Protests are often becoming larger in size, longer in duration, and global in getting the support. Since the last decade, many commentators have given credit to social media for the effective and powerful mobilisation of dissent. In 2009, some had dubbed the post-election mass protests in Iran as ‘Twitter Revolution’ as protesting Iranians used Twitter to coordinate their contentious activities.
Similarly, Facebook is regularly credited for facilitating the protest mobilisation against the North African regimes in 2011. In the last twelve years, wherever there has been a significant protest, the role of social media has always been prominently highlighted.
There is no doubt that social media has already become a powerful resource in mobilising protest movements in many countries. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp serve as essential instruments for information exchange and coordination among protesting public and protest organisers to undertake collective actions.
Social media platforms also become the primary transmitters of emotive, inspirational, and provocative messages to mobilise people to support and join the protests. Online social networks are often used to tap the existing strength of weak ties to recruit new supporters to join the movements. However, the benefit of social media in mobilising and organising protests varies from country to country. The nature and character of the regime primarily determine it.
The social media platforms have useful contributions in raising awareness about social and political issues and creating sustained protests against the authority. For more than a decade, social media has played a key role in spreading the message of the protesters and helping protest organisers mobilise support using the weak ties formed through online networks.
Movements in the United States, Chile, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Thailand, and India have recently used Twitter and Facebook as their essential tools for sharing information and coordinating collective actions.
However, some ridicule increasing protest activism through social media as ‘slacktivism’, where many, through their likes, shares, and retweets, satisfy themselves contributing to the protest and do not join the protesters on the street. The so-called ‘slacktivism’ is the least of the problems social media poses to protests in many parts of the world.
We must not remain blind to the fact that the world had also witnessed numerous powerful movements even before the arrival of social media. People had successfully protested to get freedom from colonial powers in the 1950s and 1960s and had forced dictators to surrender their power leading to a democratisation wave worldwide from 1974 to 1991. So, it is not that social media is a must for people to mobilise successfully.
For social media to bring better benefits to protest mobilisation, the country needs a free, fair, and accessible virtual space, a rarity in most of the South and the East. While social media has some positive contributions for mobilising dissent, at the same time, can be a double-edged sword.
Many countries like Turkey, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe have recently used various means to block social media sites to disrupt protest organisation.
While allowing the social media platforms to operate, the regime often tries to manipulate the content through censorship and removal requests. If social media platforms hesitate to follow the regime’s diktat, they are threatened with legal actions, jailing the staff, and a permanent ban from the country.
Social media doesn’t work without the internet. Many populist regimes in the South have been quick to shut down the internet completely to thwart protest mobilisation as it can be done very easily.
Limits the reach and speed of protesters
In 2020, Bangladesh, DRC, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe shut down the internet in all or some parts of the country in the name of public safety. This limits the reach and speed of protesters in effectively-being organised as they are increasingly dependent upon social media for communication.
Social media documents protests and sometimes live-streams them. It can work as a deterrent for authorities to use excessive force. At the same time, the digital records of protesters also become readily available to the regime.
Many non-democratic regimes are using social media records to detain the protest activists. The regime-supporting counter-protesters were also hounding them based on these social media footprints.
Digital records are also being used in some countries to deny government jobs and even issuing passports. Thus, the regimes are using social media to break the ongoing protests and exploit it to deter their citizens from participating in a protest in the future.
Social media makes it difficult for protest movements to maintain a single command structure. Any person or group associated with the protest can easily manipulate the messaging and confuse the protest movements’ information.
The protest’s main agendas can get sidelined as social media influencers try to project contention in terms of their affiliation to a particular party, ideology, or socio-religious group.
This helps the regime and state-controlled media highlight hardliners’ views and create confusion over the protests’ intention. Many regimes also have their own ‘cyber troops’ to spread disinformation and propaganda.
As per the University of Oxford study, in 2020, at least 81 countries in the world had employed a large staff and had spent considerable resources to manipulate public opinion through social media platforms.
At the time of antigovernment protests, these ‘cyber troops’ are also often being used by the regime to discredit the protest and defame the protest entrepreneurs. These high-skilled professionals also harm the protest by using social media to shape public opinion and propagate pro-regime ideas.
No doubt, social media, and digital platforms have started playing a critical role in mobilising protests in different parts of the world. However, their efficacy and advantage can vary substantially from country to country.
In an undemocratic set-up, social media can give protest mobilisation some benefits in the short run. Still, the researchers and commentators in their overall analysis should not forget the serious risk, high cost, and huge uncertainties it carries.