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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

How 5 Recent Social Uprisings Were Wired

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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 Nawaat.org, 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."

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

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