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Correspondence: Does social media bring social change (in 140 characters or less)?
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Correspondence: Does social media bring social change (in 140 characters or less)?

Protests in the Middle East are the culmination of 30 years of corruption, repression and injustice, writes Alisha Lewis, a 19-year-old student from Auckland, New Zealand.

We all know about previous revolutions and rebellions – the French Revolution, the Indian independence movement and the fight for black civil rights in America.

This year however, in the Middle East, we’ve actually witnessed some.

Only this time, there’s a difference. Rather than calling them ‘people’s revolutions’, observers have been attributing the success of the recent Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions to social networking sites – dubbing them the ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ revolutions.

It will definitely come as a shock to some that Facebook and Twitter serve a purpose other than letting you know whether or not that cute guy/girl from comparative literature is ‘in a relationship’ or what sandwich Lady Gaga just had for lunch.

But they do. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have proved hugely instrumental in the organisation and implementation of the recent protests in Egypt and Tunisia. But are they the cause of the resulting success?

Most definitely not.

The protests happened not because someone started a group on Facebook, but because people in Egypt and Tunisia had reached breaking point. They were fed up with a government that was letting them down and holding them back.

It’s common knowledge that the media plays a major role in informing, educating and connecting people. In this way, social media allowed people to come together and form a united front more quickly than if they had not been connecting or gathering support online. Hence, sites like Facebook and Twitter acted as a sort of catalyst, uniting people with a common cause and speeding up the process. They were not, however, the reason the protests were successful.

People also seem to forget all about the basic grassroots element – the individuals behind the Twitter pages and the Facebook groups. It wasn’t a social networking site running the campaign, fuelling the protests and spreading the truth – it was people.

What is more, the total anger and passion on the faces of the protestors couldn’t have been manufactured by a ‘tweet’ of 140 characters. Rather, the protests were the culmination of thirty years of corruption, repression and injustice which finally forced people to fight for a better future. They were driven by hope, not Facebook.

The unifying effect of social networking sites undoubtedly frightened Egyptian President Mubarak because he shut down Egyptians’ access to the internet for five days. Unfortunately for Mubarak, this move backfired. Instead of disempowering the protestors, the decision sparked fiercer outrage and greater determination to oust the leader.

To Egyptians, it must have been rather like a slap in the face – as they fought for their rights he stripped them of them. In this way, social networking sites played a vital role, albeit inadvertently, in driving the protests – acting as a catalyst. However, this did nothing more than add fuel to a fire that was already burning.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to the sheer power of human determination and hope.

This sense of determination was around long before Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. It was around in 1848 when the people of France were unhappy with an absolute monarchy that did nothing for its citizens. It was present when four African American students sat down at a ‘whites only’ counter at a lunch bar in Greensboro. It is part of something rooted deep in the human condition, not a product of social networking sites.

So, no, I don’t believe we have just witnessed a ‘Twitter’ or a ‘Facebook’ revolution.

Does it really even make sense to associate these websites with struggles for human freedom and dignity? American journalist Jillian C. York summed it up pretty well, saying, “I will not dishonour the memory of… those that died on the streets for their cause – by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”

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