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Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Protests in the Age of Social Media

Foreword


The issue of Social Protest and Democracy plays a central role in Political Science. This specific topic is a backbone of contemporary politics, as political and socio-economic aspects of the life of every nation revolve around the idea of the establishment of a democratic form of governance. Democracy, for the majority of people, is an end goal where prosperity and peace are guaranteed. Although the effectiveness and core idea of democracy in contemporary politics is open to critical analyzes, willingness to achieve prosperity and peace remains the priority for everyone. Therefore, it becomes necessary to challenge those who abuse their power and take advantage of being the heads of the decision-making process. One of the most crucial set of continuous actions that serves as a mechanism of scrutiny for the legislators is resistance implemented through social protests. The following 101 series will attempt to identify if social protests are, indeed, a key towards the establishment of prosperity. The series will analyze the concept of social protest, its core meaning and significance, different forms and motives that shape social movements and the special link between democracy and social insurgence. These articles will critically assess the role of social protests and their true purposefulness in the contemporary world.


This 101 series is divided into seven articles including:


5. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Social Protests in the age of social media

6. Social Protest and Democracy 101:The impediments to a successful social resistance

7. Social Protest and Democracy 101:Is Social Protest an answer?




Social Protest and Democracy 101: Social Protests in the Age of Social Media



Introduction

The emergence and development of social media have revolutionized the state of the world. Regular utilization of information technologies, particularly social media platforms, has become an integral part of people’s lives. Despite the fact that the impact of the continuously developing social media platforms is immense as it significantly transforms the basic social life of individuals, the reality is that the usage of social media dramatically affects every aspect of society, including individuals as well as socio-political and economic landscape of the country. One of the rapidly growing areas of research and analysis in regard to social media and its impact on society is the political sphere which is highly transformed due to the Internet and social networking.

Social media and its function within a political sphere can be described in many ways and the most accurate word that summarize it would be complex. Andrea Calderaro (2018), a senior lecturer in International Relations and a director of the Centre for Internet and Global Politics, in her article “Social Media and Politics” underlined that the contemporary world is experiencing “an increasing body of research addressing the multiple relations” between the social media platforms and politics (p.781). To be more precise, the relationship between social media platforms and politics is complicated entailed as there are various subtopics embedded in the interrelation of politics and digital technological advancements. One of the prominent branches of political life is social movements that play an immense role in every society around the globe. Social movements have remained an integral part of socio-political formation for a long time and the uprisings can be traced back centuries ago; however, in the contemporary period, the features and the practicality of the social movements have evolved. Gabriela Aguilar (2021), in her paper "The Impact of Social Media on Social Movements,” argues that the 21st century is experiencing rapid growth in the representation of social movements due to the increased usage of technology and social media platforms. The topic of social media and social movement is complex and entails various details. This paper will discuss certain significant aspects and features that social medial platforms and the Internet share with the social movement theory. The article will look into crucial factors, such as the concept of ideology and how social media develops belief systems in young adults that consequently shape social movements as well as the concept of awareness and its importance. In addition, the paper will briefly discuss how social media helps social uprisings to stay relevant. The paper will also predominantly take a look at various case studies, such as the Arab Spring and the Hong Kong protests.


Figure 1: Social media increased the reach and impact of protest movements the world over (Paapaya, 2020)
Ideology, Social Media and Social Movements

It is a well-established fact that a principle of idea plays an important role when it comes to social movement theory. An ideology, as a set or a system of ideas, is the main component of mobilizations as without a fully and rationally developed ideological stand, the emergence of social movement is unfeasible. Colin J . Beck (2013), an associate professor of sociology and affiliate of the International Relations Program at Pomona College, in his article “Ideology” underlined that ideology is a system that articulates and “identifies a mobilization’s beliefs and goals”, and without an ideology, it would be “difficult to speak of this as a movement” (p.1). Hence, a set of ideas remains an integral part of social movements as the clearly defined and well-formed ideology is what strengthens the bond and leads to the development of networks and unification of people. Ideological formation enables individuals to recognize socio-political and economic reforms in the country that create a detrimental environment for their worldviews. This recognition often leads to the emergence of common grievances and deprivations, which serve as a prelude to the development of social mobilizations. A social mobilization regardless of its nature, level and scale, is a product of a system of beliefs, values and judgments of a cohort of people. A worldview of a group of people is what the ideology represents, and an ideological stand, as a social feature, advocates a particular and concrete direction of collectivized action (Goldstone, 2001). Ideology, a system of beliefs, values, and, in general, worldviews has become an important and inseparable feature in the contemporary political sphere with the advancements of information technologies and social media platforms. The relation of systematized and coherent ideas with the modern means of communication is unique and multiplex involving various significant perspectives and requiring a thorough examination relying on an analytical framework.


Initially, the link between social media and an ideology is embedded in the fact that, in the contemporary period, social media networks are the primary means that lead to the development of ideas in individuals. Aleš Rozehnal (2021), in the book chapter “The Role of Social Media in Shaping Society”, highlighted that social media platforms and the Internet in general serve as the central sources of “information and news” (p. 217). To some extent, a free and massive flow of information on the media public is the primary component that significantly contributes to the formation of individuals’ worldviews and beliefs. It is assumable to note that the constantly circulating information on the internet sphere, regardless of its nature whether it is on religious, economic, financial or political matters, shapes individuals creating a certain identity in them. The connection between social media platforms and political identity is crucial as social media consumption on a daily bases is a core dimension of “both socialization and the development of political identities and affiliations” (Roberto Morales, 2021, p.1). The rapidly increasing usage of social media as a means of acquisition of knowledge is the major component that shapes people, especially teenagers and young people on an individual scale. In most cases, the impact that social media possess on individuals and their identity formation revolves around the socio-political matters that consequently place an individual with their values, beliefs and norms in a certain political spectrum. Roberto Morales (2021), a fellow of a Graduate Program in Sociology at the Ohio State University, highlighted in his paper “The Role of Social Media on Young Adult Political Identity” that emerging young people are replacing mainstream institutions by using social media platforms for acquisition of knowledge and information that constructs their identities and, in particular, their political orientations. According to the empirical analysis and statistics from the US-made surveys and examinations, it becomes evident that the usage of social platforms, which provide a variety of information and news relating to the state of the world, further intensifies “political leanings” among young adults (Roberto Morales, 2021, p.48).


Figure 2: Role Of Social Media (Robert Neubecker, n.a)

The link between the ideological stand and social movement is never-ending. Social media, as demonstrated above, shapes the idea in people, especially young adults, and their developed ideological stand can result in the emergence of social movements. It is a step-by-step process as once the individuals have firmly established beliefs, acquired through social media and the Internet, they realize what socio-political environment is acceptable to them, and if they have dissatisfaction with certain reforms, it can trigger them into emerging an organized social movement.


The Concept of Awareness

One of the significant characteristics of social media in regard to social mobilization is the fact that the digital means of communication remain the source of creating awareness within the local boundaries as well as outside of the borders. Gabriela Aguilar (2021), a Senior Capstone Division of Humanities and Communications, in the article “The Impact of Social Media on Social Movements” argued that the web is key in opening the doors for “organizations to post information and spread awareness about their ideals” (p.10). Awareness plays a crucial role in social movements. Initially, awareness is an element that initiates the recruitment of participants and the organization of the social movement overall. In order to gather large numbers of people, who possess similar lines of the ideological stand, meaning the individuals that share common grievances and collective identity, it becomes necessary to frame the concept of social protest in a way that will attract people in a certain timeline and location. Awareness, first of all, is a feature that organizes people and places them in the same pot. Social media platforms are strategic tools that enable specific news to be reached to a large number of people and as a consequence will eventually precipitate an eruption of the social movement. Through the means of media, such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, people possess the opportunity to share their grievances and open up and express to the rest of the people the reason for their discontent about the socio-political and economic structure surrounding them and “unite with others who agree with these same thoughts” (Aguilar, 2021, p. 10). The beginning step that leads to the emergence of social movements is the identification of a problem and through information technologies, people are capable of sharing the issue online with the vast majority of people and “nurture a new political terrain” (Aguilar, 2021, p.10). Tahrir Square demonstrations, one of the widely recognized uprisings in the contemporary period, is a vivid example of how the use of social media platforms led to the emergence of a large number of protestors. According to various conducted surveys, interpersonally oriented media platforms, mainly Facebook and telephone, were the next most common primary sources of distribution of information, after face-to-face communication, making up to 41 percent (Tufekci&Wilson, 2012).


Moreover, social media platforms allow people to bring awareness and share their grievances, actions, results and other details with people who are separated by borders, oceans and mountains. There are various case studies that demonstrate how social mobilizations captivate attention from every corner of the globe and attract international recognition and worldwide awareness, and one of them is the Hong Kong Protests. Prior in attempting to describe the case, it is important to note that Hong Kong protests or “Umbrella Movement” was one of the major cases that explicitly showed the central role of internet and mobile technology in relation to social movements. Pauline Luk (2015), a fellow at the University of Hong Kong, in her article “Under the Umbrella: Impacts of Social Networks in Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement” underlined that the usage of mobile technologies and web “subsequently changed the ecology of social networks” (p.1). The Umbrella Movement was predominately meant to achieve greater political independence from the China as China was attempting to interfere in the socio-political aspects of Hong Kong. It is crucial to note that Hong Kong is under a constitutional principle of "One country, two systems" meaning that Hong Kong is a special administrative region with its independent judicial, legislative and executive systems. People choose continuous social movements as a strategic tool to combat unjust actions by the government and pursue their ideology of independence and freedom from Chinese interference in the governance system. Although the opinion in regards to the political situation of Hong Kong varies, as in the case of any other world-scale movements, the primary feature in this particular case is that the availability and accessibility of information technologies allowed the protesters to show the world the police brutality including the usage of extreme force against the innocent protestors by the law enforcements that included beatings, torture, shootings and "unforeseen use of tear gas" (Palmieri-Branco, 2021, p.21). In addition, the government implemented all the measures to create an obstruction for the mobilizers by denying "supplies, food, and bathrooms” to people (p.21).


Figure 3: Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests (Paula Bronstein, n.a).
The Idea of Relevance

One of the significant yet neglected features provided by the usage of social media is that the news and information platforms allow social movements to stay relevant. In other words, the social movements that occurred in the past become the study cases of people living in a contemporary socio-political environment. Loretta Pyles (2020), a critical social justice scholar and a fellow at the University at Albany, The State University of New York, in her informative and engaging article “Learning from Social Movements” proposed that the social movements are the cases from which individuals need to extract viable lessons by reflecting on the historical and philosophical backgrounds of the mobilizations as well as the practicality of it. Social platforms, such as Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube or Instagram and other media platforms that possess an informative aspect are one of the widely used means of communication as well as means of acquisition of valuable information about past events. Social mobilizations of the contemporary era are the reflection of historical events. Loretta Pyles (2020) further argues that reflecting and learning from past social protests and their main characters are vital and “ongoing steps on an organizer’s journey (p.107). The predecessors of modern-day movements provide organizational tips for today’s protests and because of the Internet and media networks, individuals from all over the world possess access to the archived information that allows them in the future to use those chronicles to develop a movement that will be more successful, efficient and transformative in its nature. Furthermore, social movements, such as the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street are the recently emerged movements that play a crucial role in the studies of social protest theory and tend to be the key function of social media and its relevance. Because of the system of digital media communication that involves the Internet and social platforms landscape, individuals can document the occurrences and the series of uprisings, regardless of their scale and location.


Zeynep Tufekci and Christopher Wilson (2012), in the analytical article “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square” came up with conclusive thoughts, basing their analysis upon questionnaires, measures, surveys and other methods of examination, that the use of media was one of the central tools during the worldwide acknowledged protests known as the Arab Spring. In particular, in the case of Egyptian protests as nearly 50 percent of citizen journalists during the series of uprisings produced and disseminated videos and pictures including the fact that 25 percent of the visuals were distributed and circulated through Facebook and 5 percent belonged to Twitter. The produced information from the example of Tahrir Square will continue to stay relevant as for today, all the information is archived and based on social media platforms. Social media is a key aspect of social movements as it helps local and national mobilizations “to maintain relevancy” (Roberto Morales, 2021, p.13). Social media enables individuals to access the information and use that for future attempts in creating a socio-political change as the disseminated information helps in organizational, informative, methodological and practical aspects of the mobilizations.


Figure 4: Protesters during a speech in Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011 (Mosa’ab Elshamy, 2011)
Inclusiveness and Social Media

Moreover, it is vital to highlight that the striking features of social movement is to facilitate a socio-political impact which is mostly driven towards achieving political inclusion, or simply to make one’s voice be heard and have an influence upon certain aspects of the society. Roberto Morales (2021) argues that according to various surveys, extracted data and collected analyses by scholars, the marginalized population, people who are located at the bottom of the hierarchical structure of society and substantially affected by poverty and deprivation, possess limited access to socio-political decision-making processes. The ability to access social media platforms and the internet in general, can lead marginalized groups in breaking from the chains of unequal status and silence, and become means of substantial change. Although the usage of social media is not equal and there is various complication with it, such as heterogeneity or multi-faceted relationship, social media platforms eventually play a role in the mitigation of “political inequalities” (Roberto Morales, 2021, p.30). Through the usage of social media, individuals can become aware of current events, raise their voice through different means of communication such as Twitter or Facebook, engage in debates and discussions, and organize or participate in social uprisings. This presents opportunities for individuals to engage in political activity and create their political movements. Therefore, digital means of communication offer the possibility of creating a space for marginalized groups who are committed to facilitating socio-political change through resistance and uprisings.


Jose Ortiz along with his cooperators, such as Amber Young, Michael Myers, Rudolph Bedeley and Donald Carbaugh (2019), in the article “Giving Voice to the Voiceless: The Use of Digital Technologies by Marginalized Groups” provided an example of an indigenous movement “Idle No More”, comprising of First Nations, Metis and Inuit, which is a significant case that demonstrates how social media opens up the opportunities for an excluded group of people from the economic political and social life. “Idle No More” is a recently emerged social movement among the indigenious community whose main target revolved around the protection of the indigenous environment and culture. The local movement that originated in Canada relied on social media as the primary source of collaboration, organization, recruitment and awareness. As a result of the usage of digital technologies, the movement rapidly grew across borders reaching countries such as the USA and New Zealand where the indigenous communities were empowered in fighting for their lands and rights (Ortiz et al., 2019). The examples such as “Idle No More’ tend to demonstrate how movement can become transnational and collaborative, and the usage of information technologies allows individuals to break from isolation and “collaborate across social media and attract international attention” (Ortiz et al., 2019, p.24).


Figure 5: Snooping Idle No More (Blair Gable, 2013)
Other Features

One of the highly neglected subtopics within the subject of social media and its role in shaping social movements revolves around the fact that social media platforms prove to be efficient and the only accessible methods of collectivization, recruitment and organization in the period of pandemics. The outbreak of Covid-19 became a life-transforming experience as it posed a substantial impact on the livelihoods of individuals around the globe. The pandemic's impact did not simply hinder the ordinary life of people such as school and work routines, or people being chained in their homes without permission to pass beyond the front door. Rather, the transformation significantly impacts individuals and their socio-political and economic environment. Social media is used as a social movement tool during Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic changed the recourse of social movements and posed a threat to traditional elements of social mobilization that involve organizing from strategy up to political expression on the streets. Even though the ability of political expression found itself in a deadlock, digital means of communication, such as social media platforms became in use by the vast majority of people who desired to demonstrate their denial and rejection of certain socio-political reforms.


It is also crucial to note that in the modern era, social media platforms can be highly controlled to the extent that the political authorities and the head of administrations implement the methods of internet restrictions or media blackouts in order to demise the social movement. The Internet is an efficient tool in the heads of protestors as long as it is accessible. The fact that government officials take an approach of restricting access to medial platforms, demonstrates the importance of social media plays in relation to social uprisings. Sarah C. Palmieri-Branco (2021), a fellow of graduate studies at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs University of Ottawa, in the paper “Social Media as a Strategy for Protest Movements in an Era of Government Control,” provided an example of Arab Spring, more specifically a Sudanese case where Sudan hit by the media blackouts could not share any details, bring awareness and attract support from the international community. She underlined that people, however, who resided outside of Sudan created various hashtags, such as “Tasgut Bas", #SudanUprising, and #BlueForSudan in order to attract international support and recognition” (p.35). This case demonstrates that the internet plays a crucial role in the social movement as it becomes the only efficient tool in the hands of mobilizers; however, the importance of it is shown in the fact that government officials attempt to shut down access in order to demise the protest and run from accountability.


Figure 6: This photograph of Alaa Salah's appearance during a protest this week against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has swept through social media (Lana H. Haroun, 2019)

Conclusion


The role of social media in a political sphere is immense, especially when it comes to social mobilizations. The contemporary period with the rapid growth in social movements tend to prove that the emergence and development of social media platforms and Internet became a useful tool for those who find the protest to be an inevitable method of achieving a socio-political change.


Bibliographical References:

Aguilar, G. (2021). The Impact of Social Media on Social Movements. 2-30. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.csumb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2213&context=caps_thes_all


Beck, C. (2013). Ideology. The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movement. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1-5. Retrieved from https://pages.pomona.edu/~cjb14747/pdfs/Beck_Ideology.pdf


Goldstone, J. (2001). TOWARD A FOURTH GENERATION OF REVOLUTIONARY THEORY. Annual Reviews, 4,139 -187. Retrieved from http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/chwe/ps171a/goldstone.pdf


Luk, P. (2015). Under the Umbrella: Impacts of Social Networks in Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement. Peace Magazine, 31(16), 1-3. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334646304_Under_the_Umbrella_Impacts_of_Social_Networks_in_Hong_Kong%27s_Umbrella_Movement


Morales, R. (2021). The Role of Social Media on Young Adult Political Identity. Graduate School of The Ohio State University. 1-88. Retrieved from https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=osu162688562255675&disposition=inline


Ortiz J., Young A., Myers M., Bedeley R., Carbaugh D. (2019). Giving Voice to the Voiceless: The Use of Digital Technologies by Marginalized Groups. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 45(2), 20-38. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/301380156.pdf


Palmieri-Branco, S. (2021). Social Media as a Strategy for Protest Movements in an Era of Government Control. Graduate School of Public and International Affairs University of Ottawa. 1-49. Retrieved from https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/42403/1/PALMIERI-BRANCO%2C%20Sarah%20-%208349343.pdf


Pyles, L. (2020). Learning from Social Movements. Foundations of Community Organizing. 85-112. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/347368582_Learning_from_Social_Movements


Rozenhal, A. (2021).The Role of Social Media in Shaping Society. The Impact of Digital Platforms and Social Media on the Freedom of Expression and Pluralism, 217-244. Retrieved from http://real.mtak.hu/134573/1/The%20Impact%20of%20Digital%20Platforms%20and%20Social%20Media%20-%20Chapter%207%20-%20Rozehnal.pdf


Tufekci, Z & Wilson, C. (2012). Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square

Journal of Communication, 62, 363-379. Retrieved from https://typeset.io/papers/social-media-and-the-decision-to-participate-in-political-1crjkkb31l



Visual Sources:

Figure 1: Paapaya (2020). Social media increased the reach and impact of protest movements the world over. [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/designing-for-change-protest-art-now


Figure 2: Neubecker, R. (n.a). Role Of Social Media [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.theispot.com/stock/search?search_stock_match=all&artist_name=i170ir1387&stock_subject=&stock_type=


Figure 3: Bronstein, P. (n.a). Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests. [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/social-media-hong-kong-protests


Figure 4: Elshamy, M. (2011). Protesters during a speech in Tahrir Square, April 8, 2011. [Image]. Retrieved from https://creativetimereports.org/2013/09/16/lara-baladi-photography-of-tahrir-square/


Figure 5: Gable, B. (2013). Snooping Idle No More. [Image]. Retrieved from https://macleans.ca/news/canada/the-spooks-werent-idle-either/


Figure 6: Haroun, L. (2019). This photograph of Alaa Salah's appearance during a protest this week against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has swept through social media. [Image]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/10/fashion/demonstration-clothing-women-sudan.html



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