Social media and Middle Eastern revolutions
The role of digital technologies and social media in the history of human development is difficult to overestimate – this generally accepted approach is shared also by Dr. Walid Al-Saqaf and Dr. Ahmed El-Gody, media experts from the School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences at Örebro University.
In their presentations they told the participants of the seminar about the influence of social media on the processes of democratizationin general, as well as gave examples of Arab countries and the Middle East. Walid Al-Saqaf was the editor of Yemen Portalin the end of 2010s, when faced with a necessity to counteract cyber censorship initiated by Yemen’s authorities.
At that time Yemen Portal was an influential independent mass media aggregating news, opinions, blogs and video content covering Yemen with more than a 10-million strong regular audience.
On January 19, 2008 YemenPortal.net was blocked by Yemen’s main internet service providers following the respective governmental initiative. Yemen Portal thus had several options for further steps:
1) to filter content based on government directives;
2) to shut down the website at all;
3) “to break the firewall”, i.e. to try to circumvent censorship – and the last one became media’s choice.
Walid Al-Saqaf developed a special programme “Alkasir” (a word means “circumventor” in Arabic) which allowed the internet users to map and circumvent censorship in the countries censoring the web content.
This invention became a crucial tool assisting the people of Arab world to voice a dissent against the regimes in their countries. In 2012, for instance, the Arab country with the highest number of Alkasir users was Syria and the software received over a hundred thousand reports of blocked URLs(Wikipedia’s data).
The role of Internet and social media for the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia was crucial, agrees Dr. Ahmed El-Gody, Associate Professor, Director of the Programme “Journalism Connected”at Örebro Universityand SI’s Alumni. In his presentation “Social Media and Democratisation of News Consumption in the Middle East”he mentioned the quotation of Alec Ross (Hillary Clinton’s Sr. Advisor) who said in 2011 that “the internet is the Che Guevara of the 21st Century and hierarchies are being levelled”.
He also referred to Brian Solis, the author of several books on social media marketing,stating that “social media sparks a revelation that we, the people, have a voice, and through the democratization of content and ideas we can once again unite around common passions, inspire movements, and ignite change”.
The advantages of social media in comparison to traditional forms of communication (they are cheap, accessible, enabling the activities that previously were only the preserve of well-resourced organisations) favoured to their wide popularity the recent years.
This, in its turn, led to the significant changes in media and communication sphere.
“Internet provided Arab people with channels in which everybody and anybody can join the virtual public discourse communities. Unlike in the other “forms” of media where the information flow is unidirectional – from the government to the masses, the internet allowed for a multi-way communication process giving the chance for anybody to air their opinions and views on issues affecting them.
The new communication revolution did lead to more horizontal and less vertical communication” – says Ahmed.
“Through the internet, Arab societies are able to plant the seeds of democracy and freedom and nourish its growth”.
In his presentation he mentioned numerous cases demonstrating a key importance of social media in revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia 2011.
Social Media, Information Wars and Political Participation: Case of Ukraine
The second part of theseminar included two presentations of NFGL-members and current SI’s scholarship holders sharing the experience of their countries and regions regarding the seminar’s topic. In particular, Olga Mashtaler, PhD student in Political Science (Ukraine) and the Head of NFGL-Örebro characterized the role of social media in the context of Ukrainian Euromaidan 2013-14 and military conflict in Eastern Ukraine 2014-15.
“Internet and social media have made a revolution in the sphere of political participation facilitating citizens’ activity and their capability to create the horizontal structures and spread the information thus fostering the development of civil society and social capital. They have also become the powerful instrument for holding the social protests and revolutions in our days”, agreed Olga with previous speakers.
In comparison with Ukraine’s Orange revolution 2004,where such resources as opposition TV “5th channel”, different kinds of informational printed materials, leaflets, stickers contributed more to the victory of revolution, in Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity” 2013-2014 the social media played “the first violin”.
Euromaidan launched in the late November 2013 by Facebook post written by a well-known Ukrainian journalist and currently the MP Mustafa Nayem appealing to come to Maidan (Kyiv’s Square of Independence) and to show the protest to the authorities who refused from their vector bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union earlier declared.
Later, when Euromaidan has already become a developed movement, involving hundreds of thousands of people, as well as now, when Ukraine has been experiencing a de-facto war with Russia, the social media (especially Facebook) is a basic instrument for the volunteers, civic activists and ordinary citizens allowing to create the networks, to coordinate the volunteer activities, and to react immediately by counter initiatives.
“These social interactions and volunteer activities have significantly strengthened the civil society in Ukraine the recent years,” argues Olga.
The significant increase of the number of Internet users in Ukraine during the recent years – not only in big cities but also in small towns and villages – has become one of important reasons enabling such progress. Another advantage of social media is that the people supporting the protest movement not necessarily should be in the thick of things. They may stay wherever in the world but contribute to the protest activities by distributing the information about the events, for instance. The social media have made the politicians closer to the voters also.
Unlike Western democracies where the politicians have been more or less easily accessible for communication with voters, in Ukraine usually a huge gap between the authorities and ordinary citizens existed. This has been an echo of former Soviet traditions according to which communication between the political elites and the citizens has been characterized with many bureaucratic obstacles.
Although the changes are happening slowly, but a lot of representatives of new Ukrainian political elites who came into power after Euromaidan are trying to keep the tie with the voter, use actively the social media for communication with the citizens – and this is quite a new positive trend for Ukraine.
The practice of censorship in the Internet – limiting the access to the certain web pages, social media, or the global internet in general (as in China) prove the powerful influence and role of contemporary means of communication, and the threats they constitute for the non-democratic regimes. One could observe strengthening the control over the Internet in Russia during the recent years also.
However, “it would be naïve”, Olga argued in her presentation, – “to think that the Internet and social media contribute only to the process of democratization”. She referred to one of the authors studying the role of social media Eugeny Morozov calling the approach claiming the dismissive function of on-line technologies, their ability to solve the problems of the society as “cyber-utopism”.
Morozov stated that the modern technologies and communications are just the instrument and what they bring depend on their use. The authoritarian regimes also improve and diversify their means of maintenance of their rule by using the new technologies and social media and making their influence more latent.
For example, they use the social media and hired “agents of influence” for spreading propaganda, they spread SMS with the aim to frighten the people and prevent their participation in the protest activities, they collect the private information about the Internet users by accessing their social media accounts, etc. They make the efforts to develop the on-line resources aiming to be the source of fun and leisure for the citizens thus swallowing up their attention and diverting them from the politics.
Russia’s new way of war-making in southeastern Ukraine, one that employs a variety of means — conventional warfare and outright aggression, irregular warfare including diplomatic and trade wars, cyber-warfare, use of propaganda, subversion, support for proxies, all the available methods for achieving the goals — while remaining undeclared or denied – is often labelled as “hybrid war” by the analysts.
One of the most important components in this “hybrid war” Russian propaganda is. Olga mentioned the citation of Philip Bridlove, NATO’s top-military commander referring to the scales of Russian information war against Ukraine as “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare”.
In her presentation Olga described how the social media are used for information wars; what are the main messages, target audiences, goals, methods, actors and outcomes of Russian propaganda. She characterized it as a large-scaled, many level, well-coordinated and well-financed, resourceful work.
“It’s not surprising,” Olga says, “That for Ukraine it’s quite difficult to counteract it at all levels. There are some initiatives from the side of NGOs and authorities, but in a whole, Ukrainian response to the information war initiated by Russia looks more like a guerilla warfare where there is no a coordinated bunch of efforts but everyone willing is participating, first of all the journalists and bloggers, civic and media activists and the ordinary citizens”.
Having referred to several media reports published in Ukraine recently, Olga Mashtaler also mentioned the new challenges which Ukrainian society and media meet under new – war – circumstances. This is, for example, the citizens’ information addiction.
“Emotional instability and permanent stress cause the neurotic state of society, and one of the feature of this social neurosis is a rapid increase of news consumption," explains Olga.
"This gives an illusion of control and a feeling of belonging to the important happenings, but sooner or later this results into the reverse effect – oversaturation with information, disgust to the news and the willingness to keep some distance from them, what might undermine citizens’ engagement into political process and voluntary activities. Also, the people under such mood are prone to extra-emotional perception of events, thus they might spread the panic and hysteria in the social media instead of perception of the events more rationally”.
“The media community in Ukraine is now actively discussing the new challenges which media have faced during the last year like a lack of journalists with the experience and understanding the specifics of work in the hot spots, difficulties with finding the sources of information in the front areas, the problems of communication between media and militaries and objective coverage of events, journalists’ self-censorship”, she adds.
Social media: impact inside South Asia
The second presentation which was given by Nirjhar Mazumder, Master student in Global Journalism (Bangladesh) and SI’s scholarship holder was devoted to the impact of social media inside South Asia. He was talking about how the social media contributed to democratization in such countries as Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The special attention was paid to Shahbag protest movement 2013-2015 in Bangladesh. Nirjhar, who has been an active participant of those events, shared with many touching insights from his own experience.
As a consequence of that movement, the entire politics of Bangladesh suddenly became very much affiliated and vibrant with issues originated from the country’s Facebook users. The age-old contradiction between the seculars and the Islamists centered in the online arena, that also resulted the slaughter of three secular bloggers and a prominent Islamic scholar who supported the introduction of secularism as a state-policy.
Besides, this contradiction led the government to use the present Information and Communication Act as a blasphemous law against the bloggers and free-thinkers. In his presentation, Nirjhar also argued that Facebook users and bloggers have become a major factor in the country’s politics.
The absolute majority of the participants of seminar were very satisfied with it. “This was a fascinating session!” – one from participants shared his impressions. – “All students from our local network originate from the developing countries, and the problems we have discussed are so urgent, so close to each of us”.