Looking at 2 years of civil upheaval

And how social communication and social media enabled it to happen


There are two years in living memory that changed the world, altered the political landscape.  The first was 1989 – and the fall of communism in the Eastern Bloc and of course 2011 and the Arab Spring.

They have similarities to each other.  The West was not prepared nor did they expect it to happen.  The US, in particular did not recognise either uprising for what they were.  As such, those behind the change and the wider protesting public could not rely on support from the west. The first governments fell and changed easily – in the 1989 case, Hungary was the first without much fight.  In 2011, it was Tunisia.  As the change continued, change got harder – eg. Yugoslavia and Syria respectively.  Finally, and importantly, people power made it happen.

The differences though are also stark.  In 1989, the East – i.e. Mikhail Gorbachev recognised that, largely communism wasn’t effective financially anymore and that change coming through from the new breed communist who wanted change.  In 2011, there was no such movement from the top – it was people power.  Financials weren’t an issue – while there was the underclass and corruption, the Arab governments weren’t teetering on financial collapse.  The domino effect was similar, though – people demand change and there was little the powers that be could do about it – unless they resorted to civil warfare.

The communication and activism methods that were used by those in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria et al and those in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany et al would make for an interesting study – details that deserve to be explored won’t be here – if only for the fact that I don’t have 20 000 words and years to study.

In 1989, it was the brave few on Radio Free Europe, those publishing on-the-then ‘illegitimate’ media (eg. flyers that weren’t state sanctioned) and word of mouth that got the word round, that put together activists with different skills – so that their conquest could be achieved.

It was the same for 2011, though the tools were different.  In one sense, the Arab Spring occurred because the Arab leaders underestimated the power of the internet – the power that social media has to bring people together and for the sole purpose of ‘activism’.

The underlying philosophies of communication remained the same as was the purpose of the communication.  People power to overthrow oppressive governments.

Forgetting isolated incidents of activism, particularly those in free states – like the Cronulla Riots (see Trends in Social Activism Across Australian Minority Communities). The use of social technology in more destructive incidents like the London Riots or the Paris Riots also had a heavy use of social media.  There are countless examples but the use of Internet in oppressive states to overthrow governments, has a particular place in history.

If we assume that the word of mouth, use of traditional media and the purpose of the communications are the same for both the events of 1989 and 2011, then we should look at the technology and what advantages it gave to the proponents of the 2011 change and why the governments of the time underestimated its power.

There was almost a sense from the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt – the early runners in the Arab Spring that digital communications was only for social communication.  If they had looked deeper – even to previous activism, like the Cronulla Riots, they would have known that mass communication that social technology can bring allowed connections between people like never before.  

The social communication has been shaped out of necessity.  While on one side of the coin, we can tell each other that we ate corn flakes for breakfast, it has evolved as activists dream.  In the Arab Spring, its key role was to bring people together who had the skills and the want to do something – from advanced computer programming to those who just wanted to have their voice heard.  It brought about an efficiency to communication – an immediacy and an ability to get around censorship.

The immediacy of communication was vital.  Atrocities were being recorded and transmitted in real time, people’s emotion was being broadcast at the same time.  People could join immediately.  No longer did you need to smuggle photos out of the county, wait for Time or Newsweek to publish the photos.  No longer did you need, at least initially to wait for people to tell others.  All of a sudden there was no delay in the relay of information.  No longer did people have to take a leap of faith in what they were being told – they could see it, it was right there in front of them – for the first time in history.

Social media – from mobile phones, to video, to Facebook and Twitter to word of mouth were all able to be tailored to be fit-for-purpose for a governmental overthrow.  It also enabled a true bottom-up change.  Unlike in 1989, 2011 didn’t need any leaders who wanted change.  It didn’t need accredited journalists who put themselves in danger and happened to be at the right place in the right time.

It needed the people that wanted change.  It needed people to connect and use their skills for the greater good.  

While the recent past, the second half of 2012, the activism and rate of change has dramatically changed with the willingness of Heads of State to use force and war against their citizens, its purpose remains.  Video and pictures emerge from the countries detailing violence.  In times past, only professionals working through a network of smugglers would have been able to achieve this.  Now amateurs and activists can detail the news, bring to light the actions of a nation-state.

The social communication technology has proven that it can change for purpose and proven to be the most radical driver for change that we have experienced for many decades.

Atton C, 2004, Alternative Internet

Hands J, 2011, @ is for Activism

Kessler S, 2010, Why Social Media is reinventing activism

Martin M, 2012, Social Media changing the way of activism

Meyer M, 2009, The Year that Changed the World

Scott D, 2011, Trends in social activism across Australian minority communities

BBC, 2011, How Facebook changed the world: the Arab Spring

And a thanks to Dave Harte for his insight and summaries.

Sam Tickell