360° Analysis

Politics and Social Media: It’s All About Positioning the Spotlight


April 22, 2012 12:09 EDT

The Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring are only two examples of social media helping citizens to take action.

In recent times, the power of social media has increasingly been felt in politics. The positive effect of social media on the Arab Spring is widely agreed upon. During the Tunisian revolution, people spread stories via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube about state oppression and police brutality, thereby spreading awareness of things the autocratic regime had tried to keep hidden.

Social networking sites helped protesters in one country come together and spread the word of revolution rapidly to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. All the while it also brought the conflict in front of the world’s very eyes. The success of the Tunisian revolution had an emboldening effect and Egyptians quickly followed suit by revolting against the ruling regime. On one of the first days of revolution, more than 90,000 people signed up on Facebook for a protest against torture, poverty, corruption, and unemployment. The week before President Hosni Mubarak ended his 30 year rule, the number of tweets about political change in Egypt increased ten-fold.

Facebook had 845 million monthly active users as of December 2011 and is accessible in over 70 languages. By September 2011, Twitter had 50 million active users logging in at least once a day. Social media has enabled these masses of people to democratize media production. In countries that do not have free media, people use social networking sites to access and spread information that state television does not provide them with. They are creating their own agenda and changing what is being talked about. Even before the Arab Spring many people opposed Ben Ali and Mubarak, but they had been fragmented. New networking technology helped them form groups, build solidarity and organize protests.

Many autocratic governments fear social media’s power. The authorities shut down a number of websites or completely turned off internet access during Arab Spring protests. This only fed the rage, causing more people to take to the streets because they could no longer follow the unrest from afar. The Tunisian government hacked Facebook accounts in order to gain inside information. Reuters reports that bloggers have been threatened with imprisonment in several countries for spreading “malicious rumors”. In China, activists disappeared after online calls for a Jasmine Revolution in February 2011.

Making Kony Famous

The Kony 2012 campaign is now using the global reach and the visibility potential of social media. The producers are trying to make the fate of children in Uganda visible to the rest of the world. Through this they hope to force the US government into taking further action against Kony, just like videos of President Bashar Al-Assad’s violent crackdown on Syrian protesters increased international pressure on Assad.

It takes many people to induce this kind of change because its effectiveness lies in the hands of the masses. If there are too many people going one way, it makes it hard for governments to justify going the other way. Problems that have not been a priority of the ruling elite suddenly become topics of national interest. Citizens make these topics problems for their governments.

There are several complaints made against the Kony 2012 video. Some are less valid than others. The Ugandan prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, tweeted to several celebrities, inviting them to visit his “proud nation” to see for themselves the “peace and stability that exists”. He included the hashtag #KonyisnotinUganda. It is clear that the places celebrities and tourists visit will certainly not be the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps where approximately two million people were put by the Ugandan government at the height of the crisis. The conditions in the camps led to acute malnutrition and diseases spread quickly.

Uganda is more than just Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA now only comprises of a couple of hundred people and Kony is probably no longer in Uganda. Do these facts make the matter less urgent? Do these arguments in any way invalidate the aim of the video? Kony’s past crimes speak for themselves and a militia group of a couple of hundred is only a small number in comparison to how big his army once was. This puts one question in the spotlight even more: if the LRA is so small, why has the government not been able to arrest Kony and his officers?

There is a second point of contention about the video. The Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire and assistant professor of political science Adam Branch complain that the video makes the Africans look like “helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans”. The fact is that the Ugandan army is trying to capture Kony, but it has been unsuccessful for the last 26 years. Uganda needs help, and nationalist pride or allegations of racism are weak arguments against bringing Kony to justice.

There were several attempts to negotiate with Kony which were fruitless. Kony and his officers stated from the beginning that they would not surrender if they were not granted immunity from prosecution. Given the severity of their actions this should never have been an option. Kony is number one on the list of the International Criminal Court, so despite all the arguments against the campaign, there is a valid case for international intervention.

The achievements and limits of social media

Social media has had a positive effect on politics in many other instances. Much like the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement reached global dimensions through social media. In January, the number of opponents to the SOPA and PIPA bills in Congress more than tripled from 31 to 101 after websites like Wikipedia and Reddit shut down for one day.

The Facebook group “Israel loves Iran” is trying to discourage Israel from bombing Iran due to Iran’s nuclear enrichment plans. The group has already had almost 70,000 “likes” and has generated further groups like “Iran loves Israel”. Whether these public initiatives will truly have an effect on Israel’s actions towards Iran remains to be seen.

During the Arab Spring, social media was used for spreading information and organizing action, but the people only posed a threat to their governments once they took to the streets. And most certainly, posting and tweeting about Kony will not be the end of the story. Action has to follow, of whatever nature that may be. But through the means of this “slacktivist” grassroots approach which has often been criticized, the groundswell necessary for this action is gaining momentum.

Through the internet, people can take political matters into their own hands: whether it is in their own interests, like during the Arab Spring, or trying to help other people whose own voices cannot be heard, like the children in the hands of the LRA. Connecting people who are in need of support with those that can provide it might just be the best thing to come out of 21st century technology.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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