Skip to content

Protest and the Restrictions and “Role” of Social Media

Friday, August 26, 2011

A protester outside a San Francisco BART station is taken to the ground by San Francisco police during a recent protest overt the shutdown of cellphone service by BART authorities (photo by Adithya Sambamurthy)

As with the “Green Revolution” in Iran, the recent overthrow of Mubarak, the riots in London, and the protests against state sanctioned killings by the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police, the media (and a superfluity of idiotic bloggers) has gravitated toward the assumption that social media (Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry, etc.) has played a significant role in these events.

This assumption seems to be based upon the fact that the media (and politicians) seem to gravitate towards overly simplistic story lines that offer clear cut explanations as well as to the fact that it offers an exciting account of “new” and “innovative strategies” that “undermine” the current status quo.

Instead of pursuing the facts and offering a calm and balanced narrative as to what (if any) role social media has played in recent protests the media has tended to assume that social media is offering protesters, democracy advocates, and professional “rebel rousers” a new way to disrupt authority.  As if Twitter has created a new gateway for the faceless masses to takes plans of action, assemble, and protest.

Pouncing on the media’s role in propagating this simplistic story line politicians and others in authority have either justified their actions in suppressing lines of communication or are trying to justify an expanded role in being able to shut down these lines of communication in the future.

Yet, much like with the “Green Revolution” in Iran and with the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, social media (be it Twitter or Facebook) has actually had very little role in moving these protests and riots within England and the San Francisco Bay Area.  A recent article on the role of Twitter in the recent riots in England has found:

that Twitter was mainly used to react to riots and looting.

And not as the actual platform to create and move the riots and looting.

The protests against BART also didn’t pick up until BART unilaterally shut down all cell phone service for nearly three hours in order to suppress lines of communication between protesters trying to exercise their civic right to free speech and to protest BART policies and killings.

Yet, because of the recent spat of articles claiming that social media served a big role in these types of protests those on the board of directors for BART have been seeking to justify shutting down lines of communication in the future in order to suppress further protests that “might harm” commuters.  The same is being debated in Westminster in England.

Yet the fact remains that social media has played an extremely small (if close to nil) role in all of these protest movements over the past couple of years.  Essentially the political debate, being picked up in the media by journalists who lack any serious analytical and investigative skills, is jumping off of the premise that social media (i.e., the right to communication) needs to be contained, corralled, and if possible shut down in order to put a damper on protest movements.

The myth of “Twitter revolutions” and “Facebook protests” is helping to propagate the very real threat of the State collecting massive amounts of power to prosecute free speech on social media and the unfettered ability to turn “on” and “off” networks of information and communication it deems a threat to its position within society.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: