were censorship laws, which controlled the content that traditional media aired or printed.
Authoritarian governments have come to appreciate the threat that digital media technology poses to their dynasties, and as a result, some have resolved to control the use of new media technologies in order to mitigate activism. For instance, some governments have introduced digital surveillance, Internet censorship, harassing and arresting journalists, among other dictatorial activities in an effort to control content sharing, and to avert nascent movements that threaten to overthrow them. For instance, the government of Bahrain controls the content on television, radio, and most newspapers. It only allows them to air and print content that is favorable for the government. Additionally, dissenting publications are often neutralized to favor the incumbent political elite.
For instance, in China, the government has blocked Face book and Twitter in an effort to control social networking, which has been a catalyst in the promotion of democracy, and in the recent uprising witnessed in Arab countries (Weiwei, 2012). Recently, the government exercised its right to Internet censorship by blocking the search of ‘Chen Guangcheng’, a blind activist; on Weibo because he had stirred public interest after it emerged that he was under house arrest. Chen escaped from the house he was being detained and sought diplomatic custody into the United States. Mackinnon reported that even though the public was interested in following up the case, only a few people had full information about it, and even then, they had to speak in codes for fear of detention (2012). Additionally, a movie, Shawshank Redemption, which was based on Chen’s escape, was banned from Weibo. The search on the names Dong Shigu and Linyi Township, Chen’s hometown were also blocked.
In yet another incident, the Chinese government blocked all Internet access to search words relating to the 23rd anniversary of Tiananmen Square protests, which is commemorated on June 4. This was aimed at the suppression of political demonstrations in China. According to Graeme, the government censored search of words such as candle, 23, six four, and never forget on Sina Weibo, and blocked users from changing their profile pictures on that day to suppress efforts to commemorate the event visually (2012). In addition, the government allowed circulation of an article that claimed that the Tiananmen Square massacre was a myth in an effort to dispel public rage.
The government of North Korea has also imposed policies to control the spread of social media in an effort to suppress potential revolts. For instance, only a handful of its citizens have access to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, while about 25 million citizens do not have Internet connection. Moreover, televisions only broadcast government stations; ownership of freestanding radios and fax machines is outlawed and international radio signals are jammed frequently. There is unreliable supply of electricity and households are fitted with a radio hardwired to a central channel controlled by the government (Boynton, 2011). In addition, a majority of North Koreans have access to an intranet portal known as Kwangmyong, which filters the content to be accessed leaving the public with access to pro-government documents and news only.
On September 17, 2011, a protest dubbed as ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was born bearing the slogan ‘We are the 99%’; where the 99% refers to ordinary citizens, and 1% to the wealthiest population (Pepitone 2011). The movement began in ZuccottiPark in the Wall Street financial district under the leadership of a Canadian activist group called Adbusters. The movement was initiated to protest against social inequality, corruption, greed, and the unwarranted control that financial services companies have on the government. Social media has enabled the spread of the movement’s ideologies to other parts of the world with an aim of petitioning governments across the world to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor.
In conclusion, since the development of social media and Internet, information sharing and finding has become incredibly easy and fast. Individuals are able to share and access information from any part of the globe, which has helped to increase awareness on sensitive matters such as economic and social injustices. As a matter of caution, governments in countries such as China and North Korea have implemented policies to control the spread of social media and access to the Internet, which undoubtedly have the ability to upend governments as witnessed Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, and Egypt.
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