social media protest

This world is on fire: uprisings, social media and political change

(By Louisa Reynolds) On December 17th, 2011, 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he allegedly suffered at the hands of municipal employees.

The deep sense of anger and frustration that drove him to this extreme act of self-immolation hit a nerve among hundreds of thousands of people, sparking off a wave of protests that transformed into the Tunisian Revolution and led President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down after 23 years in power. Widespread discontent over unemployment, low living standards and corrupt dictatorial regimes that determined to perpetuate themselves in power made it all too easy for protests to spill over to neighbouring countries igniting the wave of revolt that became known as the Arab Spring.

arab spring

By December 2013, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; civil uprisings had erupted in Bahrain and Syria; major protests had broken out in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Israel and Sudan; and minor protests had occurred in Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Dijibouti, Western Sahara and Palestine.

After the Arab world, Southeast Asia erupted. In May 2013, hundreds of people took to the streets in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, to protest against the outcome of an election marred by allegations that the ruling coalition had committed massive fraud in order to cling onto power. Calls for an end to corrupt leadership as well as a long list of demands including free education for all Malaysians and the fair distribution of oil royalty payments by the government to oil producing states led the Kuala Lumpur protests – which were soon dubbed as the “Malaysian tsunami” – to spread to other provinces.

Two months later, a similar set of grievances such as allegations of electoral fraud and demands to raise the minimum wage, sparked off an entire year of protests in Cambodia. By late 2013 anti-government protests had also broken out in neighbouring Cambodia, resulting in the removal of the incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a coup d’état and the establishment of a military junta. The flames of discontent spread to Venezuela by January 2014 after the murder of actress and former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear, followed by the attempted rape of a student on a university campus, led to a series of student protests that were seized upon by opposition leaders who blamed the Maduro administration for high levels of violence, rampant inflation and a shortage of basic goods. A month later, violent protests in Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev, led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.


The revolution will be tweeted

It is tempting to draw parallels between the various outbreaks of discontent and in many cases there are a number of common causes for discontent such as opposition to corrupt regimes, political and economic exclusion, youth unemployment and social inequality.

“It is very difficult to compare countries with such different realities but in all of these cases the common ingredient is political exclusion, and high levels of intolerance that prevent the free participation of people who want to organise according to their ideas and beliefs”, says Eduardo Stein, a seasoned Guatemalan diplomat who served as Vice President under the Berger administration (2004-2008).

With revolts spreading like wildfire across the globe, one of the questions raised is to what extent there has been a contagion effect fuelled by the increasing use of technology and social media as a tool that allows activists to disseminate and exchange information.

“I think there is (a multiplier effect). People saw what happened in the Arab world and believe that they can do it too, and take to the streets in order to bring about change. In this sense technology acts as a catalyst and makes it a lot easier to ignite these movements”, says Roberto Wagner, an international relations professor at Guatemala’s Francisco Marroquín University. Much has been written about the role played by social media in the Arab Spring. Egypt’s first massive protest, for example, was announced on Facebook by an anonymous group of activists and today media collective Mosireen uses low cost video cameras and projectors as part of a project called Askar Kazeboon (The military are liars) that uses media production and distribution to fight against abuses of power committed by the military and demand higher wages as well as affordable housing. More recently, social media appears to have become a pivotal organisation tool during Ukraine’s protests.


However, in an article titled Social media as a tool for protest, Stratfor analysts Marko Papic and Sean Noonan warn that although social media can be used by activists for organisation, recruitment and training purposes, they are nothing more than tools and   “their effectiveness depends on how effectively leaders use them and how accessible they are to people who know how to use them”.

Social media can be easily used to whip up an opposition movement against a corrupt regime or in favour of higher wages or free education; creating new political institutions that can effect long-lasting change is far more complex task. “Social media definitely played a major role in the Arab Spring but on its own, the fact that a revolt has been precipitated by social media does not guarantee long term success”, says Stein.

Wagner also points out that the Venezuelan case illustrates the extent to which social media can become a double-edged sword, as the information spread can often be biased and inaccurate. “Social media can make people aware of what is going on but can also distort reality. Photos from other countries were uploaded and tagged incorrectly as belonging to the Venezuelan protests. The Internet and social media is an extremely valuable tool but we need to be aware of the fact that not all what is on the Internet is true”, he says.

On several occasions it was proven that the photographs tweeted using the #repression in #Venezuela hashtag had been taken during the Chilean student protests in 2011 or in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In the case of Egypt, social media analysts have also warned that the same social networks that were used by activists to organise the massive protests that brought down the Mubarak regime are now being used to spread false rumours, and incite hatred by pitching Muslims against Christians or secular groups against Islamists and vice versa. The same anonymity that can shield activists from persecution can also be used by unseen third parties, including foreign intelligence agencies, interested in de-stabilising a post-revolution government, write IPS correspondents Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani.


For as long as leaders fail to heed popular demands for political reform and greater social inclusion, it is likely that the spate of revolts that have shaken the world in recent years will continue, and so will the debate on the new possibilities opened up by social media as well as its potential dangers.


Louisa Reynolds is a British Journalist living in Guatemala. She has written several articles for Insight and awarded an IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship in 2014.

This article was first published in Insight Volume 2, Edition 4 (2014)  



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