We’re barely two months into the new year and it already seems as though 2011 will go down in history as the year of the revolution. The quick succession of uprisings has made these extraordinary events seem, well, commonplace. Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, China, Iran, Jordan, Libya, and Saudi Arabia; the list of countries in upheaval continues to expand. Many claim that the revolutions are a direct result of social media. But, is this true? Or, is social media just a convenient medium through which dissenters can communicate?
It seems ridiculous to think that technology is so integrated into our lives that websites like Facebook and Twitter are actually capable of starting revolutions. After all, plenty of revolutions occurred before 21st century technology was even fathomable. Oppressed peoples have been rebelling against power-hungry dictators and fighting for freedom for centuries.
So what is the role of social media? In October 2010, author and journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote an eerily prophetic article about the role of social media in revolutions. Gladwell, citing examples from Moldova, posits that social media may be a factor in revolutions, but will never be a root cause. He uses the 1960s U.S. Civil Rights Movement to show that revolutions can and did happen without emailing, texting, Twitter, or Facebook.
However, the quick pace of rebellion in much of the world, with revolt after revolt, is only possible because of the speed of transmission that social media and technology offer. Moreover, social media provides an easily accessible avenue for protesters to coordinate events. Case in point is Egypt’s recent revolution, where millions of people who attended non-violent protests in Cairo organized largely on Facebook. An Egyptian couple even named their first daughter “Facebook” to commemorate the site’s role in the revolution. And this is not just happening in the Middle East – as dissent grows in China, the Chinese government is considering shutting down access to social media sites as a way to squash uprisings.
Regardless of whether social media has triggered these rebellions, social media has become an important tool for citizens to use to demand democracy. As the field continues to expand, social media is sure to become increasingly important in creating genuine social change.