The past few months have seen many protests around the world. It’s not a new phenomenon, people protesting against increased prices, against government policy, or against inequalities. What is new is how protests are being formed and fueled. With social media reaching such a wide net of people, protests are gaining momentum faster than ever, and can be organized in mere minutes. Video and photos taken by protesters can further fuel the flames, and can provide evidence of unfair treatment at the hands of authorities. Perhaps most importantly, protests are no longer organized by unions, organizations, or lobbies, but by the people themselves.
An article in the Economist quoted Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as saying “Social media are the worst menace to society.” Social media has certainly changed how protests happen. Police are no longer able to put down protests before they get big, because people seeing what is happening via Facebook or Twitter show up in larger numbers than they can handle. People use social media to coordinate how to avoid countermeasures such as water cannon, or routes around blockades. It also generates support from other places in the world, which can encourage the protests.
Unfortunately, social media is also good at spreading rumors and inflammatory remarks that are falsely attributed to sources. Most social media users tend to pass these on without considering the truthfulness first. The unorganized way in which protests are formed now also means that the original cause or intent can quickly spiral out of control. When no one is in charge, it only takes a few people to start a wave of looting or violence. It also means that even if the authorities give into demands, the protesters may not be aware that their protest is over. It also leaves a crowd of protesters divided when some agree with the compromise, and some do not.
Using social media is also double-edged sword for protesters. Those photos and videos loaded online might provide evidence to people of wrongdoing, but they also provide evidence to the police that can be used to identify and arrest key protesters. Using social media can also inform authorities of what protesters are planning, since there is little control over the audience. Already technology is available that allows police to identify the mobile phones in a given area, and all it takes is a warrant, or in countries where it’s not required, a request to the phone company, and they know exactly who was there.
Both sides seem to be getting smarter. While authorities are developing better tools to track people via technology and utilize social media themselves, people using social media sites are also getting better at protecting themselves. YouTube, for instance, introduced a face blurring tool a year ago that can be used to protect people’s identities in video. With protests in Egypt and Turkey not likely to stop anytime soon, it looks like it will be a tool getting a lot more use in the near future.