Panel: Social media helps spread awareness, ideas during revolutions

Katie Keenan

Social media has increased global awareness of revolutions and made the expression and spread of ideas easier, according to a panel of social media experts. 

A group of experts spoke on campus Thursday about the impact of technology and new media on political revolutions and regimes, especially in non-democratic countries. 

James Stratton, international relations and global studies senior, said he thinks social media helped him spread awareness of the 2010 Arab Spring revolutions. 

“I am very interested in the Arab Spring, [and] before social media, if I wanted to tell people in my social network about the protest, I would have to physically find them or make something on paper, post it up,” Stratton said. “Hopefully, they’d see it. Now I could just whip out my phone.”

After former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, governments caught on to the potentially drastic effects of social media campaigns and learned how one dissenting tweet can lead to a widespread political movement, according to Bahaa Ghobrial, a radio-television-film graduate student who studies social media. 

Ghobrial said when traditional governments acknowledge the power of social media to cause unrest, they begin to worry about political dissidents who before did not pose an obvious threat.

“[To cause a revolution], it has to be everything all together,” Ghobrial said. “So there’s the social movement, but also that the social movement would get the traditional media’s attention. All these newspapers that I have in my study, they start to report on the Egyptian revolution after the demonstration happened and succeeded.”

When social media mobilizes people to protest in real life, mainstream media outlets begin to report on that mobilization, which in turn causes governments take the protesters seriously, Ghobrial said. 

Governments around the world, including those in Russia and Iran, now recognize the increasing power of social media, Ghobrial said. From identifying protesters in videos in order to arrest them, to launching their own compelling campaigns, totalitarian regimes have used social media to their own ends, he said. 

Jessica Weaver, outreach director for the Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies, said she thinks social media’s power to influence public opinion is relevant for every society and government, not just those that are  undemocratic.

“This was a topic that we felt was not only pressing, but relates across all global regions,” Weaver said.