The Facebook Revolutions: One Year On

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Saturday marked the one year anniversary of when a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit and vegetable street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi fatally lit himself on fire in protest of government oppression, sparking a year of regime-ending revolutions many believe were sustained and nurtured by social media.

Bouazizi sold fruit and vegetables from a cart — which did not require a permit — because he was unemployed and unable to get a formal job. His income of less than $150 a month supported eight people, including a sister who was attending a local university.

When Bouazizi refused to pay local authorities the typical bribes needed to do business in his area, he was reportedly slapped by a female official who also insulted his deceased father. Humiliated, Bouazizi went and bought a can of gasoline to light himself on fire in protest.

CBS News later reported Bouazizi stood in the middle of traffic outside of a provincial government building, doused himself in gasoline, and cried out, “How do you expect me to make a living?”

He then lit himself on fire, and later died on January 4, 2011 from fatal burn injuries.

Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation was only the tipping point for an eruption of protests in the Middle East over the price of food, lack of jobs and governments oppression. Several men in Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia emulated Bouazizi’s protest in order to bring an end to the autocratic regimes in their own countries.

Two men in Europe also followed suit: A 27-year old Moroccan street vendor in Italy and a 36-year old Iranian journalist living in exile in Amsterdam died from acts of self-immolation in protest to the economic inequalities in their home countries.

The events that followed through the year were dynamic and revolutionary — protests followed in Jordan, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Libya and Egypt, in addition to the Persian country of Iran.

The regime of Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was the first to fall as result of the Arab Spring in January. Ben Ali fled his country for sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. Tunisians held their first free elections in 23-years this past October.

In February, during the height of the Arab Spring, Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign after 29 years in office as president of Egypt. The Egyptian military later took control of the country and set up an interim government. Egypt — currently swallowed in a state of political crisis, violence and civil unrest — recently held the second round of a three-part election.

After 34-years of dictatorial rule, Muammar Gaddhafi was ousted from power by a NATO-supported revolution of Libyan rebels, which included some members with ties to the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaida.

Western media nicknamed the Arab Spring the “Facebook Revolution” due to the social network’s role as a platform used by activists to broadcast to the rest of the world what was happening in the Middle East. Social media was used as a way to sidestep state-controlled media outlets.

Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google who helped organize the Arab Spring protests in Egypt via Facebook, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he would thank Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg if he ever met him in person. “This revolution started online,” he said. “This revolution started on Facebook.”

Twitter’s role in broadcasting Iran’s failed Green Revolution in 2009 helped the uprising earn the name the “Twitter Revolution.” The uprising was the first major documented event in which social media was seen as a means to broadcast to the rest of the world what was going on, circumvent state-controlled media and coordinate social unrest.

Protests later erupted again in Iran in February 2011, concurrently with the Arab Spring.

A mysterious “Jasmine Revolution” brewed in China in 2011, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps tight speech restrictions on Chinese citizens. Calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” — which drew inspiration from the Tunisian Revolution and its call for food, jobs and economic opportunity — spooked Chinese authorities.

The Associated Press reported in February that Chinese authorities limited media reports on the Arab Spring in an effort to quell civil discontent in China. Last week, Beijing banned anonymity on its social networks.

The Internet in Syria was also shut down for a short period of time by the authorities with the intent of suppressing civil unrest in that country.

The belief that social media was a catalyst for change was perpetuated by the establishment media throughout the year.

A recent study by Philip Howard, an associate professor in communication at the University of Washington, concluded that the Arab Spring “truly was fueled by social media.”

“Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising,” Howard told tech blog TG Daily in September.

In contrast, the Occupy Wall Street movement was found to be anything but organic or spontaneous. The Canada-based, George Soros-funded Adbusters Foundation called for a “peaceful revolution” in July, and “brandedOccupy Wall Street on Twitter.

In August, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore called for an “American Spring” to compliment what was going on in the Middle East.

“We need to have an American spring — you know, the Arab Spring,” said Gore.

“The non-violent part of it isn’t finished yet, but we need to have an American spring, a kind of an American, non-violent change where people on the grassroots get involved again,” Gore said. “Not the, you know, not in the Tea Party-style.”

Later nicknamed the “American Autumn,” Occupy Wall Street and parallel occupations drew inspiration from the Tunisian revolution and the Egyptian uprising at Tahrir Square, even while others have criticized OWS, saying that it is “no Tahrir Square.” Egyptian activists, however, did travel to New York’s Zuccotti Park to teach “Arab Spring occupation tactics,” reported the New York Times.

The Occupy movement was characterized by a heavy use of technology — including Apple Macbooks, iPhones, and social networking platforms like Facebook, LiveStream, Twitter and Tumblr — in addition to its ambiguous calls for “economic justice.”

Hacktivist collective Anonymous also aided in the Tunisian Revolution, and spread awareness of the Occupy Movement.

Time Magazine recently named “The Protester” their coveted Person of the Year, receiving both heavy criticism and support for their choice. Several Fox News pundits suggested the U.S. Navy SEALs should have been given the honor instead for their role in the killing of the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden.

Not everyone agreed that social media was significant in 2011’s revolutions, however.

The Ottawa Citizen’s Declan Hill dissented in a November op-ed that the Arab Spring was a “Facebook Revolution.”

“We were told almost from the first protest that social media were an important factor in bringing about change in the Arab world,” Hill wrote.

“This was largely not true. New media may have helped a little, but they did not fundamentally alter societal practices.”

Hill argued that the decline in journalism — namely, newsroom budget cuts and closed foreign bureaus — sparked a rise in journalists’ dependence social media to obtain photos and story quotes on the revolutions. Hill maintained it was journalists who overstated the role of social media in the revolutions.

The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell also pushed back.

“People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented,” Gladwell wrote in February during the height of Arab Spring. “They did it before the Internet came along.”

A discussion panel on social media’s role in the Arab Spring, held at New America Foundation in July, also disputed the idea that the Arab Spring was a “social media revolution,” and concluded that social media was only of minor significance in the revolutions. Panelists, consisting of Arab bloggers and activists who participated in the revolutions, told audience members that the revolutions were, in part, the result of  “a decades-long train of events.”

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