Internet Freedom

Social Media in Popular Uprisings

Bursting on the heels of the mobile technology revolution, social media later recaptured international attention for its abilities to disseminate information more quickly and directly than traditional news outlets during critical moments in popular upheaval. With smart technology readily accessible to the masses, recent uprisings have been organized, documented, and litigated with digital evidence.

As discussed [PDF] in the Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, there are three main data streams that create a confluence surrounding popular movements- participatory journalism, mediated mobilization, and hacktivism. Participatory journalism encompasses the realm of social media as an alternative documentary news source, such as photos of martyrs in protests that capture intercontinental attention with a brutal shock factor. Mediated Mobilization is the next step - carrying the message into action by using social media such as Twitter and Blackberry Messenger to communicate by the second. Hacktivism is a completely different acitivity, with groups such as Anonymous using social media to lead cyber attacks on controversial organizations to popular appeal.

Social media-sparked revolutions have sprung their publishers onto Time "People of the Year" lists, including Malala Yousafzai and Mael Ghonim. Likewise, it is a popular tool to pay homage to martyrs of popular uprisings. Most notably among these is the death of Khaled Said, an Egyptian man who was physically removed from an internet cafe and beaten to death by police officers in Alexandria on June 6, 2010, despite attempts by a passerby physician to revive him. Photos of Mr. Said's brutalized corpse were tweeted by his family, capturing the attention and support of Google Executive Mael Ghonim and quickening rising political tensions. However, because of the thin line between participatory journalism and mediated mobilization, countries going through upheaval have an incentive to limit access to social media sites, or in the event that the blocks to social media sites are hacked, to completely shut off internet access nationwide.

For example, China has instituted tighter restrictions on google and website bans, as has Russia. On the other hand, in response to several domestic law suits, Turkey recently lifted a ban on Twitter and Youtube. In response to such trends, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to protect free speech on the Internet. In 2013, Egypt and China were criticized for arresting bloggers that wrote against the state's interests. Twitter came under criticism in France for refusing to release account information of members who used hashtags to spread anti-semitic messages, although Twitter did delete the posts immediately. Likewise, in 2012, Human Rights Watch called on several nations to release detainees held on charges of political blogging against the government. In 2011, Kevin Govern of Ave Maria School of Law compared the impact of social media to the use of political pamphlets such as the Communist Manifesto to inspire localized uprisings.

Efforts by Nations to Ban Access to Social Media

Given social media's power as a tool for organizing against unpopular governments, many nations have made efforts to ban access to social media sites. The purported rationale for these government bans range from desires to quell publication and circulation of political opposition to religious dignity. Others nations express narrower, more nuanced reasons for disallowing access to the sites. While not a comprehensive list, below are some efforts by nations to ban or restrict access to social media.

In November 2007 Syria restricted access to Facebook in order to combat government criticism. A full-on ban of social media was effected in May 2011 to hamper the efforts of government opponents in the full-fledged rebellion that had fallen upon the country.

China blocked foreign social media sites in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The ban was relaxed after the conclusion of the games but reverted back to its former effect in the Spring of 2009. In December 2012, China adopted strict rules on all internet use. The rules outlaw internet anonymity, requiring users to provide their real identity. Internet service providers are required to monitor for false identities and delete accounts and remove access if a false identity is discovered.

In 2008, Pakistan banned YouTube for four days in order to take down videos it deemed blasphemous. Facebook was banned in 2010 after blasphemous images of the Prophet Mohammed appeared on the site. In 2010, Pakistan again temporarily blocked YouTube due to images deemed blasphemous to the Prophet Mohammed. YouTube was yet again blocked in 2012 in response to "The Innocence of Muslims," a video deemed blasphemous to Islam.

Iran banned social media sites in May 2009, during the lead-up to that year's election. This action was taken to stop the the sites' effective use by political opposition to organize protests and publicize criticism of the government.

In July 2009 Japan used a then-59-year-old law banning the use of literature and images in political campaigns to block the use of Twitter in campaigns. The ban was a result of a cabinet ruling that tweets would fall under the prohibited category of literature and images.

In 2010 Bangladesh temporarily banned access to Facebook in response to blasphemous images of the Prophet Mohammed posted on the site. Bangladesh continues to request Facebook for restrictions on its site. The site has restricted access to government criticism out of respect for Bangladesh's laws.

In January 2011 Tunisia blocked access to social media sites in an effort to quell the anti-government uprising that began the Arab Spring. Tunisia's block became a widely copied play by other embattled governments of the Arab Spring.

In January 2011 the embattled government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak banned access to social media sites. The action was in response to the oppositions effective use of the sites to criticize the government and organize protests.

A Russian regulation came into effect in October 2012 allowing the government to block access to websites. The regulation's stated purpose is to combat child pornogrophy and the promotion of drug use and suicide. However the requirements for banning a site are vague, which gives the government broad discretion in choosing which sites to ban. An entire website can be banned if a single page on this site is deemed offensive.

In September 2012 Sudan blocked access to YouTube in response to a video deemed to be a blasphemous depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. Sudan said it had requested YouTube to restrict access to the video and did not get a response, so it banned the site altogether after facing difficulties in banning only the video. YouTube had received and complied with the same request from Egypt, India, Indonesia and Libya.

A Vietnamese law came into effect in September 2013 banning users from sharing news online. Use of social media sites was restricted to the sharing of personal information only. The law also bans speech on the internet that opposes the Vietnamese government and requires foreign web sites to house their local servers within Vietnam.

Turkey banned access to YouTube and Twitter in the run-up to its 2014 elections after an information leak pertaining Turkey's strategy for the neighboring Syrian conflict. In April 2014, Turkey's Constitutional Court ordered the bans to be narrowed.

Additional information on governmental requests for restriction from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can be found, respectively, at Facebook's Government Requests Report, Twitter's Transparency Report, and Google's Transparency Report.


05/31/2010: Pakistan court lifted Facebook ban.

06/06/2010: Bangladesh government lifted Facebook ban after removal of Muhammad caricatures.

02/08/2011: Syria lifted ban on social media sites Facebook, YouTube.

07/05/2012: UN Human Rights Council passed resolution to protect Internet speech.

11/01/2012: Russia Internet regulation law took effect.

12/28/2012: China adopted strict new rules on Internet providers and users.

01/15/2013: Citizen Lab published report on governments abusing Internet surveillance and censorship technologies.

03/21/2014: Turkish PM banned Twitter.

04/03/2014: Turkish authorities lifted Twitter ban following court ruling.

04/10/2014: Turkey reinforced YouTube ban despite court ruling.


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