Expert Commentary

Global protest, technology and social media: Research roundup

2012 review of scholarship on the Internet, social media and political activism around the world.


Can social media promote lasting political change, perhaps even a revolution? If so, to what extent? And which Internet-related policies can help foster democracy in countries with repressive regimes?

These questions are at the forefront of recent media, scholarly and policy debates. As vehicles for organizing and expressing dissent, the Internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook have already proven significant tools in myriad protests, causes, uprisings and conflicts. But they also open up the possibility that governments can monitor networks, exposing activists to surveillance and punishment. Most regions of the world, developed and developing alike, are seeing the rapid rise of social networking site use and smartphone technologies.

Much depends on context; research on the Arab Spring may provide different insights than, for example, analysis of dissident responses to China’s “Great Firewall.” Argument over these dynamics — and the proper policies to support online democracy — continues, with prominent writers and analysts such as Clay Shirky, Malcolm Gladwell, Rebecca MacKinnon and Evgeny Morozov articulating often divergent viewpoints. Thinkers in this area point out several useful analytical distinctions: First, some digital tools simply allow for the free flow of information, while others are better at building actual social organization; Second, online “mobs” or more spontaneous groups can be distinguished from longer-term social movements or established civil society groups.

Collective action by protesters in the face of repression may, in principle, be more easily enabled by the shelter of anonymity provided by online communication. But with this comes a paradox: Anonymity is in tension with the very factors that typically bring about successful organizing, namely, “leadership and displays of unity and commitment,” as Internet scholars John Palfrey, Bruce Etling and Rob Farris have written. The relative strength or weakness of online “ties” — and the corresponding potential for trust and tangible action — is a key variable in any analysis.

Below are some reports and studies that can inform coverage and research in this growing field of debate:


“Clicks, Cabs, and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004-2011”
Lim, M. Journal of Communication, April 2012.

Findings: “Social media provided space and tools for the formation and the expansion of networks that the authoritarian government could not easily control. It did so by sustaining both longstanding networks of labor opposition, by facilitating new connections among middle-class youth opposed to the regime, and by supporting the circulation of stories about regime repression and police brutality. Social media functioned to broker connections between previously disconnected groups, to spread shared grievances beyond the small community of activist leaders, and to globalize the reach and appeal of the domestic movement for democratic change. In achieving these goals, the activities had to overcome limitations of particular technologies, identifying right issues, and crafting the shared repertoires of contention. They also had to frame the issues by transforming abstract, complex concerns into a simpler, more tangible narrative that resonated with everyday experience… Social media helped a popular movement for political change to expand the sphere of participation, especially by reaching the country’s unemployed and disaffected urban youth.”


“New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring”
Aday, S. et al. United States Institute of Peace, July 2012.

Findings: “There is ample evidence of new media being used to organize and sustain protests during the Arab uprisings, though it is more difficult to demonstrate a unique causal role…. [These media] do not fully explain why the protests happened when they did and why many ordinary citizens were willing to join in.” Twitter links studied were mostly clicked by people outside the country of origin, not inside it; social media operated less as an organizing tool and more as a megaphone for broadcasting information. “This could be significant if it led to a boomerang effect that brought international pressure to bear on autocratic regimes or helped reduce a regime’s tendency to crack down violently on protests,” the authors write. “But even where international pressure fails, the increased and transformed attention has reshaped how the world views these cases.” In Egypt, the majority of participants joined the protest after the government had shut down access to the Internet, and only 13% of Tahrir Square protesters relied on Twitter, far less than television (92%) and word of mouth (93%). “The hundreds of thousands of people who made the Egyptian revolution by coming into the streets on January 25, 2011, did not learn about it through Twitter or Facebook. They saw it on Al-Jazeera, or out their windows.”


“Digital Media and the Personalization of Collective Action”
Bennett, W.L., et al. Information, Communication & Society, June 2011.

Abstract: “Changes related to globalization have resulted in the growing separation of individuals in late modern societies from traditional bases of social solidarity such as parties, churches, and other mass organizations. One sign of this growing individualization is the organization of individual action in terms of meanings assigned to lifestyle elements resulting in the personalization of issues such as climate change, labour standards, and the quality of food supplies. Such developments bring individuals’ own narratives to the fore in the mobilization process, often requiring organizations to be more flexible in their definitions of issues. This personalization of political action presents organizations with a set of fundamental challenges involving potential trade-offs between flexibility and effectiveness. This paper analyses how different protest networks used digital media to engage individuals in mobilizations targeting the 2009 G20 London Summit during the global financial crisis. The authors examine how these different communication processes affected the political capacity of the respective organizations and networked coalitions. In particular, the authors explore whether the coalition offering looser affiliation options for individuals displays any notable loss of public engagement, policy focus (including mass media impact), or solidarity network coherence. This paper also examines whether the coalition offering more rigid collective action framing and fewer personalized social media affordances displays any evident gain in the same dimensions of mobilization capacity. In this case, the evidence suggests that the more personalized collective action process maintains high levels of engagement, agenda focus, and network strength.”


“The Evolving Landscape of Internet Control: A Summary of Our Recent Research and Recommendations”
Roberts, H.; Zuckerman, E. et al. Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, August, 2011.

Abstract: “Overall, our work suggests that the increasing complexity of Internet control regimes should force us to rethink our approaches toward empowering Internet users in less open societies. In this paper, we will describe in more detail the studies we have mentioned above and how they fit into this larger story about the diversity of tactics used by autocratic countries to control the Internet. We will conclude by offering some high level recommendations for supporting the work of activists battling these forms of Internet control.”


“Exploring Russian Cyberspace: Digitally Mediated Collective Action and the Networked Public Sphere”
Alexanyan, K. et al. Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, 2012.

Findings: In contrast with Russia’s heavily monitored print and broadcast media, the country’s Internet is relatively free. “Based on tests run through the OpenNet Initiative, we continue to find no evidence of significant technical filtering of the Russian Internet.” Pro-government forces have not been able to gain much of a foothold in the blogosphere. The majority of Russia’s most popular blogs are either not supportive of the government or are actively critical. “We do not find a distinct cluster of pro-government bloggers among the nearly 11,000 most-linked-to bloggers in Russia.” The government and its supporters are more prominent on Twitter — but not much more popular — often relying on automatic bots to push their message. “Hashtags that are popular with pro-government users are not widely adopted outside of their own cluster,” the authors write.


“Dispatches From an Unfinished Uprising: The Role of Technology in the 2009 Iranian Protest Movement”
Fathi, Nazila. Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Discussion Paper Series, August 2012.

Excerpt: “The lessons drawn from the Iranian uprising can be summarized as follows: 1) People used images captured on their cell phones and then broadcast to millions on satellite TV to change public opinion in profound ways. Ayatollah Khamenei called the media worse than ‘atomic bombs’ in a speech at the height of the uprising; 2) Even though the role of Twitter inside the country was exaggerated, it played a major role telling the western audience what was happening inside the country. It laid bare the depth and scale of dissent in the country and became a source of embarrassment for the regime; 3) A breach opened in Iranian society. Since the uprising and despite the repression that followed, a series of issues have become legitimate areas of inquiry. The absolute power of Ayatollah Khamenei, for example, has become a topic that even his supporters question now.”


“Using Social Media to Gauge Iranian Public Opinion and Mood After the 2009 Election” (PDF)
Elson, S.B. et al. RAND Corporation, 2012, Technical Report.

Abstract: “In the months after the contested Iranian presidential election in June 2009, Iranians used Twitter — a social media service that allows users to send short text messages, called tweets, with relative anonymity — to speak out about the election and the protests and other events that followed it. The authors of this report used an automated content analysis program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count 2007 (LIWC) to analyze more than 2.5 million tweets discussing the Iran election that were sent in the nine months following it. The authors (1) identify patterns in word usage over the nine-month period and (2) examine whether these patterns coincided with political events, to gain insight into how people may have felt before, during, and after those events. For example, they compare how the frequencies with which negative sentiments were directed toward President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his election opponents, and President Barack Obama changed over time, and they track the way in which the use of swear words sharply increased in the days leading up to specific protests. Particularly in countries where freedom of expression is limited, automated analysis of social media appears to hold promise for such policy uses as assessing public opinion or outreach efforts and forecasting events such as large-scale protests.”


“How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression (PDF)
King, Gary, et al. Harvard University, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, October 2012.

Abstract: “We offer the first large scale, multiple source analysis of the outcome of what may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented. To do this, we have devised a system to locate, download, and analyze the content of millions of social media posts originating from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the large subset they deem objectionable. Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt to and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 85 topic areas. Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent.”


“Political Consequences of the Rise of the Internet: Political Beliefs and Practices of Chinese Netizens
Le, Y. Political Communication, 2011.

Findings: Nearly 12% of those surveyed categorized themselves as netizens, 72% as traditional media users, and 17% as not using any form of media. The educational levels among netizens were significantly higher, on average, than that of the other two categories. Of netizens, 44% had a college degree or higher, compared to 3% of traditional media users and 0% of non-media users…. On a series of questions to track political knowledge and opinions, netizens had 27% fewer “don’t know” responses than traditional media users and non-media users…An estimated 33.1% of the sample were politically apathetic, 42% were conformists, and only 24% were politically opinionated. Being a netizen was strongly correlated with being politically opinionated: 60% of netizens were politically opinionated, compared to 8% which were apathetic. And netizens are much more likely than traditional media users and non-media users to “participate in collective action by 66.7% and 211.2%, respectively.”


“Safety Valve or Pressure Cooker? Blogs in Chinese Political Life”
Hassid, Jonathan. Journal of Communication, 2012.

Abstract: “Despite censorship, Chinese bloggers routinely uncover corruption, help solve social problems and even pressure state officials to change policy. The power of online opinion is undisputed in individual cases, but the overall effect of blog discourse on Chinese political life is unclear. Do blogs relieve pressure for political change by allowing troublemakers to vent frustrations in a marginal medium, or are they integrated with the larger system of political communication in China, inspiring political activism and building communities of like-minded activists? Using large-scale content analysis and specific case studies, I argue that blogs serve as a ‘safety valve’ on issues where the mainstream media set the agenda, and a ‘pressure cooker’ on issues where bloggers get ahead of journalists.”


“The Social Media Basis of Youth Protest Behavior: The Case of Chile”
Valenzuela S. et al. Journal of Communication, April 2012.

Findings: “Our analysis of Facebook use and protest behavior among 18-29 year olds in Chile demonstrated that having a Facebook account and using it frequently were positively and significantly related to participation in protests, even after taking into account other known sources of this type of political action. Controlling for grievances, values, resources, and news media use, the strength of this relationship was comparable to the influence of political distrust and leftist ideology on triggering elite-challenging political behavior…. Using Facebook for news and socializing with peers was associated with increased participation in protests, but using it for self-expression was not…. Both as a technology and as a space where people mediate their political interests, Facebook is a resource for creating a collective agency. Furthermore, by illustrating how Facebook serves multiple functions, including surveillance, social integration, and deliberative practice, our findings counter simple notions of technological determinism…. Online tools such as Facebook are not so much creating new forms of protest as amplifying traditional forms of protest, such as street demonstrations. In other words, activism does not confine itself to separate online and offline spheres, but instead online interactions can aid offline forms of citizen participation.”


“Networked Authoritarianism and Social Media in Azerbaijan”
Pearce, K.E.; Kendzior, S. Journal of Communication, April 2012.

Findings: “Unlike many of the countries in North Africa and the Middle East that experienced an Arab Spring, where the documentation of state crimes on social media mobilized the population, the arrest of Azerbaijani bloggers only demoralized frequent Internet users. We believe this can be explained by the government’s embrace of networked authoritarianism as a political strategy. Young Azerbaijanis, having grown up in a chaotic post-Soviet environment, value stability and are averse to political risks. The government capitalizes on this by making any political action online — even ones that are merely an expression of criticism — seem risky…. The government’s demonization of social media, in which they used mainstream media platforms to dissuade citizens from using Facebook and other social media platforms, was aimed at prohibiting an elite group of frequent Internet users from reaching the broader Azerbaijani public. This tactic seems to have failed, as more Azerbaijanis have joined Facebook since the campaign began. However, increased, albeit slow, Internet use means an increased likelihood that citizens will find the stories of how activists are punished for online activity.”


“Digital Freedom of Expression in Uzbekistan”
Kendzior, Sarah. New America Foundation report, July 2012.

Excerpt: “The 2011 uprisings in the Middle East have prompted speculation about whether digital technology can and will be used to foment similar uprisings in former Soviet authoritarian states. This paper examines the relationship between political activism and internet freedom in Uzbekistan. It argues that while the internet is a critical tool for political expression, its utility as a tool for activism is challenged both by threats from the government and by fear and apathy among Uzbek internet users. It further discusses how the Uzbek government has responded to these technologies and the problems Uzbeks face when using them for political purposes.”


“Mobile Phones, Popular Media, and Everyday African Democracy: Transmissions and Transgressions”
Wasserman, H. Popular Communication, 2011.

Abstract: “The effectiveness of new media technologies, including mobile phones, to facilitate political participation and create social change has long been contested. Recent events in countries such as Mozambique, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt have again raised questions about the role new media technologies can play to create alternative public spheres and mobilize for social action. In the African context, where access to new media technologies is marked by big divides, the widespread uptake of mobile phones has led to renewed optimism about the potential they hold for stimulating political participation and widening democratic debate. This article examines various approaches to the relation between mobile phones and participatory democracy, and argues that mobile phones do not only transmit political information needed for rational deliberation in the public sphere, but also transgress cultural and social borders and hierarchies in the way they refashion identities and create informal economies and communicative networks.”


“Promoting Global Internet Freedom: Policy and Technology” (PDF)
Figliola, P.M. Congressional Research Service report, August 2012.

Excerpt: “Governments everywhere need the Internet for economic growth and technological development. Some also seek to restrict the Internet in order to maintain social, political, or economic control. Such regimes often require the assistance of foreign Internet companies operating in their countries. These global technology companies find themselves in a dilemma. They must either follow the laws and requests of the host country, or refuse to do so and risk the loss of business licenses or the ability to sell services in that country.”


“Internet Use and Democratic Demands: A Multinational, Multilevel Model of Internet Use and Citizen Attitudes about Democracy”
Nisbet., E., et al. Journal of Communication, April 2012, Vol. 62, Issue 2, 249-265.

Findings: Citizens who use the Internet were more likely to demand democratic governance. “Internet use was also found to be more strongly associated with citizen demand in countries where the communicative potential of the Internet, in terms of number of users and broadband width, is greatest.” However, overall rates of national Internet penetration did not correlate with more demand for democracy from citizens. “States that have a moderate to high level of Internet penetration, in which the population on average expresses a high demand for democracy, and enjoy at least a partly democratic political regime are contexts where increasing Internet use is more likely to promote democratic change. Kenya, Senegal, Singapore, and Zambia may be good examples of such a process”…. Increased Internet adoption holds the promise of fostering greater democracy in countries with certain preconditions; however, those that remain “highly authoritarian, or not free, such as Vietnam or Zimbabwe, are likely to limit the democratic potential of the Internet regardless of the degree of Internet penetration or level of demand.” Despite this caveat, the study “supports the basic premise that the Internet may foster political change by socializing citizens into the political beliefs required for the democratic citizenship, and in turn promote successful and sustainable democracies.”

Tags: Asia, technology, Facebook, Twitter, research roundup, telecommunications, mobile tech

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