How Internet Applications Changed Civic Engagement & Dissent
March 12, 2011 5 Comments
Over the last five years, technological advances and the development of “Web 2.0” have enabled people to create browser-based applications that have had far-reaching consequences beyond their original intent. Additionally, these programs have been adapted to work on mobile devices and smart phones such as Blackberries and iPhones. Social networking applications like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and many others have been credited with creating an alternative voice to mainstream media, and a way for people to connect in small communities online regardless of geographical location. This in turn has helped to enable small communities to gather, share ideas and participate in various forms of activism and civic engagement.
Facebook & the Presidential Elections
The popularity of Facebook amongst young American voters has often been credited with Barack Obama’s successful campaign in the American Presidential elections.
The 2008 elections were the first to utilise the ‘Facebook Connect’ feature in a Presidential campaign. It worked by integrating my.barackobama.com to Facebook profiles. Users could find friends that were also using the application, and it would automatically publish relevant stories to their wall – for example, if they signed up to a campaign.
Exit polls showed that this online approach reached far more younger Americans than the McCain campaign did – winning the vote of nearly 70% of those under 25. Additionally Obama had 2 million Facebook fans to McCain’s 200,000, and on YouTube Obama’s channel had 97 million video views, whereas McCain had just 25 million.
This pioneering so-called “Facebook election”, and subsequent success of social media as a way to inspire civic engagement, was recorded as a documentary – “By The People: The Election of Barack Obama” – which was released in 2009. Facebook continues to provide tools to encourage Americans to vote in elections – in November 2010, Facebook provided maps of nearby polling stations so that people could find out where to vote. It is expected to continue playing a politically neutral but encouraging role in politics in the future.
Twitter & Middle East Uprisings
After the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia on 14th January, it seems unrest spread across to Egypt. Four people set themselves on fire, and inspired Asmaa Mahfouz, a young Egyptian woman, to post a vlog on YouTube stating her intent to protest against the government. The video went viral in Egypt and encouraged many to start protesting – and as state TV broadcasted pro-government images, Egyptians started using Twitter and Facebook to let the outside world know what was really going on. These social media tools – particularly Twitter – enabled them to get photos, videos and information from the ground, to the outside world. Important or newsworthy tweets were retweeted and shared across the website in seconds. Continued support from tweeters across the globe helped to keep the momentum of the movement going.
Then all communications, including the internet, were blacked out. And on 1st February, Google and Twitter joined forces to enable Egyptians to tweet through the internet black-out using voicemails. This kind of application of technologies to enable protestors to get their message out – to broadcast hundreds or thousands of voices as opposed to the solitary voice of state-sponsored media – has never really been seen before in quite the same way.
Social media should not mistakenly be wholly credited with the success of the protests. However, it is the instrument that allowed many more people to see what was going on, and to therefore lend encouragement and support. Supporters in other countries could tweet messages and encourage their mainstream media to keep on top of the issue and keep reporting what was going on.
Sukey & the Student Protests
Earlier this year, in response to police kettling tactics, a group of students from the UCL Occupation created Sukey, the ‘anti-kettling’ app. The web-based application – named after the childrens rhyme “Polly Put The Kettle On” – was launched mid-January after student protests in November ended with the containment of protestors for 6-9 hours without food, water or toilet facilities. On Westminster Bridge alone, protestors were trapped for around three hours until the early hours of the morning.
The idea is that by keeping people informed of where trouble is ‘brewing’ between police and protestors, peaceful protestors will move out of the area and keep safe. It is designed to prevent the escalation of violence such as that which was seen in early November 2010 – where the Conservative Party HQ was broken into, property was damaged and people were injured.
The application uses GPS to determine where the smart phone user is, and uses colour codes to show which exits are free to go through and which areas have been kettled. Green means it is easy to get in and out, yellow means there may be problems there, and red means that the area has been contained. The team at Sukey use information from texts, tweets, photos and videos from people on the ground in the protest, to determine which areas are safe to go to, and keep everybody updated on what is happening around them.
It was first used on the 29th January at the student protest in London. The protest was peaceful – no one was kettled, and there was no violence – so the experiment was hailed a huge success. A second app, called Sukey 2, is currently in development and it is hoped that the software will be able to cater for protests in cities outside of London, and even internationally.
So, whilst activism and dissent can take place online in itself – in the form of petitions, blogs, tweets and so-called ‘clicktivism’ – the internet, and the increasing popularity of smart phones and new technologies have allowed people to create applications that help to actually enable activism. Though not directly providing a means for citizens to protest, these new applications can help to spread the word about what’s happening ‘on the ground’, encourage civic participation, or help to avoid hostile situations. It’ll be exciting to see what other innovations arise in the future, to help ordinary citizens realise their own power.