Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Digital Evolution of the Global Protest Movement

The global trend of political activity by the Facebook Generation has continued with the Occupy protests in the United States and the recent protests in Russia against election corruption. As the younger generations of the world have found themselves increasingly empowered thanks to social media and social networks, in turn the Internet has increasingly found itself to be the location of battles for free speech and political freedom. The recent Russian spam attacks on Twitter this past week have been the latest volleys in this battle and are a sign that the conflict is intensifying.

During the early phase of the protests that took place in Moscow’s Triumphal Square, thousands of Twitter accounts created from hijacked computers posted pro-Kremlin messages, swamping online discussions and threatening to drown out authentic Twitter traffic about the protests. Regimes and groups that support them have always used social networks to spread their messages, but this spam attack marks a change in tone as now they are seeking to directly hinder free speech on social media services and social networks.

This has not been the first time that social media and social networks have been confronted by states to suppress political dissent. Since Twitter and many other online services were blocked in Iran during the height of the Iranian protests in June 2009, states have been confronting social media sites in increasing boldness and frequency.  Just before the outbreak of the Russian protests this week, India’s technology minister requested that Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft outright ban material and groups that could incite ‘tensions’ in the country.

So how do social media and social networks respond? Where is the line drawn between political censorship and preventing violence? Governments and their supporters will argue that censorship is required to restore law and order, but what they fail to realize is that social media and social networks are only tools for people to express their discontent. Censoring online services might hinder organization of protesters, but protests will continue to happen regardless as long as the social, economic and political problems remain unsolved.

Even if governments manage to bring down access to popular social media and social networking services, protesters are remarkably resilient. During the height of the original Egyptian protests, the Egyptian government shut down mobile phone and Internet services, but protesters still found a way to broadcast their message online and offline. In Libya, revolutionaries secretly organized their revolts using alternative methods such as posting in code on Islamic dating websites to avoid detection by Colonel Gaddafi’s secret police.

Social media and social networks are designed with free speech as their core principle. People are the lifeblood that makes them work, so major services such as Facebook and Twitter will not be surrendering to pressure from various governments and pro-government groups anytime soon. Even if online social media and social networks worldwide surrender to the pressure and attacks in the future, the global protest movement has already proved itself to be unstoppable. The next pages in history will be written on the streets, not online.

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