In 2011, Egypt’s “Arab Spring“ was often referred to as the “Facebook Revolution“. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter quickly became the people’s main source of news, and as the protests started to turn bloody, activists spread warnings of dangerous areas in order to prevent casualties. President Hosni Mubarak reacted by cutting off Egypt from the outside world: Cellphone and internet access was shut down, preventing activists from spreading their messages, but fueling their anger even more: These measures were the beginning of the end of Mubarak’s government, leading to the “Day of revolt” on January 25.
Since then, social media has become an important instrument for activists to spread information that their government wants to prevent from flowing. During the protests in Turkey in May and June of this year, social media led to a snowball effect: What started as a small protest to save an inner city Istanbul park turned into the largest and most violent anti-government protests that Turkey had seen in years, thanks to social media platforms like Twitter. Because the traditional media didn’t cover the protests, social media became an important source of information and elevated its role into a political issue. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted by calling social media “the worst menace to society” and imprisoning Twitter activists. This hard reaction shows that in countries with restricted access to information, social media can be an efficient instrument of democracy. This may not be in the government’s interest, but it certainly is in the public interest.
During the protests in Brazil in June, social media also played a role, but it wasn’t as significant as in Turkey or 2011 in Egypt. Certainly, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter enabled the mass protests by helping the protesters to organize their logistical coordination. But the platforms also attracted unaffiliated groups and individuals, splintering the protests. This shows a negative effect of social media: It also offers small, radical groups of individuals, that express their causes more loudly, a prominent platform.
Back in 2013’s Egypt, where the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically-elected president, social media continues to remain important. But the landscape of its use has evolved. It’s no longer just activists spreading information across social networks – politicians have joined in the conversation. Morsi himself used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to communicate with the protestors, even rejecting the military’s ultimatum via a tweet. Politicians now understand the importance of social media – that’s good news. But it also shows that social media now has become part of the standard repertoire of political upheaval.
People, not social media, remain the drivers of social change. But as public debate is broadened through the use of instruments like Facebook and Twitter, this can potentially lead to positive political and social change in the real world.