An Inconsistent Relationship: Social Media and Political Activists
Since the “Arab Spring” movement of early 2011, many have sought to understand the role played by Internet users and Social media platforms in overturning oppressive and totalitarian regimes. With great thanks to Twitter, Tunisians usefully mobilized social change. Without Facebook, how could Egyptians possibly have accomplished such timely and coordinated public protests? Perspectives often range from the Internet’s potentially disruptive nature to those who believe social media is just as likely to support the authoritarian powers themselves. However, there is a more intrinsic conflict to be explored. The Arab Awakening, as some have referred to it, sheds light on the inconsistent relationship between social media policy and the goals and needs of modern social movements. Activists require certain prerequisites from social media sites such as anonymity and freedom to shed light on what is often a graphic topic. The contradiction lies within evolving missions, policies, and user agreements instituted by social media firms seeking greater monetization, which in turn negatively effects the goals set forth by activists who rely on these networks as a universal platform.
First, it is important to recognize core causes of the “Arab Spring” such as high unemployment, state repression, and widespread political injustices. Social media certainly played a strong role in the eventual revolutions that took place in the Spring of 2011, however much of the praise remains within the brave men and women of oppressed nations such as Egypt and Tunisia, for they put their own lives on the line in hopes of political freedom and a brighter tomorrow.
In it’s natural existence, social media is a self-regulated exchange of information. There is no legal requirement for any member to join, or, submit a plethora of personal information across the World Wide Web. Joining social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook requires users to confirm their understanding of a “User Agreement” set forth by the respective entity. Then, the company controls this agreement through its variety of computer codes. Code is essentially the law, for it’s the technological boundaries and restraints instituted by IT developers and designers employed by Facebook and Twitter. In a nutshell, they control your cyber existence as long as you choose to participate in their network. The restrictive nature of Social Media architecture allows the creators (Facebook or Twitter) to have ultimate control over who and what ways of life can be expressed.
Social Media contributed to Egypt’s and Tunisia’s collective action in four key ways: (a) by making it easier for disaffected citizens to act publicly in coordination; (b) by creating information cascades which bolstered protesters’ perceptions of the likelihood of success; (c) raising the cost of repression of ruling regimes; and finally (d) dramatically increasing publicity by diffusion of information to regional and global publics. (Youmans W.L., p. 317) Understanding the general functions of these will help illustrate conflicts between the goals of fiscal monetization and political activism.
So, what are the goals of firms like Facebook and Twitter? Well like any successful business entity, in order to exist, they most remain profitable. These firms focus on increasing their overall user base, avoiding negative public relations, increasing revenue, expanding to new markets around the world, and improving overall user satisfaction. In order to be successful, Twitter and Facebook must constantly change their structure and user agreements to properly monetize the business. The privatized goals of social media platforms such as profit and return to investors often conflict with an open structure civil activists have come to heavily rely on. For example, take the case of Facebook disallowing users to maintain an...