Posted by: thetavernthoughts | January 12, 2012

Social Media & Revolutions

Social Media and Mass Moments


Dedicated to Tahrir Square

In 1439 a simple blacksmith and printer named Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg invented the movable printing press, and thus heralded the age of information technology. Knowledge was no more the privilege of the rich, but the pride of the middle. This simple invention in Germany changed the world for ever. The printing Press marks the end of the dark ages and beginning of reformation and renaissance. In 2003 a Harvard Student named Mark Zukerberg created Facebook, and, the website seems to have the similar impact all over the world.

Social Media comes in various forms, the magazines and newspapers and the internet as a whole.  The word media is defined as “means of communication”, thus media is a platform for interaction between individuals. The latest innovations in media are the massive social networking websites like Facebook and twitter. These websites, originally created to share figments of our life’s varied experiences, soon became a tool for revolutions. Mark Zukerberg, in his list of interests on his account on Facebook has listed “revolutions” among many other things.

Facebook has 800 million users, is available in over 70 languages. No other form media can boast of such large coverage. While Facebook maybe a social media giant, there millions of other means available on internet, like blogs and innumerable other ways to connect to people.  This inherent power of the internet was unleashed in Tunisia. The North African state was ruled by a Dictator Ben Ali for over three decades. His corrupt and autocratic regime reached its Nadir when a 26 year old fruit vendor, tired of rampant police harassment, set himself ablaze. His distress struck a chord with every Tunisian, for they all had felt the baton of the oppressive regime at some time or the other. One third of people in Tunisia use the internet, most of them have Facebook accounts. The word spread through the net, about this daring act of defiance. Soon every heart in Tunisia was ablaze. Doused in that fire internet soon became the tool revolution. Massive protests were organised using the Facebook. YouTube published videos of martyrs facing the enemy bullets. The anger that poured onto streets was channelized using the internet. Television too spread the word to remotest corner of the country, that, enough was enough. Within weeks Ben Ali was in exile, and Tunisia was free.

The story of Tunisia happens to be the story of most Arab Nations; hence, it was no surprise when an entire generation of Arab youth was suddenly awakened. First and the most influential of them was Egypt. The political activists in Egypt who were keenly watching the developments in Tunisia soon got in touch with the protesters. Many things were learnt about organising protests. The bulk emails, pages and messages on Facebook and the Short messaging Service provided by the cell phones. Amongst other things, the protesters shared ways and means to survive tear gas attacks, and other basic experiences. Soon the Egyptians gathered in numbers never seen before, at the Tahrir Square in Cairo. When despite tear gas attacks and other harsh policing techniques, the protester did not back down, Egypt and the rest of the world knew that a revolution was happening. Soon the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was searching for asylum. Despite his innumerable efforts to curb the media, especially internet forums and websites like the Facebook, the protesters would always manage to send their message across to the rest of the world and their own fellow protestors in other cities. The fact that dictators and corrupt regimes across the world attack the internet before attacking the protestors shows how intrinsic this tool has become for communication and thereby to any noteworthy mass movement.

Closer to home Anna Hazare and the India Against Corruption organisation started a massive movement for implementation of Jan Lokpal bill through the parliament. The efforts led to large demonstration at Jantar Mantar grounds in New Delhi. We all have recieved the barrage of SMSs and emails as more and more facts about corruption and its impact on Indian society were published. While people in India have always been aware of the corruption in high political offices, it was for the first time that they got a concrete platform to stand up to the otherwise omniscient politicians. The moment refused to affiliate to any particular political party, it was purely citizen’s movement. Such a large scale protest by common middle class citizens was unprecedented in the history of our Nation, since its freedom in 1947. Corruption is the oldest issue in India yet, it brewed fresh trouble for elected legislators. What created this sudden surge of anger, amongst the otherwise docile people, against corruption?

While newspapers and news channels are instrumental in spreading awareness and therefore important aspect of any mass movement, they have limitations of time and space. News channels are accessible only through televisions, while the newspapers are read only once a day. Internet, however, is available on a person’s finger tips. Facebook has special applications designed to give real time feeds that help propagate such movements. Thus their impact is greater on the office going middle class, specially the youth which uses the cell extensively for large number of activities. Thus, mobiles, internet and Facebook have now become the potent tools for revolution across the world. Across the world autocratic regimes are trying hard to control this form social media. In Iran Facebook was banned after it was used to organise protests against rigged elections. In Pakistan also, government has repeatedly tried to ban Facebook and censor the internet. Easy access to objectionable and inflammatory content is cited as a reason for this censorship. However, the truth is, Facebook and the internet itself have now become the ultimate tools for social awareness. They have, thus, become a bane for corrupt politicians everywhere, including India. In India, a senior politician tried to control or ban Facebook, by citing few comments made by religious bigots. Such pathetic attempts by politicians across the world merely show the impact that social networking has had on modern society.

Indeed the most defining image of these sudden revolutions and mass movement across the globe are not just protesters demanding their rights, but also, a simple graffiti at Tahrir square saying “Facebook”. The modern smart phone yielding youth using myriad of applications on his phone, refuses to let go of Facebook, a platform that connects him to 800 million others across the globe. This youngster with his smart phone is common to protests that happened across the globe, from democracies in the west, to the communists to the east, or the dictators in gulf and here at home in India. As I read about the Tahrir Square in newspapers and internet, I could help but relate the unfolding events to those of the French revolution in my History text book. As I watched Anna Hazare fast in Delhi, I could not help but be reminded of the Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-cooperation movement.  For society to change and evolve, it is important for mass congregation of people to happen. It was this thought that started the ‘Sarvajanik Ganapati’ celebrations in Maharashtra, way back in beginning of the 20th century. It is the same sentiment that I feel now, when I think of social media and the millions it is connecting me to.





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