By now, the Arab Spring of 2011 has become a quintessential case study of popular uprisings in political science classes. Yet, much less has been said about the Turkish and Brazilian protests of the summer of 2013. While neither movement toppled regimes like in Egypt or Libya, they were the largest scale protests either nation had seen in decades. These movements, initially centered on small issues, exploded in sized due to the use of social media. This allowed the mobilization of large numbers of people around a set of interconnected grievances, instead of restricting protests to smaller, single-issue groups. It also provided a means for effective, high-visibility action. Both movements also turned to the Web and social media as a source of information about the protests, distrusting the national media as a puppet of the governments they were protesting.
In Turkey, what began as a local protest over the demolition of a popular park in Istanbul exploded into national demonstrations against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s admiration, which activists accuse of being overly Islamic, authoritarian, and politically exclusive. These protesters quickly turned to Twitter, Facebook, and other Internet sites as their main source of information and organization. There was widespread disgust with the lack of mainstream media coverage of the uprising: on the first day of the protests, major Turkish TV stations blacked out information on the escalating police crackdown in the streets of Istanbul, choosing instead to broadcast documentaries on penguins or cooking shows. This has led to some scathingly calling the movement the “Penguin Revolution”. As one protester said, “Facebook and Twitter are effective. We can share photographs and stories with hundreds of people at once”. The shocking images of police brutality against the peaceful protesters, widely disseminated on the Internet, brought more and more people across Istanbul to Taksim Square, the site of the original protests. It also spread the movement to other Turkish cities, widening the focus of the protests beyond the impending demolition of Gezi Park to include the rest of the long list of public grievances with Erdogan’s long-standing government.
Erdogan did not take kindly to the protesters’ use of Internet networking sites to disseminate information and further organize the uprisings. He branded the movement as a ploy of the opposition party to destabilize his regime by funding “bums and extremists” to protest, and also hinted at the possibility of foreign provocation. He also lambasted social networking sites, specifically Twitter, as being sources of misinformation and incitement for the demonstrations. The government arrested numerous people on incitement charges due to their use of social media. In addition, Twitter and Facebook went down on June 1, prompting speculation that Erdogan’s government had cut off access to the sites.
The movement in Brazil followed a similar developmental pattern. The protests started over a fare increase in the public transportation in Sao Paolo, but soon mushroomed into fierce anti-government protests across the country, as the nation aired their grievances about the mismanagement of the upcoming global sporting events, the lack and inefficiency of social services, and the endemic corruption of Brazil’s political life. Once again, traditional media was viewed as biased towards the government and a misrepresentation of the movement. Protesters instead turned to social media as the most efficient and timely manner of communication and organization; this had the “snowball effect” of disseminating information to non-protesters and thus involving more people, increasing the size of the demonstrations and the scope of the issues being protested. In addition of traditional social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, protesters created sites devoted to sharing information about the riots, such as map tools to locate areas with a police presence, safe shelters, Wi-Fi, or violence. The United Kingdom left-wing newspaper, the Guardian, created a similar platform for sharing images and information.
The government of Dilma Rousseff responded significantly differently than in Turkey, refusing to crack down on social media sites or users. President Rousseff condemned the growing violence on the streets while supporting the right to peaceful protest and calling for more transparency in government. Although there were significant problems with local police brutality and protester looting, Rousseff’s administration, along with local governments, proved much more receptive to the protesters’ demands than in Turkey.
Besides the obvious parallels in the role of social media in the development and growth of the two protest movements in Turkey and Brazil, there are similar problems within the structure and capacity to effect significant change of the uprisings. The use of social media promotes effective dissemination of information, widespread participation, and a broad, inclusive agenda, but it also denies the movement the ability to organize a central decision-making structure. This undermines the credibility of the movement as a force for pushing for specific change, as the movement lacks both the ability to deny access to extreme, violent or criminal groups, or call off protests when a compromise is reached. In both movements, the organizations and causes at the origins of the protests quickly lost control as the organic uprisings took on a life of their own, spurred on by massive Internet activity.
The past few years have clearly demonstrated the revolutionary potential of social media in organizing and informing a population. However, in order for social media to be fully harnessed as an engine of change, protest organizers must find ways of minimizing or avoiding its downsides. Besides being just a medium for organization and information, protest organizers should use social media to create a central structure to lead the movement. Blogs could introduce and popularize potential leaders, while online polls could be used to vote on a set of aims and methods for the movement as well as to elect leaders, who would be empowered to negotiate. In this way, the movement could clearly define and legitimize itself, and create an effective structure for direct democratic decision-making. This in turn would aid in negotiation with the established authority on a specified set of goals, while still maintaining the dynamic populism and transparency that has infused this new era of technological uprisings. Without this, social media-driven protests are doomed to remain organic, revolutionary flare-ups that create much more heat than light.
– Isabella Shraiman