“Power to the People!” is a phrase that’s synonymous with social revolution, but with the upsurge in social media resources such as Facebook and Twitter being utilized by young protesters in countries such as Egypt, Iran, China and Columbia, a more fitting slogan might be “Power of the People!” I recently read a book entitled The Facebook Effect, and in its’ opening passages, the author described how a nascent political movement in Columbia called “Un Millon de Voces Contra las FARC” (“One Million Voices against the FARC”) which started out at as a Facebook Cause page with 20 friends, became an international cause célèbre within two weeks attracting over 100,000 members.
In light of the on-going Egyptian protests against President Mubarak and his administration, it’s clear that social media is playing a key role in the protesters ability to effectively organize; which is why the government terminated internet access for a period of 24 hours, sending ripple effects throughout the world and affecting global financial markets. In just 18 days, young protesters who are rebelling against a false democracy, high unemployment and a President who has reigned for 30 years, were able to force Mubarak and his cabinet out of power.
The power of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter was also behind the recent social upheavals in Iran. The Iranian government was strongly criticized for attacking the young protesters and attempted to block all internet access and text messaging. However, the anti-government protesters were able to circumvent the blockade by using mobile phones to post videos of the violence on Youtube. Tehran largely banned international and Iranian media from freely covering the massive wave of protests over alleged fraud in the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
Social media has become the primary outlet for young protesters around the world, which is a stark contrast from the West, where we typically utilize Facebook and Youtube as a convenient means of keeping in touch with friends and posting silly messages or videos online.
Sites like Facebook and Twitter offer many tactical advantages to protesters, including the ability to quickly mobilize without government interference. They also provide them with a means of stealth communication without fear of reprisal in most cases and the ability to reach a mass audience within seconds of posting. These are critical advantages because they force the targeted governments into the precarious position of attempting to control free media.
China recognized the gravity of attempting to control free media many years ago, when they discovered that many young students were visiting Internet cafes and posting messages online that were critical of the Chinese government. Although China has taken a more proactive stance against free media and routinely snoops on unsuspecting users as a means of attempting to control free speech.
However, it’s inevitable that in a Communist country the size of China, young clandestine protesters will find a way to make their voices heard, despite the governments staunch efforts to restrain and filter their message. Just imagine how much more volatile the Tiananmen Square revolt would have been if they had access to social media sites such as Facebook, FourSquare or Twitter.
One of the driving forces behind the Egyptian protesters outrage is the extremely high unemployment rate among people under 30, which is currently 25%. In Iran the unemployment rate for people under 30 is a staggering 50%, which makes for a volatile atmosphere whereby young people are frustrated and feel compelled to rebel and take to the streets.
Social media will continue to play a pivotal role in social revolutions around the world. In many developing countries, youth are harnessing the power of social media and using it in a collective manner to topple oppressive regimes and demand that their grievances be addressed. I’m sure the founders of Facebook, never imagined that their college social network start up, would one day be a catalyst for change in countries such as Egypt, Iran, Columbia and China.
Power of the People!
Barrington D. Ross