Social media is known for fueling protests and driving social change. What are the common 'X Factors' that make these phenomena possible? Is there a recipe for success?
Real social change is just one click awayOp-Ed by Oscar Morales Guevara
In January, 2008, a four-year-old child named Emmanuel was found abandoned, ill, starving and barely alive in the South American country of Colombia, population 45 million. His mother, Clara Rojas, had been kidnapped by the terrorist organization FARC-EP in 2002, and had given birth to him in the jungle, while being held in horrendous conditions. For the people of Colombia, young Emmanuel became the face of FARC's reign of hatred, kidnapping and cruelty. One month later, 12 million Colombians flooded the streets of 200 cities all around the world to protest against FARC. It was the largest civilian demonstration in history, and it was organized through my Facebook group, "One Million Voices against FARC." It was the first genuine proof that the social network that had taken the world by storm was also bringing to the frontline a voice that for years had remained silent: that of the ordinary Citizen.
In January, 2010, Tunisia and the city of Sidi Bouzid experienced a similar upheaval, when thousands of citizens flooded the streets. In this case, YouTube videos depicting the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi had outraged the population to the point of no return. Bouazizi had set himself on fire to protest Ben Ali´s regime and the abuse of power by authorities who had stolen the money he earned from street vending. Though he would not live to see the regime overthrown, Bouazizi became the martyr of the Tunisian revolution.
Days later, the Egyptian revolution came to a head on January 25 at Tahrir Square, when 1.5 million protesters changed the fate of Egypt and ousted the dictator Hosni Mubarak. It had been sparked by the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said," created by former Google exec Wael Ghonim. Social media was once again shown to be an influential tool with the power to change history. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was named TIME Magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2010.
In March, 2012, within a matter of hours, more than 96 million people watched the infamous "Kony 2012" video on YouTube, and the whole world instantly learned about the atrocities perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. It was the fastest-growing viral video of all time. Using YouTube and Twitter as their only weapons, the "Invisible Children" group got 3.7 million people to pledge their support for efforts to arrest Joseph Kony. Just five years ago, nobody would have thought this possible.
There's no doubt that social media is a powerful tool, one that can change the world. But why did these four examples succeed, when hundreds of other social media initiatives never see the light of day? What were the "X factors" that made these particular phenomena possible? As it turns out, there was no single recipe for success. In Colombia's case, somebody pressed the right button at the right time, the political moment was right, Internet and Facebook were part of our lives, and there was a marriage with traditional news outlets and networks that joined the call, and invited the people to protest along with us. In Egypt, however, citizens became their own journalists and reporters, defeated the regime's censorship tactics and, against all odds, shared plenty of images of what was happening on the streets of Cairo in real time: Al-Jazeera images were instantly posted on Twitter and YouTube, and three seconds later they had been seen by millions in America and on all five continents. Universal scope, readiness of information, techniques to escape state censorship, user-generated content--these are just some of the social media patterns that can be identified in these phenomenal events. Day by day, month after month, we are discovering more.
Yet there is one fundamental factor that became the real protagonist in each and every case: The eradication of fear. It's worth remembering that, behind each cell phone, behind each computer or tablet or any other device connected to the Internet, there is a human being. It's this person's courage that is the real fuel for the changes that we are witnessing in the world. A new type of fearless citizen has emerged: a citizen who is now sufficiently informed and empowered enough to break through a prison of fear; a citizen who, outraged and fuelled by a one-minute YouTube video, decides to join a street rally, to risk his life, and to raise his voice for the world to hear.
Social media has freed those voices: Solitary ones, such as Yoani Sanchez from Cuba who uses Twitter to fight the Castro Regime, or such as Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez who tweets from jail to his venezuelan fellows encouraging them to keep fighting for their freedom, and such as millions of other citizens' voices that comprise the new army against oppression and tyranny: a new, influential, "digital" force that is just one click away. Just one click can shape your opinion; just one click can change the world... again.
Oscar Morales Guevara
Oscar Morales Guevara