Social Media: A revolutionary tool close

Karine Tonson la Tour
Karine Tonson la Tour
In Musings, Online Innovation
21st April 2011
Social Media: A revolutionary tool

Every revolution needs a spark, enough exasperation and people sharing the same thoughts with plenty of hope and courage. But to put this frustration into action and really make a difference it needs organisation and passion spreading. In recent months around the world we have seen a new channel for this...Social Media.

"I'm -- I -- I'll -- I'll call it Revolution 2.0."
Wael Ghonim, Google executive, principal organisers of the massive anti-Hosni Mubarak protests, Egypt

Never, would I have imagined that Social Media could support such moments in history. That Facebook would be the main interface to plan historical demonstrations, by directing followers to congregate and how to avoid blockades. That Twitter will share information and motivate people over the boundaries of Northern Africa.

But can you imagine how much stronger you would feel if you received worldwide support via these channels? Well, that would give me an amazing, overwhelming feeling of power.

Switch off operation

Nobody was prepared for the rise of Social Medias to this end so it took some time for those in power to react. But when they did, Social Media’s weakness was revealed. When you cut off the Internet, all is lost

China was the fastest to react, but what should we expect from the world's second-largest economic power? The Chinese have developed sophisticated cyber-control strategies including strikes against organisations that challenge control such as Google. This explains how Chinese protest echoes have been strangled and repressed as soon as first signs appears.

Following the lead of China, other authoritarian regimes began to step in front of human rights and blocked Internet access. In Lybia for example, indications are that the DNS (Domain Name System) protocol which allows browsers to navigate on the Internet, has been cut. But in doing this aren’t they just exacerbating feelings of hate, despair and rage which makes people even more determinate and audacious?

Alternatives to "free a society"

Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, recently blogged that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are fast becoming the "Gutenberg press of the Middle East because they provide similar tools that empower people to speak, share and gather". As stressed by Wael Ghonim: "If you want to free a society, just give them Internet access, because [...] the young crowds are going to [...] go out and see and hear the unbiased media, see the truth about [...] other nations and their own nation. And they're going to be able to communicate and collaborate together."

In the past 3 months I've seen some interesting tweets about how to get Internet back: "FDN opens internet to Egyptians" and "Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen... Many revolts, one tool. Tor, the interface of the freedom movement.".

The battle for freedom of speech is so intense that a competition has been organised to award the best activists: The Free Expression Awards 2011: New Media.

This event, supported by Google, unveiled three nominees:

  1. Tunileaks by Nawaat (extension of Wikileaks) is an independent group blog run by Tunisian net activists. They not only spread transparent news through Tunisia but also help build media networks linking communities that had been cut off by government censors.
  2. The Tor Project enables whistleblowers, dissidents and activists to communicate safely. How? By protecting them against a common form of Internet surveillance known as "traffic analysis”. Traffic analysis can be used to infer who is talking to whom over a public network. The use of Tor technology in Egypt increased fourfold in the weeks leading up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, and a similar pattern was seen in Tunisia.
  3. Wen Yunchao is one of China’s best-known bloggers under the alias Bei Feng. As an Internet activist, he works to remove restrictions on information and champion’s freedom of speech. He also organised Twitter’s “empty chairs” event to mark Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

The winner of the Free Expression Awards 2011 was, without much surprise, Twitter. The social networking and micro-blogging service firstly stepped up during the contested 2009 Iranian elections. Its pivotal role to mobilise protesters and help activists to spread transparent news has been widely recognised since then.

The number of people following the same movement, the same ideas, sharing the same spirit: Freedom of speech and respect for Human right, has no end. But will these online activists enable the Internet to help change the face of the Arab world and progress towards democracy? Nobody knows, but what is clear is the terrible need for the Internet, particularly Social Media, as a tool for revolution.