How social media is changing protest in a digital era.



Is our computer mouse the new pitchfork? © Robert Couse-Baker


Crying Syrian children covered in dust. Angry face. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Le Pen fined for inciting hate against Roma. Like. Porn stars talk about losing their virginity. Sigh. scroll, scroll, scroll. Refugee children abused in Libya. Retweet. Eating water lilies in South Sudan to survive. Comment. Cute Cat. Love. Alright, that’s done. We shared our opinion. That is what a good civilian is supposed to do in a democracy, right? We sit, we like and we scroll further. We showed the world what we think is right and what is not. But should we be satisfied?


Social media is changing the ways in which protests emerge and evolve. The digital revolution and social media in particular, gives citizens the ability to voice dissatisfaction with their own or other governments more than ever before. It makes it possible to communicate more quickly to a wider audience and makes it easier to organize protest. But a crucial question remains unanswered. Do we actually make an impact? Has our online opinion a purpose or are we just lazy assholles that prefer our couch over the streets?


According to Thomas Zeitzoff, Co-Director of the Peace and Violence Research Lab, we should rethink the possible impact of social media movements. His and other’s research point to the increasing importance of social media as a tool for conflict. “The crucial aspect, is that social media allows followers and the audience to directly interact with governments and other actors involved in the conflict. Social media increases the media visibility, allows opponents to coalesce and their voices to be heard. Today, Facebook and Twitter can be seen as the new town squares. With the difference that everybody can shout as loud. Or as silent, depends on how you look at it.


Because democratic leaders’ power depends on voters, their policies are mostly driven by domestic politics and public opinion. Therefore it is not surprising political campaigns monitor social media reach, positive and negative sentiment to secure their existence. Which suddenly makes our daily facebook scroll a story about pressure and gives our thumbs a lot more potential than we had ever hoped for.


Zeitzoff was the first one who has ever examined how states respond to changes in international public support on social media compared to international mediators during conflict. He found that increases in support for rival actors, reduces the other actor’s aggressivity on the ground. Which, for example, means less air strikes, crossfires or bombings. For this research Zeitzoff focused on the 2012 Gaza conflict as this is seen as one of the first conflicts where both actors (Hamas and Israel) used social media as a tool to influence international public opinion.




He constructed an hourly measure of support for Hamas and Israel by collecting data of support-hashtags and compared it to forces used by both sides. The most prominent hashtags Israel and Hamas used to reap support for their actions were respectively #IsraelUnderFire and #GazaUnderAttack. Increases in support for Hamas decreased Israel’s aggressivity by approximately 177%. Comparatively, increases in the attention of the international mediators (US, UN, and Egypt), slightly increases Israel’s conflict intensity. For Hamas we see the same tendency but less outspoken.”


“Increases in support for Hamas decreased Israel’s aggressivity by approximately 177%. Comparatively, increases in the attention of the international mediators (UN, Egypt and US), slightly increases Israel’s conflict intensity.”



Surprisingly it seems that sharing our opinions online does influence the conflict. “I think public opinion and norms matter. Popular international public support is hypothesized to be a key component in many conflicts, especially since many conflicts contain diaspora, or transnational communities that provide support to conflict participants. States’ behaviour is constrained by politicians or allies in other states who face domestic pressure to change their fellow allies behavior”, says Zeitzoff.



Still, Social or political movements, including rebel groups and governments, need more than only popular support to achieve their goals. Without financial resources and manpower, they are doomed to fail. One of the most efficient and convenient platforms to obtain all three of these things seems to be again social media. “When social media-users push a political movement’s message by liking or sharing it, the public’s receptiveness to the political movement increases which also possibly facilitates recruitment of resources and individuals to the conflict. It has never been so easy for diaspora communities and other interested parties to follow conflicts more closely, to provide resources and express their support or displeasure”, explains Zeitzoff. “Social media has played a large role in the Syrian Civil War. Many competing factions in Syria have their own YouTube and Twitter accounts which they use to publicize their battlefield successes and tout their territorial control. Even more concretely, Syrian rebel groups have used their Facebook pages to “brand themselves” and to facilitate fundraising.”



Limits and stumbling blocks


But like any other tool, social media have their stumbling blocks. Why should power-hungry states with control over citizens’ access to social media, bury the hatchet by these new tools? According to Anita Gohdes, member of the Center for Comparative and International Studies, the simple answer is: They do not. “Behind the scenes, governments across the world have been extremely active in developing and refining a whole arsenal of tools to surveil, manipulate, and censor the digital flow of information in the realm of their authority.”


One counter-protest tactic is to spread disinformation. Besides that, lowering the costs of communication also diminishes operational security. As an online protester you expose yourself too everyone including the opposition, which makes the probability of an arrest bigger. In Egypt, dozens of anti-Mubarak protest leaders were arrested early on in the protests, possibly through their Facebook pages.


Beyond monitoring movements on social media, governments can also shut websites or the complete internet down. This has been common in Iran and China during times of social unrest. “It is true that many countries among which China, Syria and Turkey have set up tools to both monitor and censor social media, precisely because they want to avoid problematic information from leaking out and galvanizing domestic or international pressure. But that is nothing new. Previous research already suggested that international audiences, for example social media-users, influence democracies to a greater degree than non-democracies”, says Zeitzoff.


As the number of social media users increases, the role of social media in conflict will likely grow. Because social media makes it easier for individuals and groups to solve logistical problems, overcome barriers to action and especially because our online opinion does more than just irritating others, we can expect protests and protest movements to develop more rapidly than in the past.

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