In the early 2010s, examples popped up all over the world of social activists and potential revolutionaries making their case, spreading their influence, and organizing over social media.

People took to the streets in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and more. Information famously spread through social media to expose issues, combat media corruption, and bring people together.

Prior to it being utilized for this kind of movement, the internet was already coming into its own as a power that could fuel citizen journalism to affect elections and challenge those in power. But when in the middle east, it came into its own as a potentially revolutionary threat to those in power.

Egypt’s revolts in 2011 began after video evidence of abuse and other rallying cries were shared among tens of thousands of people in Facebook groups after the death of a businessman at the hands of police. Before that, Tunisia had a man’s self-immolation turn to a wide array of protests after witness’ filming and sharing videos of rebellion and government abuses on social media that were later picked up by professional outlets like Al Jazeera.

Facebook groups, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms allowed people to spread information, come together for a common goal, and to rebel themselves. For example, when Khaled Said, the businessman whose death sparked the protests, was said by police to have died from asphyxiation, social media was quick to answer with video evidence of his murder.

In Tunisia, while most media remained controlled by the government, Facebook and posting to video sharing websites were left uncensored, leaving activists and citizen journalists able to provide information to the country’s own citizens and abroad.

The plugged-in revolutionary goals spread, and the Arab Spring came, at times successful in overthrowing the despot at the helm of the oppression. But then in many places, it also went, and often left war and oppressive regimes in its wake.

An article from Vox argues that the reason Egypt returned to a military dictatorship and nations like Libya, Yemen, and Suria descended into civil wars was because despite the revolutionary action to oust the ruler, these nations either did not have or did not build the necessary civil infrastructures that serve to prevent abuse and dictatorial rule in the first place.

“Democratic rule requires something a lot more important, if less obviously visible, than having a good-guy democrat at the top of the government,” said writer Amanda Taub. “It requires the institutions of democracy: political parties capable of winning elections, politicians capable of governing, a bureaucracy capable of implementing that governance, and civil society groups able to provide support and stability to those institutions.” You know, the boring stuff.

This is why, the article argues, that Tunisia is the successful exception to the Arab Spring’s general failure. It leveraged organizations and institutions present prior to the revolution to build coalitions and broker talks between rival factions and because of that were left with a surviving nation and a nobel peace prize. 

That realpolitik is what saved Tunisia from the fate of its revolutionary contemporaries. It proves that the day after the revolution matters just as much if not more than the overthrow of an institution. That simply can’t be done with just Twitter and Facebook.

Social media can be a fantastic tool for spreading information, getting people out on the streets and providing the necessary spark, but it can only do so much to actually bring its goals into fruition. Online activism, Malcolm Gladwell and other critics argue, may lead to only a limited attachment, understanding, and dedication to the goals being pursued in a potentially revolutionary fashion as well as to the people at the front of it, compared to action in person to others. Coalition building between disparate factions, constructing something that can survive, organizing the state or institution after tearing it down, and more cannot be done successfully by loosely connected social media activists.

Whether it be the end of an oppressive government or institution or other political action, to bring about successful change rather than a temporary movement or a failed attempt, a strong attachment needs to be made between the people and the movement, and bridges must be gapped so that progress is made and the spark provided by social media can turn into the flame of successful change.

References (in order used):

Wikipedia – Twitter Revolution

NYT – Online Newspaper Shakes Up Korean Politics

NYT- As Web Challenges French Leaders, They Push Back 

NYT – Movement Began With Outrage and a Facebook Page That Gave It an Outlet

Foreign Policy – The First Twitter Revolution?

Vox – The unsexy truth about why the Arab Spring failed

BBC – Nobel Peace Prize for Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet

Huffpost – How Social Media Accelerated Tunisia’s Revolution

The New Yorker – Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.

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