You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Liberation Technology: Three Studies Examine the Impact of Social Media on Popular Uprisings

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, July 17 2012

It's hard to deny that social media affected Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring uprisings, the student protest movement in Chile, Yo Soy 132 in Mexico and the social justice movement in Israel, but there's plenty of controversy over how and why social media mattered. Were Facebook, Twitter and YouTube mobilizing tools that brought people to the streets? Or were social media platforms just useful platforms for broadcasting information about revolutions that were actually mobilized through traditional grassroots means?

On these questions, two papers and one book recently caught our attention:

  • New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring, authored by Washington-based academics Sean Aday, Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, John Sides and Deen Freelon; published by the United States Institute of Peace.

    Using Egypt as its central case study, the authors stress the importance of empirical data in examining the following questions, as outlined in the introduction:

    Did social media play an instrumental role in these protest movements? If so, was that influence primarily within each country (e.g., organizing or facilitating protests), within the region (e.g., a kind of domino effect where social media helped spread protests from Tunisia to Egypt and across the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] region), and/or external to the region (e.g., a megaphone effect in which new media brought news about the protests to the international community)?

  • Sourcing the Arab Spring: A Case Study of Andy Carvin’s Sources During the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions, by Alfred Hermida, Seth C. Lewis, Rodrigo Zamith. Presented at the International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, TX, April 2012

    National Public Radio social media strategist Andy Carvin (@acarvin) became one of the most important reporters on Twitter during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, carving out a niche for himself as an expert aggregator and online reporter, using sources tweeting from the front lines. The paper examines the question of whether and how Carvin's use of online sources expanded "the range of actors involved in the construction of the news" - i.e., whether Carvin's successful use of sources found via Twitter moved reporting beyond the traditional paradigm of reporting, where the journalist on the ground is the primary information broker. Instead, write the paper's authors, Carvin's successful amplification of local voices had journalists turning to people on Twitter as sources.

    "...journalists tend to cite sources they are familiar with, as past reliability is taken as an indicator of credibility. Our analysis indicates that Carvin rewarded those involved in documenting events by citing them a significant number of times in the period analyzed. But the architecture of Twitter may have played a part, too. The retweeting functionality means information can be easily amplified and cascade through the network as the reach of a message grows exponentially every time a tweet is rebroadcast. Twitter operates as a socially connected information sharing network where well-positioned influencers can shape information flows."

  • Liberation Technology: Social Media and the Struggle for Democracy, edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner. Published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy in 2012.

    Authors of this collection of insightful essays include important analysts like Rebecca MacKinnon ('China's "Networked Authoritarianism'") and Evgeny Morozov ("Whither Internet Control?") The introduction can be read in its entirety online.

Personal Democracy Media is thankful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.