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How 5 Recent Social Uprisings Were Wired

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Smart phone with fire

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Fleyeing

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and other instant communication platforms have helped to fuel riots and find missing persons this week in some major UK cities. But these events are only the most recent example of how new technology has greased the wheels of social change.


From the horseback ride of Paul Revere—and for millennia before—people have used the latest technology available to rally others sympathetic to their cause. As ubiquitous as Twitter and Facebook have seemed lately in spreading the word for gatherings, whether benevolent or malevolent, many recent demonstrations and revolts have used a variety of primarily digital platforms to spread their message. Here are five examples in just the past two years:


Iranian Election Protests, June 2009-February 2010: Twitter

Dubbed the “Twitter Revolution,” the protests spurred by the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad erupted in June 2009. Both those inside of Iran and in other countries used hashtags (such as #iran and #iranelection) on Twitter to share information about—and support for—the protests. And when the Iranian government initiated stringent online censorship in an effort to block social networking sites, YouTube and some foreign news sites, groups including Anonymous Iran cropped up to allow those inside the country to get around government blocks to access information about the protests.


Tunisian Revolution, December 2010-January 2011: Blogs

After a street vendor self-immolated in protest of the incumbent government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, protests erupted in the local city, Sidi Bouzid. But only when demonstrations reached more major civic areas did the revolution start to gain traction on social networking sites, especially Facebook—after which authorities attempted to squelch discussion of demonstrations on social media platforms. But it was the blog run by, an organization based in the Netherlands, that has been recognized as being key to organizing the rallies that eventually led to the president’s January 2011 ejection.


Egyptian Revolution, January-February 2011: Satellite TV

As Twitter and other social media tools made headlines as enabling many of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, more traditional and widespread forms of communication might have been responsible for disseminating much of the news. Television, newspapers and telephone continued to reach a broad population—even as the Egyptian government blocked Internet connections in January. Even when online connections were back up and running, fewer than 4 percent of Egyptian households had Internet, where as more than three quarters had satellite TV—many of which were tuned into Al Jazeera for uncensored news of the protests.


Jasmine Revolution (China), February 2011: Boxun

Following the uprisings in the Middle East, people in China began agitating for a “Jasmine Revolution” on the overseas Chinese community news site Boxun. After the success of Twitter and other social sites to help spread the word about protests in Tunisia and Egypt, the Chinese government blocked searches of the word “jasmine” and the site was hacked via a denial of service attack.


London Riots, August 2011: BlackBerry Messenger

The rioters did not take up Twitter or Facebook to spread their message. Instead, they took to BlackBerry Messenger, a phone-to-phone instant messaging service, hosted by RIM (Research in Motion). The rationale might have been to avoid more public association with lawlessness, as would happen if one were to post about looting on a social media network. Now, however, BlackBerry has agreed to partner with UK police to supply user data that could lead to arrests.


But the social media forces have not been left out of the equation in the UK. Those looking to help mend the rents caused by the rioters have logged onto Twitter and Facebook in droves, Fast Company reported. The Twitter handle @Riotcleanup is now being followed by more than 76,000 users, and the Post riot clean-up: let’s help London page on Facebook has more than 13,500 “likes.”

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. phillip66 11:25 pm 08/10/2011

    I remember our oppressive right wing government (U.K.) condemning the actions of foreign countries in trying to stifle the way people communicated between each other, they are now attempting to employ the same tactics.

    The Prime Minister has openly declared that the peoples human rights will be ignored in order to attain convictions. The people will riot when their basic rights are violated on a daily basis, when our corrupt police force are allowed to execute people on the spot without recourse.

    The people are allowed to use whatever communication abilities that are at hand for them should they wish to raise up and voice their concerns. The trouble is, our government never listen to the people so, therefore, riots.

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  2. 2. elderlybloke 5:14 pm 08/11/2011

    phillip66 ,
    If you lived in the locality where those heaps of crap were looting and burning everything they could ,including peoples homes and endangering lives of women and children, you would have very different opinion.

    I suggest you remain silent as you are really extremely fucking ignorant.

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  3. 3. phillip66 6:58 am 08/12/2011


    So you think its ok for our government to victimize and demonize people on a daily basis, i lived in lewisham during the years of the SPG and the sus laws all my friend were subjectected to stops and assault at the hands of the SPG, when this group were disbanded they emptied their lockers and found Knifes coshes Knuckle dusters etc, the fact being the police were responsible for more crime than they were preventing. The SPG were disbanded but the sus laws were not,

    The government has since attacked the Physically & mentally impaired(disabled), single parents and the unemployed, trying to drum up support to demonize these people, yet ignoring the real crooks the bankers who have squandered billions of taxpayers money Tony blair for dragging us into an illegal war in iraq and Afghanistan, Cameron – Libya, and Corporate businesses that avoid tax in this country.

    The kids see these people getting away with murder and other crimes so they believe that if they can do, so we can, unfortunately in our once great country the law only apples to those who have no money. No money No rights.

    Remember this all started with the execution of a taxi driver, not the first member of the public to be murdered by the police.

    If we allow our civil rights to deteriorate much further then no one will be able to make any comment either for or against such governments on any social platform.

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  4. 4. flogan 1:58 pm 08/13/2011

    The article says, “fewer than 4 percent of Egyptian households had Internet.” My impression in Egypt this January, was that everybody had a smart phone. Unless the 4 percent refers to deck top computers, it doesn’t sound right to me. For example, the July 201 issue of National Geographic indicated that 67 percent of Egyptians have cell phones, and I saw that the use of USB modems was common. So, I suggest someone follow up on this “fact” and see where it comes from.

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