(This essay was written for my Media & Culture course at the University of Edinburgh.)
Traditional forms of media, including radio, television, and newspapers, historically made it relatively easy for authoritarian regimes to control the population through propaganda. Hitler, Stalin and Mao exploited such opportunities to the fullest. Democratic leaders were similarly able to exert their influence trough such means of communication, from Roosevelt’s radio speeches to Reagan’s television shows. The point was the same: the influence of this media trickled from top to bottom, starting with those in power and working its way down to the public.
Social media seems completely different. Through modern forms of communication, contact is direct from person to person without a central authority to control methods of communication. For example, the opposition in Egypt constantly sent out messages about what was happening with solicitations for new demonstrations in a surprisingly short time to new managers, whose names we had never heard, gathering tens of thousands in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The masses had their own media.
Social media has undoubtedly meant a shift in power in favour of the citizen. But the picture is more complicated than one might get the impression judging just from the most enthusiastic reports from Egypt. In Egypt, the government simply shut down the Internet for five days. Authorities in Sinkiang, China did the same when riots reached their worst in 2009. Google left China because the Chinese government wanted it to operate on its own terms. Governmental bodies can infiltrate the social media, thereby clashing with opposing groups. Both democratic and authoritarian governments are increasingly learning to use the new media to encourage their own agenda.
In the Middle East and elsewhere, revolutions have failed. The majority of Arab regimes survive revolutions, at least in the short term. In 2009, Iran demonstrated how social media gave the opposition new opportunities for organization. This was still not enough. Evgeny Morozov, who has written a book about social media’s limitations, is strongly influenced by the sad situation in the country of Belarus. If you are willing to expend the necessary force, the government unfortunately still largely determines the outcome.
This power shift in favour of the citizen has led to an on going debate about social media’s impact on political participation. On the one hand it is argued that social media and publishing services have made dissemination of their own content possible, increased availability of powerful information, created room for discussion, and thus made participation in the political arena easier. However, critics increasingly question whether social media really is changing public policy.
In this essay I will explore some of the recent revolutions in the digital age: The Arab Spring, The London Riots, The Kony2012 Campaign, Anonymous and hacktivists, questioning why some of them were a potential success and why some failed and how the governments, especially in the UK and US, are dealing with these new ways of organizing and fighting back.
The Arab Spring
The last few years we have seen several examples of how social media can help to distort and change the balance of power.
The Arab Spring has emerged as the primary example of how social media is used to mobilize and, ultimately, topple regimes. But does social media really change public policy? The Arab Spring, the major uprising in the Arab world in 2011, was a widespread revolt with the mission of creating major changes in the governmental policies of Arab nations. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia triggered the revolt in the winter of 2011.
The Jasmine Revolution
The Jasmine Revolution started on December 17th when a young merchant set himself on fire in protest of the Tunisian government. He later died from the injuries. It sparked a riot and a popular uprising across the country. On January 14th, the government and the country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his family fled and three days later, a new interim government was appointed.
The uprising in Tunisia is the first popular uprising in the Middle East/North Africa region that has led to any change of power since the revolution in Iran in 1979. It created shock waves in the Arab world. This is partly because this rebellion has its origin in what Al Jazeera English calls “a lethal combination of poverty, unemployment and political repression: three characteristics of most Arab societies.” Al Jazeera English reported that Tunisian activists have been the most outspoken in this part of the world and used Twitter, among other forms of social media, to express support for Bouazizi.
It has been widely discussed if the role of social media is an important factor in the revival of Arab nationalism and the spread of knowledge about what is happening n the other Arab countries.
The popular social media sites Facebook and Twitter have been praised for their role in the so‐called Arab Spring. But can it really be called a Facebook revolution? Was it rather the vulgar corruption and injustice through the decades that created the revolution? It is clear that the social media alone cannot make people angry enough to respond. However, the Internet can be useful to mobilize many people.
The Jasmine Revolution has swept away old regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Especially in Libya, Yemen and Syria, political regimes have been under considerable pressure, but the outcome is still unclear. Such revolutions arise from complex political, economic and social conditions. One-‐factor explanations are always incomplete. In short, we can say that few regimes have delivered worse results for the population over many decades than those of Arab nations. Observers have argued that without the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, there would probably have been no revolutions.
The Arab Spring has emerged as the premier example of how social media is used to mobilize and, ultimately, overthrow regimes. Additionally, a Barack Obama’s successful election campaign in 2008, when Facebook was largely used both to mobilize voters and raise funds for the campaign, was meat on the bones of those who argue that social media is becoming influential in political communication.
Social media interfaces like Facebook, Twitter and blogs are increasingly predicted to play an important democratic role, and in the Arab spring, they were praised. Because the Internet and the various network services have allowed for interaction, participation, easy access to information and new ways to communicate, the opposition in Egypt got the chance to send out calls for new demonstrations without government intervention. As Howard & Hussain said: “Digital media became the tool that allowed social movements to reach once unachievable goals”.
The London Riots
A more local example of how social media has been used by both civilians and police is the London Riots in August of 2011, also known as the Blackberry Riots, where several people took to the streets in what started as a demonstration that ended up in a riot leaving five dead, several injured, over 3000 arrests (more than 1000 charged) and thousands of pounds worth in damages due to looting, arson, mugging and assaults.
Between August 6th and August 10th of 2011, riots broke out in some of the bigger cities in the UK. The point of origin of the disturbance was Tottenham (in the greater London area), following a fatal shooting of Mark Duggan that occurred with unclear circumstances. Around 300 people started what seemed to be a peaceful demonstration outside the police station in Tottenham, which after a while turned violent. Soon police cars were being set on fire and nearby shops were looted.
Soon the riots spread to other boroughs of London and to other cities around the country such as Birmingham, Nottingham, and Bristol. There are many theories as to why these riots started and spread out. Poor relations with the police, government cuts, unemployment, poverty, gang culture and criminal opportunism are some of the reasons stated.
So how did social media play a part in all of this?
It all started with a page created on Facebook the 6th of August ‘R.I.P. Mark Duggan’, where a couple of hours after the first protest some of the creators behind the page encouraged people to upload pictures of the riots to the page. However, there were no signs of someone trying to organize a riot on Facebook. On Twitter there was an attempt to target a carnival in Hackney but the police, who by this time were patrolling the social media websites for clues, quickly shut it down.
Some of the rioters did not even care to cover their faces whilst looting and some posted pictures of themselves posing with their stolen goods on social media websites. This made it easier for the police, who by now where searching through Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, a photo-sharing site, to track down and gather evidence against culprits.
Except for the Hackney Carnival incident, there was not much evidence online of how the youth organized the riots. The reason for this seems to be they were organizing using BlackBerry mobiles which has a feature called BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) that can send out mass texts to everyone in your contact list for free. BlackBerry has about 37% of the teenage market in Britain so to send out mass BBMs was the best way to communicate and organize people efficiently without seemingly leaving traces.
There they were wrong. Because of the loopholes of the Data Protection Act of 1998 the company behind the BlackBerry, Research in Motion (RIM) was able to give police vital information such as traffic data: who messaged whom, when and from where, used in conjunction with CCTV pictures, that helped the police to put names to faces.
Other civilians took the opportunity of using social media to help the police catch the looters and to organize clean ups. Pages on Facebook were created where civilians posted pictures of looters in action and on Twitter #riotcleanup was used to organize groups to clean up the streets after the riots.
The riots, as they have been called, were perhaps a revolution, just as in the Arab countries, the working class and youth of Britain had enough of banks being bailed out and MPs’ misuse of government funds and bailout of banks whilst they cut funds for the lower classes, cut university funding, and unemployment was at an all‐time high. They might not have known that this what they were protesting but they knew they were angry and things was not right, so like many times before in history when the people were upset with the ruling classes, they took to the street and showed their frustration. They took not only to the street but also to but also to their phones and laptops to BBM, to tweet and post about their frustration in social media, to spread the word of this injustice throughout the country as they had seen done before. Maybe the true message behind it, the voice of a youth heading into an insecure future, with no trust in their leaders and with no faith back from the authority, became lost behind the actions of opportunists hiding behind the anonymity of a crowd and used it to steal and loot?
A term that often shows up in the debate about political engagement through social media is “slacktivism.” The term refers to the so-called “feel good” efforts one makes to feel that one engages, usually online, but that requires minimal effort or investment (both financial and personal) and have little or no bearing on the actual case.
On Facebook, for example, it will be hitting the “like” button or answering yes to any event, without necessarily engaging further, than to actually participate in a demonstration or donate money to a particular purpose. An example often cited is the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign on Facebook earlier this year, which was to spread a video about the crimes committed by Joseph Kony in Uganda to put pressure on the international community to arrest Kony. The link to the video spread around the world very quickly, and had 43 million views after 2 days (at the time of writing has over 94 million views) but did not lead to further involvement, as very few participants attended the street action which was also encouraged.
On March 5th the Kony2012 video was posted on YouTube, and spread to all corners of the internet. The reason for the campaign was that a group of Americans had pledged themselves to do what they could to make war criminal Joseph Kony pay for his actions. Kony has abducted children and trained them as soldiers for years. In 2006, he was wanted by the ICTY in The Hague. The campaign’s goal was to get so much attention that one could no longer ignore the requirement that the war criminal should be taken.
But the campaign has been criticized heavily from several sources, partly because it expresses a lot of misinformation, and because their desire to capture Kony has a number of serious complications.
The Ugandan blogger and activist Javie Scozia has written:
“It’s a western syndrome to think about Africans as a bunch of helpless goons. That we are not. And again if you think this way, this is another reason for you to get out of your deadlocked-bubble.”
If it was due to the criticism or because it is easier to press ‘attending’ to an event than to actually show up, the Cover the Night event flopped worldwide.
The campaign aimed to cover ‘every city, every street corner’ around the globe with Joseph Kony’s face. In Vancouver, Canada 21,000 people registered on Facebook that they would join ‘Cover the Night’. But when the evening came only 17 people turned up, according to the Vancouver Sun.14 In Sydney, Australia 18,700 had indicated via Facebook that they would attend the event, but only about 25 were seen in the main streets Friday night.
This is the brutal reality that reveals itself now that we have we have a ‘like’ and ‘thumbs up’ community. It may mislead political parties, organizations and campaigns to believe that someone pressing the like button is synonymous with a deep friendship and deep commitment.
What we saw with the Kony campaign was a very widespread, but also very shallow commitment. It was the biggest success ever when it comes to virality and online activity in that it did pretty much all the right things, except it had too much faith that the peoples’ interest would reach beyond their computers.
Government & Corporation vs. Anonymous/Hackerspaces
Not only do governments have concerns about how people use digital media in their own country, with the new constant flow of information across borders the governments around the world have had to adapt how their jurisdiction works over the ethernet. Most countries have laws preventing their population access to certain sites and doing some sort of monitoring as well.
Is this a breach of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, Article 19 that tells us; ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’
In the United Kingdom the Data Protection Act of 1998, which normally prevents companies from sharing such information, was the law that gave the police right to access the information about the digital footprints of the rioters from their BlackBerrys.
Or what about the Terrorism Information Awareness (previously Total Information Awareness) that was established in the States after 9/11 which aims to track data on everyone in the country and create profiles, including gun ownership, credit card purchases, cell phone records, group affiliations, and library book checkouts? Is that not a breach against civil rights?
Some people dedicate their spare time, and potentially life, to these causes. In 2012, activism and civil disobedience is not limited to demonstrations and street fights. Indeed, one can largely claim that the polite, well-mannered demonstration culture in recent decades that has gained a foothold in the West are not suitable for much else than to let protesters clear their conscience in public.
Anonymous is characterized by their use of stylized Guy Fawkes masks taken from the film adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd comic “V For Vendetta,” and in recent years, along with Wikileaks, has become the foremost symbol of peoples’ ability to fight back against the government and the large multinational companies. It strongly opposes Internet censorship and surveillance, and has hacked various government websites. It’s not only the big corporations they go after. They have also helped the police catch pedophiles and cyber bullies.
Anonymous is the most famous hacktivists group out there, but by far the only one. Hacktivists can work from their childhood room or come together in hackerspaces. Hackerspaces can be found all over the world in all shapes and sizes.
‘Hackerspaces are the digital age equivalent of English Enlightenment coffee houses. Much like them they are places open to all, indifferent to social status and where ideas and knowledge hold primary value.’
‘The hacker community may be small in number but it sits atop technologies that are driving the global economies of the future. Anonymous was merciless when federal agents in New Zealand arrested the men behind Megaupload, a website where you could upload pirated movies and similar, and shut down the website. Because of the new bill, SOPA, the government was attacking what they deemed to be illegal sites. They attacked and crashed the US Department of Justice website and then they went after the Universal Music Groups website, as it was one of the SOPA bills biggest supporters.’
Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is an American bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives in October 2011. The bill extended the opportunity for the American police and licenses to effectively prevent the spread of copyrighted material on the Internet and stop fake goods.
The bill, called SIPA (Protect IP Act) in the Senate, is intended to allow the U.S. Justice Department, besides also copyright holders to get court order against websites that are alleged to allow or support copyright infringement. Depending on who requires court order, the actions include banning advertising networks online payment services such as PayPal from doing business with sites that it claimed had violated the law.
Furthermore, it would ban search engines like Google from displaying links to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites. The law would make unauthorized streaming of content with illegal copyright a felony with a maximum sentence of five years in prison for 10 pieces of music or movies within six months. The bill was postponed indefinitely on January 20th, 2012.
Then, not long after, a new bill was to be enforced globally, ACTA.
ACTA (Anti-‐Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) is an agreement that is the result of a series of meetings between representatives of the WTO states of Australia, Canada, EU, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland and the USA. The agreement aims at coordinating efforts to enforce intellectual property rights (copyright and trademark law) across borders. The agreement is controversial.
ACTA has been prepared as a WTO agreement. The preamble of ACTA states that ACTA is intended to complement a WTO agreement of 1994 called TRIPS (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). Norway is an automatically joint member of the WTO TRIPS. But unlike TRIPS ACTA is defined by the WTO as a plurilateral agreement. This means that WTO members are not automatically connected to ACTA.
ACTA is not a popular appointment among people. In Poland it was 15 degrees below zero on the 26th January 2012 when mass demonstrations were held in protest against Poland and 21 other EU countries the same day signed the agreement. Kader Arif, a member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party, joined this protest and withdrew the next day from the position of the European Parliament’s rapporteur for ACTA.
Protest Movements claim ACTA is a game to establish a new, supranational world police which will be owned and controlled by the copyright industry. The deal is only the first step, claim critics. When the agreement is established, it will bit by bit be extended with new Draconian law and industrial instruments that will eventually choke all creativity and freedom.
The meetings of the 11‐state group that negotiated ACTA has been public. Negotiation outcome (a document of 26 pages) was published on 15 november 2010. Critics of ACTA believe, however, the terms used in the official document “tags” for far more dramatic and Draconian terms than negotiating parties fully understand. ACTA is apparently a trade agreement, but with criminal elements. It is unusual for a trade agreement. Critics say that this is copyright law disguised as a trade agreement.
The most controversial part of ACTA allows for countries to introduce the so-‐ called ‘three-strike’ rules.
‘Three strikes’ will mean the network users can be banned from the Internet if they continue to download pirated software after receiving two warnings for such activity. ACTA also means that national authorities have the right to demand that network providers provide personal information about their customers, especially those customers suspected of illegal downloading.
When all is said and done, the legal action that is found in ACTA is essentially already current law in the U.S., the EU and even Norway. ACTA will thus hardly do more damage to freedom of expression and the free Internet, than the damage that has already occurred through laws already enacted. So to get a real change we must look at the laws already out there.
In July, due to the massive protests from people all over the world, the European parliamentary vote on approving the bill saw 478 against and 39 in favour, with 165 abstentions.23 However, other countries such as the US and Japan are expected to continue with implementing it. According to the Guardian, Acta could still be revived if the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, considers that it needs to be implemented and wins a court decision over it.
And where does the boundary go on digital ownership?
On July 17, 2009, thousands of people who had downloaded 99-‐cent copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 to their Kindle eBook readers found the titles suddenly deleted. It transpired that Amazon.com remotely deleted the titles from purchasers’ devices after discovering the publisher lacked the proper rights. Some said this felt like if someone from Amazon had walked into their house and taken the book out of their shelves.
It seems the law systems are not keeping up with the changes in technology.
Political engagement through social media is often described as ‘slacktivism’, a diluted form of activism that does not require any of those who participate or have any effect on the political system.
Another question is whether it is so easy for the common man and woman to reach out with their message, or for social media to be used by the elites to dominate the debate. In other words, do we see a democratization of public space, with the option for more people to express themselves, or are we forming digital hierarchies, where the old (or new) elites dominate debate?
To understand how power works in the social media, it is important to understand what happens when individuals are connected through digital networks. A democratic potential lies in the digital network insofar as it is very efficient when it comes to connecting individuals or entities ‐ they create a ‘small world’.
When individuals are connected through a network, they may influence each other’s behavior and decisions. A network is enhanced when the individuals do when others in the network sees the action and choose to do the same, for example, when you click ‘attending’ on a political demonstration after seeing on Facebook that many of your friends are going there. Social media is well suited to create information cascades because users can easily see what their friends or followers communicate through their networks.
In the much publicized ‘Kony 2012′‐operation in spring 2012, Facebook is an example of an information cascade. The campaign encouraged users to disseminate a video about the crimes committed by Joseph Kony in Uganda. The intention was to put pressure on the international community to arrest Kony. The link to the video spread to the entire world via Facebook in record time. This shows the potential of information dissemination via Facebook.
Meanwhile, Kony 2012 is a good example of slacktivism ‐ separation between offline and online engagement. Street action encouraged overall very few participants.
While social media has the potential for the common citizen to trigger mass mobilization, the results also show that hierarchies are established and reinforced.
In the digital age we have the technological tools for a new type of democracy but the same technology can also be used for a new type of totalitarianism. What happens in the next ten years is going to define the future of democracy for the next century and beyond.