The Empire Strikes Back: Social Media Uprisings and the Future of Cyber Activism

By Amin, Ramtin | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

The Empire Strikes Back: Social Media Uprisings and the Future of Cyber Activism


Amin, Ramtin, Kennedy School Review


Neda Agha-Soltan and a few close friends headed toward the center of Tehran, Iran, in June 2009 to join thousands of others in an anti-government protest following the disputed presidential election. After becoming stuck in traffic, Agha-Soltan and her friends eventually decided to exit the car to cool off. As she stepped out and gazed at the crowd, the sound of a gunshot rang through the air. A single bullet was fired, and she fell to the ground.

Bystanders captured her last moments on a cell phone, and within hours the grainy, low-resolution footage was uploaded to the Internet and soon spread virally across the globe. With links to the video posted on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, the amateur clip eventually harnessed the attention of the mainstream media, grabbing headlines on CNN and in the New York Times.

Agha-Soltan's death became a symbol for the Iranian anti-government movement, and online social media amplified that symbol for the rest of the world to see.

TRADITIONAL POWER CIRCUMVENTED

The image of Agha-Soltan's death was not one that Iran's government wanted the world to see. In a country notorious for its media censorship, the emergence of online social networking sites and cell phone cameras now allows citizens to bypass state-censored media instantly and transmit a message or video clip to countless others at little or no cost. Digital media has enabled average citizens, including the two bystanders at the scene of Agha-Soltan's death, to provoke outrage and motivate millions of people to their feet at the touch of a button. Such a level of power was previously limited to just a small number of people within a governing regime or those leading an opposition group.

But this phenomenon is not unique to Iran. Around the world, social networking sites like YouTube and Facebook are becoming unlikely leaders of political power, as citizens circumvent single political or religious leaders to become champions of their own campaigns.

DIGITAL ACTIVISM IN ACTION

Digital activism, also known as cyber activism or e-activism, describes how citizens can use digital tools to effect social and political change. These digital tools range from mobile phones and digital cameras to Web 2.0 social networking sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

The use of interactive online platforms has surged in recent years. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are now household names in much of the developed world. These Web sites provide users with a free and easy-to-use platform to post multimedia content, which is then accessible to anyone with an Internet connection or mobile phone device. This content can come in the form of a blog post, video upload, or "tweet" (a short message containing 140 characters or less). While these digital tools were originally used by many for networking and entertainment purposes, they soon became a conduit for political activity.

"This new form of decentralized leadership encourages greater civic activism and is more resistant to shocks," said Zephyr Teachout, former director of Internet organizing for the Howard Dean for America campaign, in an interview with the author.

Human rights abuses and public protests once masked from the world are now made visible with digital technology. For example, the brutal government crackdown on Burmese monks--who were peacefully protesting for democratic reform--was revealed through video and blog postings, shedding light on Burma's harsh political realities. Similarly, during the 2009 Moldovan parliamentary elections, digital activists successfully used Twitter to organize street protests and demand a recount. Although the protestors failed to prompt a change of leadership or a new election, the world took notice of their efforts, and digital activism became recognized as a source of political power.

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