Mobile-izing: Political Revolution in the Age of Technology

November 16, 2016

While protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline last month, actress Shailene Woodley live-streamed her arrest to 40,000 Facebook viewers. The video from her mobile phone went viral on social media in the following days, drawing attention to the pipeline’s opposition and to law enforcement’s response to what pipeline opponents say was a peaceful protest.

“I hope you’re watching, mainstream media,” Woodley said as police officers led her away. “I hope you’re watching, CNN.”

Activists around the world are using technology in similar ways to make their voices heard. While skeptics question the ability of citizen journalism to hold mainstream media accountable to the ideals of balance and objectivity, the face of journalism is undoubtedly changing.

“Widespread access to social media platforms inspires many global citizens to become investigative journalists,” said Erdağ Göknar, director of the Duke Middle East Studies Center (DUMESC), at an event on Tuesday. “It empowers informed citizens to take an active role in public debate.”

This role is perhaps best demonstrated by the “Twitter revolution” that started it all: the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Lessons from the Twitter Revolution

Dr. Amna Guellali, a researcher on Tunisia and Algeria with Human Rights Watch, watched these uprisings unfold on her social media newsfeeds. At Tuesday’s event, Guellali explained that Tunisia’s state-controlled media environment isolated many citizens from the protests erupting in Tunisia’s capital city, where citizens actively criticized the authoritarian regime of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Despite the dictatorship’s censorship of dissenting voices, activists began creating new internet sites to express their criticism, reaching beyond the streets of Tunis to the broader country and region, and eventually, the world. “Without the internet, without Facebook, without social media,” Guellali said, “this movement would not have succeeded.”

As Tunisia struggles with post-revolution social challenges, including long-term unemployment in particular regions, the role of Islam in public life, and the fight for women’s rights and LGBT rights, Guellali highlighted the essential role social media continues to play in mobilizing social and political forces.

“After the revolution, many people were engaged in political life but were very quickly disillusioned,” she said, noting the difficult reality of implementing change within political institutions. “So I think these social movements from young people in Tunisia are really meant to keep this revolutionary spirit alive.”

While panelists agreed that social media movements have been key in upholding government transparency in Tunisia, cultural anthropology professor Alyssa Miller cautioned audiences to view citizen journalism with a careful eye.

“It’s easy for people’s fears to be manipulated online,” Miller said. “[One concern] is the ease by which you can make a video and then caption it to say whatever you want so that a social movement with legitimate grievances might actually be [construed as] some kind of shadowy force.”

Social Media in the 2016 U.S. Election

Thomas DeGeorges of DUMESC and the Duke Islamic Studies Center encouraged listeners to bear in mind that social media platforms are businesses working to understand and cater to their users’ political preferences. “It creates a chamber in which if you’re on one side of the political divide, [these companies] will push you increasingly biased opinions that meet the tacit approval of you and your social groups.”

But DeGeorges said the issues Tunisia is now facing—and the role of social media in illuminating those issues—are more familiar to Americans now than ever.

In the wake of a particularly divisive United States presidential election, panel moderator Robin Kirk of the Duke Human Rights Center said we cannot ignore the role of social media in shaping social and political realities.

“So much is dependent on citizen journalists recording, posting and forwarding posts from places like the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Kirk said. “This discussion could not be more timely and could not be more connected to the questions people are asking around the world about what happens next.”

Although panelists agreed that we should approach citizen journalism, like all journalism, with a critical mind, Kirk said its role in the revolutions in Tunisia and elsewhere offers an essential window into politics and human rights worldwide. “Our understanding of the world is so enriched by the action of citizen journalists.”

This event, “Hashtag Journalism and Social Movements in Tunisia,” launches a new program on citizen journalists in the Middle East and North Africa. It was sponsored by DUMESC, the Center for French and Francophone Studies and the Office of Public Affairs and Government Relations (PAGR). Guellali’s visit is part of a two-week residency also sponsored by PAGR.

North Africa and the Middle East
Policy and Politics