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Why 2011 will be defined by Social Media Democracy

Besides bank defaults and credit downgrades, 2011 will be remembered for the rise of social media democracy in countries ruled by autocratic gov'ts.
Mashable | 15.12.2011
On Jan. 25, 2011 pictures and videos flooded out of Egypt as tens of thousands of anti-government protestors took to the streets in a “Day of Rage” protest over President Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Pro-democracy sympathizers across the world retweeted and shared the updates, even as the Egyptian government disabled cellphone towers and blocked Twitter in an attempt to censor the material. Reports indicated that households and businesses opened up their Wi-Fi networks to support the protesters and to allow the dissemination of information. The pictures and videos that continued to appear across YouTube and Facebook trended on Twitter worldwide, both inspiring and shocking international onlookers.

2011: The Year of Social Media Democracy:
Besides bank defaults and credit downgrades, 2011 will be remembered for the rise of social media democracy in countries traditionally ruled by autocratic governments — most notably, the Arab Spring. The wave of protests that began in Tunisia in December 2010 spread first to Egypt, then to Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yeman, with protests of varying sizes across many more middle-Eastern countries.

In regions where official media has been heavily censored for years, the rise of personal access to the Internet and social networks has meant that populist movements now have a voice that can reach the outside world.

Social Media as a Tool of Change:
Before 2011, ad-hoc events organized by social media had largely been entertaining and quirky, often put together by arts groups such as Improv Everywhere, which staged flash mobs in Grand Central Station. And let’s not forget the social media craze planking.

Soon, however, Twitter hashtags, Facebook groups, YouTube videos and Flickr streams would be employed by the masses in countries where censorship had traditionally blocked anti-government voices. Representatives of populist discontent were able to adopt and adapt new methods of communication to reach each other and outside sympathizers, often at terrible risk to their own lives and the safety of their families. Social media democracy began to take on a new meaning; a collective voice was now able to document its struggle for the first time.

After opposition to Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi turned bloody, NATO intervened to lend rebels military support in the escalating civil war, and to help to protect civilians. On both sides of the struggle, the control of information became a major tool for encouraging or intimidating civilian uprisings. After Colonel Gadaffi’s death, photographs flooded social media, a further triumph for social democracy and the fall of a despotic, censorious regime.

Mob Rule: The Darker Side of Social Media:
Yet Western issues of people-power and censorship would soon be tested, in what some viewed as the darker side of “mob rule.” In Aug. 2011, London was rocked by four days of rioting. What started as a peaceful protest against the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan escalated into violence, arson and looting, mainly against the rioters’ own communities, as well as against police. The violence soon detached itself from the original cause, and became an outlet for the tensions of an underclass hit hard by high unemployment and recent austerity measures. Rioting quickly spread to other towns.

Social media not only played a role in riot organization, but also in the prosecution of hundreds of participants who either incited violence via social media, or who were photographed and videoed taking part in such violence. Some in the UK government and press claimed social media had enabled the riots. However, people used the same tools to organize clean-up operations and to contribute community support.

Human Spirit Triumphs:
As demonstrated by the countries affected by the Arab Spring and London riots, social media has been one of many important tools used by people to affect change. As with any strategy, social media lends itself to both moral and amoral uses – it is the intention behind it that matters.

Social media cannot substitute for the incredible bravery and resilience of the people who stood up to oppressive regimes, at the risk and cost of their own lives. It was the passionate desire for change and human determination that drove the spirit of the uprisings, and what ultimately achieved success in overthrowing powerful military dictatorships. In the case of the Arab Spring, the rebels’ adoption of new technologies such as social media gave voice to a powerful movement, despite the censorship of the official media. Ultimately, however, it was their courage and self-sacrifice that forced the change.
About the author: Mashable