Social Media, the Recipe for Revolution?

A protestor in Bahrain celebrates during protests in February of 2011.

by Ginnie Seger

It seems as if social media have become the belle of the ball, the newest champion of the people, a tool of democracy, but have social media really transformed politics? Is it as easy as mixing in social media to start a revolution? The emergence of social media for mobilizing populations led to complaints over the prevalence of what some call “slacktivism.”  The whole conversation has changed in the wake of the Arab Spring.   The world stood in awe in February 2011, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power in Egypt. Many scrambled to understand what changed slacktivists to activists? Were social media the secret ingredients needed to create a revolution?

Recently, the United States Institute of Peace held a conference entitled “Blogs and Bullets: The Role of Media on Conflict,”  and published a report with the same name.  The conference panel discussed how social media were used in revolutions, and how they became powerful outlets for protestors.

User Generated Content

The use of smart phones, or other recording devices to capture first hand was invaluable for galvanizing a population; no longer are people solely relying on traditional media for their news. This video (warning: the video is violent) of a women being beaten inside of an Egyptian police station received more than two-hundred thousand views, and as a result was included in several other videos such as this compilation video. User generated content is constantly being reshaped and reworked, and given new life.

Outside Attention

Another important component is outside attention. The Blogs and Bullets report notes that 75 percent of links about Egypt were accessed from outside the Arab world. The Arab and non-Arab audience was live-streaming video creating more buzz. Traditional media reported on user-generated content creating a megaphone effect, adding momentum to movements.

Flat Systems

Another factor was the relative ease Facebook and Twitter allowed people to organize, under a less hierarchical, flat system.  On the Facebook page Revolution Day, 85,000 users pledged to attend the anti-government protest on January 25, 2010. This type of large-scale mobilization plan would have required a lot of capital in the days before Facebook, but now users can merely organize with a few clicks. The rest is history: a series of protests in Egypt, which led to the resignation of Mubarak.

So has this led us to a universal recipe for revolutions?

Recipe for Revolution

2 Cups of a long-standing leader

1 Cup of an aggravated population

1 Cup of police brutality

½ teaspoon of video

Bake in YouTube for 2-3 months

Flambé with Facebook and sprinkle on some Twitter and you have a revolution!


The problem is revolutions are never that simple; for every Egypt there is a Bahrain.  Bahrain, an island kingdom in the Persian Gulf, has been ruled by a monarchy since 1783, and is the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.  Protests began in Bahrain in 2009. The success of Egypt’s revolution catalyzed protesters to seize Pearl Square a landmark in the capital of Manama.  This was all in line with successful revolution, until the king called for help from Saudi Arabia. Soon Saudi troops crushed the uprising, which went largely unnoticed by Arab and Western media. Social media are not secret ingredients or magic bullets for revolutions, they are merely one set of ingredients in the recipe, when so many others can vary.

(Editor’s Note:  Violent protests erupted in Bahrain again this weekend.  The protests are connected to elections in Bahrain and sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni groups, along with a continued push from the country’s democracy movement.)

(The photo is from Al Jazeera English via Flickr, using a Creative Commons licensing agreement. To see a report from Al Jazeera English on the protests and elections in Bahrain, please check below.)

About gseger

Ginnie Seger is a Masters Candidate in the International Media program at American University. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in broadcast journalism. During her undergraduate education, she studied abroad in both Ghana and China. Ginnie worked for WCVE PBS Richmond, as a production technician in the Virginia House of Representatives. After completing her degree in 2008, she joined the Peace Corps where she served in Kenya as a deaf education volunteer until 2011. While in the Peace Corps, she worked to create a strategic health campaign for the Kenyan deaf population. In the future she hopes to work for a non-profit organization, and is interested in the use of social media and technology in the developing world.
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