Social media activists fight for democracy

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      When a case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States in 2003, South Korea quickly banned American beef imports. In 2008, Seoul ended the ban, and tens of thousands of discontented Koreans filled the streets in order to protest the decision.

      What distinguished this particular act of civil disobedience were the participants. Teenage girls—known as the “candlelight girls”—made up over half of the protesters. And they were there because the website of a Korean boy band, Dong Bang Shin Ki, hosted a page where fans could discuss whatever issues they wanted. Due to its popularity and accessibility, the site proved to be the perfect birthplace for the movement against this perceived threat to public health.

      The sheer numbers of incensed protesters eventually forced the government to reintroduce restrictions on beef imports from the U.S. and even inspired a public apology from the South Korean president. The people’s dissatisfaction over not being consulted on an issue they believe affected their health—and the online platform many used to voice it—effectively shaped the policies of their government.

      What happened in South Korea is an indication of the merging of social media and activism. Many researchers are noting, with barely restrained excitement, the increasing role social media is playing in democratizing movements around the world. While Filipinos used text messaging to mobilize flash protests and topple president Joseph Estrada in 2001, and Chinese anticorruption protesters turned to the instant-messaging program QQ earlier this year, Moldovans harnessed social media to get 20,000 protesters on the ground in just one-and-a-half days after a disputed election in 2009.

      This new, digital forum for activists is incredibly difficult for governments to control, says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Websites or proxy servers established by activists to organize and mobilize are relatively easy for governments to shut down, Zuckerman points out. Sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger, on the other hand, pose a challenge for them. If a government attempts to block an activist’s page on, say, Facebook, it can’t do so without also blocking the “very widespread, banal” things that the vast majority of people post on the social-networking site.

      “If they’re blocking our political content, they might also have to block all the other apolitical content,” Zuckerman told the Georgia Straight by phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

      To restrict access to sites where people share music, reunite with old friends, and even post pictures of cute cats runs the risk of frustrating, and ultimately radicalizing, an ocean of citizens. The deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali “understood the people’s frustration at not being able to get to YouTube, to the point that he made it one of his three promises to try to get people out of the streets”, Zuckerman said. “That interest in getting to the trivial, the silly, the funny is very powerful.”

      As well, social media is levelling the playing field, giving previously silenced citizens an opportunity to both produce and disseminate news and other content. This was not readily understood by the governments of the Arab Spring countries, according to David McCoy, an assistant professor in the department of journalism and digital media at Ashland University in Ohio.

      They “misinterpreted the value of social media to the people”, McCoy told the Straight by phone from Ashland. “It became a platform to express communication, express rights and wrongs.”

      This new capacity to create content, and not merely consume it, is “very powerful for people in social movements”, according to Zuckerman. “It’s a back door into broadcast media,” he said.

      This is something that activists from Eritrea, a country in East Africa, might appreciate. In Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 Press Freedom Index, Eritrea ranked last, below even North Korea. Today, a growing and wired network of activists among the Eritrean diaspora are making use of social media to coordinate their efforts and to produce content that cannot be published in the country.

      “Facebook and other social-media tools are the best means of challenging the government,” Teklai Abraha, an executive of the group Eritrean Global Solidarity, told the Straight by phone from New York City. “If you see all the media outlets back in Eritrea, they are government-owned. There is no independent media, no independent source of news. The news has to come from outside, unfortunately.”

      Social media may prove to be the tool that makes democracy more than just an idea in many parts of the world. Where people once submitted to the dictates of irresponsible leaders and were forced to rely on news shaped and spun by them, they are now beginning to feel empowered.

      “I’m getting very optimistic about the role of social media to really put us in a shared community,” McCoy said. “It’s not just about rebellion. I think there’s a lot of commonality in the world.”

      Ethan Zuckerman will give a free lecture titled “Cute Cats and the Arab Spring: When Social Media Meet Social Change” at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday (November 20).