Technology, the internet and social media are widely utilized, making them excellent platforms for activism and change. Social media is a useful tool for promoting ideas, as has been seen in the Occupy movements, the film Kony 2012, and the Egyptian uprisings as part of the Arab Spring. The Occupy movements primarily utilized social media to mobilize gatherings and protests, and Kony 2012 primarily used social media to gain support for a movement and spread knowledge, while the uprisings in Egypt truly demonstrated the power of social media, gaining incredible momentum using both of these methods very effectively. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and mobile phones were instrumental in these events. Social media allows for a simple, attractive presentation of the information and the ability for a large number of people to be involved with ease. However, upon review of these examples, it is evident that while social media is useful in the process, it is only used as a vehicle, and tangible change is only realized when other factors are at play.
Occupy is a movement by lower and middle class citizens protesting social and economic inequality in an attempt to even the distribution of wealth between the top ‘1%’ and bottom ‘99%’ so that it is more uniform. In the discussion of the Occupy movement, prevalent primarily during 2011 and 2012, it is essential to acknowledge the contribution social media made to coordinating events and catalyzing discontent. Shiv Ganesh and Cynthia Stohl eloquently explain the flow of online activist material: “as digitization increases, communication itself becomes more fluid and promiscuous, moving rapidly, indiscriminately and porously across technological boundaries” (429). When participating protestors were questioned about their contribution and their sources for information, it was found that responses were mainly references to social media, given in broad and vague terms (Ganesh 437). It was obvious many participants and supporters of the movement were unsure of the issues because the inundation of information was too great to pinpoint a solid source and a concrete idea. In this way, many people were able to become online activists and even took steps towards action, attending protests that proved to be ineffective, proving that there was a lack of offline action that was effecting substantial change. It is apparent that the diffusion of the unrest casts a “tremendously large shadow . . . disproportionate to the numbers of people involved in the core actions” (Taylor 32). The movement assuming its position in mainstream media demanded the need for a new tactic, as the “limitations of social media and the downside of total transparency are revealing themselves as mainstream attention is waning” (Taylor 33).
In the case of the Occupy movements, there was an absence of direction. While those involved understood their displeasure, the force of the movement was not unidirectional because the message was not clear enough to guide the protests to lead to a specific and lasting change. Social media lent itself to Occupy by spreading the ideals quickly and vastly, but the widespread cognizance ultimately backfired, causing the movement to become misdirected, and the prospect of action to fail. Social media proved itself inadequate in shifting the control from the ‘1%’ to the ‘99%’ because it was not paired with the power and commitment required to induce the change that was called for.
Kony 2012, a 30 minute online film created by an organization called Invisible Children, utilized social media to spread awareness of the now infamous African warlord Joseph Kony and the horrendous atrocities committed. The film campaign succeeded with its goal in ‘making him famous,’ through sharing the YouTube film on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Jon Tilton of Advocacy Media stated that the video hit 8.2 million views the day that Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey tweeted the link to their 13 million and 9.7 million followers, respectively (Dorell). The film made a call to action for the viewers to help by targeting celebrities, influential individuals, and policy makers and urging them to notice the problem and make a change. The intention of bringing the crimes to the light in this way was supposed to allow for action to be taken by those in power to cease the events occurring. However as Oren Dorell noted, “the staying power of Kony 2012 might be fleeting.” This is quite a telling example of many social issues that utilize social media; the general trend is for the issue to flare up, spread like wild fire, and suddenly drop out of popularity with no significant and lasting changes made.Groups and individuals inspired by Invisible Children fundraised millions of dollars following the release of the film, for the children of the war affected areas. One school, Newport Harbour High in California, raised $44,604, and another individual, from Atlanta, Georgia, raised $16,255 (Finnegan 146). While the viral video was gaining traction and leading to media exposure, discussions around the topic and many fundraisers, the campaign failed to maintain momentum and actually cause action.
Although this campaign in theory appears brilliant and revolutionary, in practice it is merely a “noncontentious form of activism for privileged young Americans that is unlikely to lead to sustainable social change” (Finnegan 138). The filmmaker, Jason Russell, admitted the US movement was largely comprised of “14-15 to 23-24 year old girls who are white, who have been raised in suburbia, who are Christian, who have enough disposable income to donate or buy stuff: that’s our core” (Finnegan 146). These young people involve themselves with the issue as they see it is their duty to do their part to ensure others can enjoy the higher standard of living that they enjoy. One student from Finnegan’s research was quoted saying she “just [doesn’t] feel comfortable . . . liv[ing] a normal life if other people aren’t.” Many citizens shared this belief at the time of Kony 2012’s popularity. However, it was proven by the public’s ability to quickly forget the topic that many could live quite comfortably even with the newfound awareness. The international aspect makes the issue less personal and distant, and the “hip, entertaining and culturally resonant” film allows the youth to involve themselves with the “faith-based” organization (Finnegan 145,148). The filmmakers and activists behind the film were able to capture the world’s attention and appear to be experts, educating us on the unknown tragedies. It is difficult to question what is presented, as the public has a lack of knowledge in the area so there is no reason not to trust. Soon after the movement became widely known, more was understood of the issue and criticism of the organization began. It was found that Kony 2012 and Invisible Children were not as they were presented to be, demonstrating social media’s ability to easily mislead the public. The movement had the workings for change, but lasting change was unable to come of it because the only players were uninformed and misled foreigners to the conflict. The public of westernized societies took to the movement when it was popular to do so. When the movement lost popularity, an insignificant impact was left behind for the war-affected areas in Africa because when it came to taking action outside of the virtual world, the majority of people did not participate. Kony 2012, helped us to realize the power and possibilities with social media, but also recognize the limitations with the tool.
The Egyptian Revolution of 2012 exploited social media to spread the message among other Arab citizens, show foreigners what was happening and plan protests. Social media was practical in “organiz[ing] offline action” (Yli-Kaitala 142). The reason this activism was successful in a way Kony 2012 failed, was that there was more than just foreigners using the social media. Citizens in the heart of the conflict were active and online, using social media for the roots of change, and following through with protests, assisting in changing the regime. Egypt is a central force in the Arab countries, setting the pace for developments in the region. Looking at Egypt’s activities during the uprisings of the Arab Spring portrays an accurate picture and allows for a further understanding of the situation.
Fifty-eight percent of the population of Egypt is under 25 (Kamel 79) and as a result of this, the youth felt a passionate desire to take charge of their political freedoms and rise up against the older powers of the state. The saturation of images, articles, information and videos supporting this movement, much of it in real time, made this possible. The use of the internet for the spread of ideas involves using quick and easily graspable material to get the attention of young people and build momentum and interest. Blogs were written in both English and Arabic, reaching a wide audience while “addressing key socioeconomic and political issues” (Kamel 83). Social media was an effective “channel to air their grievances” (Yli-Kaitala 141) and inform others on the conflict.
A Facebook page, ‘We are all Khaled Said,’ was set up by Internet activist and Google executive Wael Ghonim when Said, a 28-year old Egyptian was beaten to death by two police officers who caught him uploading a video that compromised police image. The page gained support and served as a ground for discussion around the topic. Again we see simplicity in action, “by focusing on the simple message that the ‘regime must go’, rather than a concrete . . . political agenda” (Yli-Kaitala 142). In contrast to Occupy, the powerful and disturbing footage made apparent the need for change, and inspired activism in the viewers. This action was successful because the straightforwardness of the message made it feel obvious, necessary and simple to implement.
The time of the Uprisings saw an increase of internet users and mentions of uprisings on social media websites, particularly twitter. Twitter saw 7.48 million tweets using ‘#egypt’ between January 23rd and November 30th from 445,000 users (Bruns, Highfield, Burgess 17). Egyptians were gaining a voice and power, and citizens worldwide were showing interest and support. This shift of power is adequately explained:
This was caused by an overwhelming engagement of Egypt’s youth in learning, communicating, and exchanging ideas and starting-up companies as part of what has been widely known since the uprising as Egypt 2.0 and the creation of an environment that attempts to promote freedom expression, entrepreneurial activities and more engagement of different constituencies in policy-making and societal development. (Kamel 82)
Despite the government’s efforts to censor the vast amount of independent journalism, the protestors ultimately proved to be more successful in their efforts. Nevertheless, had they people been more censored online, this would have only led to more responses offline, an increase of protests and more radical actions. Social media was used effectively and was definitely a key player in bringing down the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, but forcing him to resign was only possible with the passion of the people and their willingness to commit to fighting for the freedom of their country. While social media’s power in this conflict was highlighted well, it is still clear that it is not a necessity for tangible change to occur because it is not the crucial component.
Social media is a notably important part of many protests and movements, but it is not the pivotal tool that evokes tangible change. As seen in the Occupy movements, change did not occur because social media was not enough to facilitate the necessary change alone. With Kony 2012, social media made a human rights movement popular, but the passion was in the wrong place and not well directed. While the Egyptian uprisings showed a significant and powerful use of social media, it is important to recognize that other factors were contributed, and that is what allowed for action to occur. Social media is valuable to use when implementing social action and political change, however it is critical that the fallibility of social media be taken in to consideration, so as not to avoid failure, as has been observed. Significant changes can be observed most effectively when social media’s assets are adequately harnessed, and are working alongside the other essential aspects.