What is the link between Anna Hazare and the Arab Spring? Apparently none but on closer look one finds that they are bound by social media. Twitter was a key means of communication for protesters in the Arab Spring revolts this year. Facebook and twitter are the signposts of the Anna Hazare movement in India. Little wonder then that Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal has bought a stake in micro-blogging site Twitter for $300 million. This could well be touted as the next ‘revolution’. The Internet and mobile phone have become the tool of the new wave of social activism. If Subranshu Chowdhury sitting in Raipur can use the mobile phone to give farmers practical information, so can Anna Hazare supporters use Twitter and Facebook to mobilise society in the ‘India against Corruption’ campaign. With more than 90,000 ‘likes’ on the India Against Corruption Facebook page and thousands of others lending online support via twitter and their website, Anna Hazare has become larger than life.
The lesson to be learnt from the social media scene this year is that it is a means of communication and it is a means of commerce. Seen another way, communication has become interactive, allowing participants to voice their feelings and opinion on the ether as also doing business. This is a phenomenon that could potentially change the nature of humankind interactions. Across India, small businessmen and farmers are using mobile phones to do their business. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak discovered that shutting down the internet to curb the protesters’ ability to communicate had disastrous effects on the economy.
True, social media is the in thing and even ‘occupy wall street’ movement is a creation of this media, but it does not mean that one can draw a straight line and predict its course. For social media to be a mass mobiliser other factors must be at play. As is seen in the case of Anna Hazare, social media helped in multiplying the sentiments of the urban populations across India who feel that Hazare is giving direction to their pent up feelings. People are not only taking to the streets in huge numbers but are taking to Facebook and Twitter to state their case. So those who are at work and cannot go to India Gate can at least tweet their support! Recent events demonstrate that even governments are worried about the rapid spread in the use of social media. Of course, it can be monitored or stopped like the Chinese have done. But the power of communication is strong and transcends national boundaries. The only worry is that all positives do not emerge from the use of social media. The racial riots in London in 2011 were evoked by the use of private Blackberry messaging. It was the most popular medium through which the rioters communicated. Keep in mind that social media technologies today mean more than just text messages and tweets. Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther took the new media of their day – print – pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.
Revolutions are of many kinds and the present one is indicative that technology can be a driving force. But it appears that in the Arab Spring, it was only a tool not the causative factor. Recent events in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East are eruptions of popular feeling whose symbolic beginning can be traced to 2003 when the Iraqi people pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein. In other words, causative factors vary from time to time but social media gives those in the midst of the revolution the means to articulate their views. In Egypt, out of a population of 85 million, only five per cent people use Facebook and one per cent use Twitter.
The advantage with social media technology is that it allows users to replicate a particular message or cause manifold by simply pressing a button. Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia can immolate himself in protest of a corrupt regime and impact his own people as well as neighbours in Egypt – thanks to the ways in which video was captured and transmitted via mobile phones before being picked up by non-State-run television channels. A repeat of Tiananmen Square protests today would have a different story to tell altogether. Therefore, at the end of 2011 when we sit back and look at the score card, we find that on the balance, positives emerging from the social media revolution are quite high and present the new face of democracy. That social media has given people the means to stand up and speak their minds is now clear. The past tells us that each time such media are used change has occurred. However, the verdict is still out on whether this revolutionary tool can bring about regime change. (The views expressed by the author are personal)
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