Social Media, Political Change, and Human Rights

Article excerpt

Abstract: In this Essay, the role of social media in progressive political change is examined in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings. The concept of social media is explained, and Clay Shirky's arguments for and Malcolm Gladwell's arguments against the importance of social media in revolutions are analyzed. An account of the Arab Spring (to date) is then given, including the apparent role of social media. Evgeny Morozov's arguments are then outlined, including his contentions that social media and the Internet can be tools of oppression rather than emancipation, and spreaders of hate and propaganda rather than tolerance and democracy. The United States' policy on Internet freedom is also critiqued. Finally, the role, responsibility, and accountability of social media companies in facilitating revolution are discussed.

Introduction

In early 2011, revolutionary fervor spread across the Arab world. Unarmed and largely peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew long-standing dictators, and unprecedented protests arose in most other Arab States. Violent protests erupted in Libya, sparking a civil war be- tween the government and armed rebels. With the aid of an interna- tional coalition, the rebels overthrew longtime Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011. At the time of writing, the future of the uprisings in Yemen and Syria remains uncertain. Protests spread be- yond the Arab world to States as diverse as Uganda,1 Israel,2 and Spain.3 The role of social media in these uprisings has been lauded, and the term 'Twitter Revolutions" has become ubiquitous.

Does social media really deserve the plaudits it has received? After all, popular revolutions overthrew brutal governments long before the advent of Web 2.0: Iranians overthrew the Shah in 1979, Filipinos over- threw President Marcos in 1986, Communist bloc States in Eastern Eu- rope crumbled one by one in 1989, and huge demonstrations precipi- tated the fall of Indonesia's President Suharto in 1998. Vast numbers of Westerners are engaged with social media; is it possible that we are nar- cissistically trying to inject ourselves into the picture? In this Essay, I will examine the phenomenon of social media and its role in promoting and prompting progressive political change, particularly in autocratic States.

I. What is Social Media?

Social media is defined as "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content."4 "Web 2.0" refers to Internet platforms that allow for interactive partici- pation by users.5 "User generated content" is the name for all of the ways in which people may use social media.6 The Organization for Eco- nomic Cooperation and Development (OECD) specifies three criteria for content to be classified as "user generated:" (1) it should be avail- able on a publicly accessible website or on a social networking site that is available to a select group, (2) it entails a minimum amount of crea- tive effort, and (3) it is "created outside of professional routines and practices."7 Although purely commercial websites are excluded under this definition, interactive blogs run by firms are included because the conversation generated therein extends beyond the purely commercial. Emails and text messages are also excluded from the definition because they are not available via websites or social networks. Nevertheless, mass texting (or mass emailing) operates in a manner similar to social net- working sites by facilitating the immediate distribution of information, including information from social media sites, to a large audience in a form that is easily re-transmittable.

There are different types of social media: collaborative projects, virtual worlds,8 blogs, content communities, and social networking.9 Collaborative projects involve people working together to create con- tent; Wikipedia is the most famous example of these. …