Posted 10 April, 2011 by Christopher Wilson

The Inspirational Relay of Protest And Media—What Next?

While the polarized rhetoric of “Facebook Revolution”s has proved resilient, there has been a steady decline in substantive debate about how social media functions in protest movements, and with it the few attempts to address social media’s motivational impact have dwindled to intermittent anecdote. The sizable commentary on protests’ inspirational force has, in fact, not only focused almost exclusivity on the Arab region, but has largely ignored the role of media per se. This seems to be a discursive failure, and the below sketches contours that appear to be ignored, as a first stab towards better understanding the transnational relay potential of digital media.

Discursive Geography

Protest movements’ potential to spread has been a dominant trope since the Arab spring first took root. Egyptian twitterati were likely the first, quick to see potential from the trenches of a decade spent waging protest. But international punditry and diplomats were not far behind. Even before Ben Ali fled to the land of Saud, Tunisan and Algerian protests were branded “a warning” to Arab states. When the Egyptian protests were firmly underway (though long before most dared optimism) netizens had the spunk to circulate a revolutionary timetable for the region.

The trope of contagion gained further momentum with Mubarak’s ouster, and as unrest spread (from Tunisia, to Algeria, to Egypt, to Yemen, to Lebanon, to Jordan and Palestine, to Bahrain, to Lybia, to Morocco, to Iraq, and finally to Syria–see the Guardian’s beautiful interactive timeline), the discursive flourish of Arab Spring was born. The discourse has been powerful (though not necessarily benign), capturing imaginations across the globe. The hope of contagion remains embedded deeply within it.

This is nicely demonstrated in the opening lines Contagion of Hope, cover story for this month’s edition of Frontline, a popular Indian current affairs magazine:

THE searing flame of democracy, which was ignited after Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian youth, set himself on fire in protest when denied his only means of livelihood, has already consumed entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. But if Bahrain [succeeds] in fulfilling its exhilarating democratic aspirations, its achievement, in scope, would be truly revolutionary.

Bahrain’s example would most likely inspire similar movements among its neighbours and might not keep archaic Saudi Arabia insulated from the scorching winds of change.

This excerpt is instructive, not only for its heady rhetoric, or the “just-one-more” inclination to forecast on the basis of what might happen next. It is especially compelling for its restrictive attention to the Arab region.  Nowhere in the article, in fact, is there mention of protests anywhere else in the world–and there are a lot of protests going on in the world right now—not to mention protests in the country where this article was published..

In fact, there have been significant protests underway in India since January, but I have seen no international analysis that proposes any relationship to the Arab Spring (as far as I can see, it took BoingBoing to do this, however blithely—update: see also this opinion).

There are presumably good reasons for this. Indian democracy and the fact that Indians are not calling for regime change are the most obvious.  But there are also similarities that merit attention.  The Indian protests are marked by broad, popular and apolitical participation, mobilized in part by social media, and rally against issues such as corruption and food prices—sound familiar? Knowing how powerful and inspiring the Arab spring has been—even for people who feel they don’t have much to protest about (I am writing from Oslo), it seems that this potential for influence would be worth investigating.

In fact, for all the attention and inspiration that the Arab Spring has generated (and anecdotally, inspiration proves ubiquitous), focus remains remarkably concentrated on the region (notwithstanding the occasional Middle Eastern or southern African player).  This contagion coverage has been thorough, with a great deal of ink well spilled on the interrelations and distinctions between national movements, so I wont rehash it here. Al Jazeera and the Guardian both offer good overviews, and some excellent analyses have been provided by Arab Reform Initiative the Arabist, Jadaliyya, and Hussein Ibish among others.

What is missing, is an analysis of how protests the Arab spring is being experienced by protesters in southern Africa (Swaziland, Djibouti, Mauritania, Gabon, early Cote d’Ivoire), but also in Europe and the CIS (Croatia, Armenia, London), in Asia (Russia, India, Hong Kong) and in the Americas (Trinidad, Mexico, Wisconsin).

Swamppost has gathered a (similarly arbitrary) collection of protest stories and mapped them onto the below time map, which gives a nice implication of co-incidence, if not zeitgeist.

(watch out, there's music)

Of course the commonalities between these protest movements vary dramatically, and it may very well be the case that there have been this many political protests going on in the world at any given moment in recent history.  But if that is the case, then it begs the question: why haven’t we heard about them before? I would imagine that the answer to that question has something to do with globalized markets, digital media and a powerful narrative. Together, these factors allow a globally growing middle class with the communication tools needed to reinforce and deploy a shared understanding about social and economic greivances, such that they can become the agents of a novel and powerful social force, what the Bank’s Nicholas Van Praag dubs accidental agents of change.

Discursive Media

Social media is critical here, despite its gravitation towards hyperbole as the china doll and tar baby of protest movements in the new millennium. It is no surprise that the perpetual hyphenation of social media platforms with “revolution” has provoked a rhetorical backlash of actual revolutionaries.  And as right as they are to emphasize commitment, resilience and a yearning for basic human dignity as the driving forces of their respective revolutions, there is also a danger in adamantly discounting the role of tools.  Categorical assertions that “this was in no way a facebook revolution” risk limiting our capacity to understand the way in which protest movements are socially constituted in an age of digital globalism, at both the local and the transnational register.

At the local register, the role of digital media likely has something to do (let’s leave the jury out on whether it is symptom or cause) with the restructuring of power-relationships, incentive structures, and the costs and benefits attached to information mobilization. Gathering a significant amount of empirical data will be necessary to make nuanced and informed arguments about how this works in specific political contexts, and the Tahrir data project hopes to contribute this is a long-term research ambition.

At the transnational register, empirical analysis cuts a daunting enough figure that this post will content itself with loose speculation.  But that may be enough for now. It is clear, in any case, that digital media has played an inspirational role in 2011’s wave of revolutions. From the very beginning, citizen video footage played a key role in getting the Tunisian middle class into the streets (see the last video posted here). Preliminary results from empirical data sets indicate that this was also the case for mobilization in Egypt, and protest prominence on Youtube alone suggests that the phenomenon extends globally.

Of course, even if we assume that global fascination with the Arab Spring is bolstered by digital media’s capacity to intimately document and instantaneously disseminate socially relevant narratives, and even assuming that this inspires and gives hope to individuals who feel that they are similarly oppressed, there are at least two immediate downsides to be acknowledged:

(i) False optimism—There is no way around it, in the context of protests against repressive states, there is a lot that can go wrong and any setback is easily characterized as the product of false hope. The accusation of inspired foolishness can be justifiably leveled at any number of the global protests that have recently met with a heavy hand.  It is clearest and least painful when that hope is squarely placed in media itself, as when diaspora Zimbabweans attempted to organize a million citizen march in Harare without and street-level engagement, and no one showed up. It is more serious when inspired movements fail to command the same attention as that which inspire–when they fail to carve out a niche in the global media market, and do not benefit from the (arguable) safety of a world stage. Ethan Zuckerman warned about this in early February, as an Tunisia-inspired uprising in Gabon found itself overshadowed by northern protests:

It’s understandable that protests in Gabon haven’t captured the world’s attention. Gabon is a small nation, with a population of 1.5 million, and very few casual newspaper readers could place it accurately on a map. But this lack of attention has consequences. As protests unfolded in Libreville, opposition leader André Mba Obame – who likely won the 2009 election – and his leading advisors took sanctuary in the UNDP’s compound in the city, fearing arrest by Ali Bongo’s forces. According to recent Facebook posts, Obame and his advisors are facing steady pressure from UNDP to vacate the premises, and have already been ordered to surrender their mobile phones.

It’s unlikely the UNDP would risk expelling opposition leaders – who would likely be immediately arrested – if the world were watching. The world, however, is emphatically not watching.


(ii) Repressive inspiration—Protesters are of course not the only ones watching YouTube, and there has been much speculation about anxiety among Arab autocrats, mostnotably critiquing Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. Commentary on southern Africa has suggested a widespread repressive response, as Twitter services were blocked in Cameroon in order to stifle political organization, and Mugabe had 46 Zimbabweans arrested for watching news on the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. The Canadian press ran a story in mid-march, describing media blackouts in Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda and Zimbabwe, violent suppression of protests in Angola and Djibouti, economic concessions and mass arrests in Ethiopia, and maniacal rhetoric in Uganda.  Leaders in other regions appear decidedly more comfortable.  As the advisor to Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev puts it:

The Middle East is 10,000 km away. We have a much closer neighbor in Kyrgyzstan — where they have already expelled two presidents and had two revolutions — and it hasn’t had any impact on Kazakhstan.

Of course both of these tendencies occur on what can be called the demand-side of digital relay, and as such do nothing make the production and dissemination of inspirational digital media content any less imperative on the supply-side. Nor do these tendencies or the crackdowns in which they repeatedly result, make the media content any less powerful.

The Power of Narrative

Because at bottom, it is perhaps fair to say that if the Arab spring has inspired other movements, it has done so as much by the power of its narrative as the immediacy of its media. And that narrative has been strikingly powerful. Despite the formidable and often crippling challenges faced by social movements across the region (and across the world) (and in Egypt) there has always been the Egyptian revolution to look back to for hope. The idea of people-power’s revolutionary success—as more than just potential, but as fact—has been embedded in Egypt’s very presence on the web. It is replicated through every embedded video of protesters kissing soldiers, in its flurry of hashtags, in celebratory web sites and in western policy blogging. (It is indeed embedded in Egypt’s digital subjecthood much in the same way as social media is embedded in the Egyptian sociology of protest—where Facebook signifies as a social proxy and ideal.)

A major question is what will happen if the Egyptian narrative now begins to sour. Events on Friday have caused widespread concern among the Egyptian protest movement, and yesterday’s revelation that one of the youth movement leaders has been kidnapped suggests chilling eventualities. Nor could the timing be less inspiring, as protest movements across the region face sobering setbacks.

The narrative of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are richly infused with a heady hope and optimism that has likely driven social movements to decisive commitments across the region—and perhaps across the world, we know little about how this has functioned.  But as Egyptian optimism wavers, and as violence and sectarianism surge across the region in response to tireless protests, there seems little indication that revlutionary resolve in Cairo will weaken, or that the steady stream of social documentation coming out of the country will slow in the slightest. The nature of its transnational receipt, now as before, is an open question.

@ghalyshafik 23 hours 58 mins ago
In #tahrir now. People are baricading the square. Preparing for the army onslaught. #jan25#egypt

2 thoughts on “The Inspirational Relay of Protest And Media—What Next?”

[…] And it is nice to see someone speaking (or rather gesturing loosely towards while reenacting) the power of media to inspire. But there are […]

[…] and priorities, as was arguably the case of Western media indifference to protests in Gabon, or  protests around the world that have not been included in the “Arab Spring” discourse.  In a spectacle as highly […]

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