1 The Hashtags that mean the world
At the 8th of January 1815, thousands of British and American soldiers died in the battle of New Orleans, although both sides signed the peace treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. The message just required more than two weeks to cross the atlantic (Osterhammel 2009: 1026). In 2008 the news of the Mumbai attacks were spread all over the world within only a few minutes. The mainly used media channels were Twitter, Wikipedia and Google Maps. Though, the “old” media commended Twitter as a “powerful communication platform” (Beaumont 2008), the Indian government “tried to shut down the Twitter stream […] amid fears that it could be used by the terrorists to help them evade capture.” (ibid.)
At all times, to break news as fast as it is possible meant having power and being able to affect the following information. Media that enabled one reach a large number of recipients, has always been used to influence the course of history. And every time a new instrument was launched, the “new media” seems to affect people in a new formerly unknown way. What was once the telegraph, it is the hashtag nowadays.
Hashtags are connecting the world and keep us up to date. People all over the world communicate via hashtags and share their opinion with the world. Whether we talk about fashion, sports or cooking recipes, one can find whatever one is looking for. In this context it is certainly not surprising that political events get interconnected via this new kind of communication as well. The Obama election campaign 2008 was one of the first which used the internet and in particular social media to reach his electorate. 2009, after the Iranian election mass protests mushroomed all over the country and journalists were prevented to document it. However, the world got to know a lot of the protests via social media, like the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan which was well documented by an internet video (Joseph 2012: 148). Finally, the “Arab spring” 2011 was not only the Arab revolution, but also “social media revolution” (Communello and Anzera 2012: 453) or the “twitter revolution” (Joseph 2012: 146). Several scholars discussed the impact of social media, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, controversially. Time has changed since them, new conflicts rose.
Has the use of social media change? How much is the impact of social media on civil and international conflict situations in the contemporary era? To examine these we will have a look at the Syrian conflict and the Hong Kong protests, after we had a look at some theoretical thoughts.
Two definitions have to be made to answer theses questions. The first difficulty arising is how to define “new media”. And then theres has to be found a definition of “impact”.
The term “new media” is used very ambiguously. Taken for itself, the invention of digital communication techniques and its use at political protest is nothing particularly new. The downfall of Philippine President Joseph Estrada which already happened in 2000, is “impossible to tell the story […] without talking about how texting allowed Filipinos to coordinate at a speed and on a scale not available with other media” (Gladwell and Shirky 2011: 154).
So there needs to be another parameter to measure the new and specific character of the “new media”. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
“specifies three criteria for content to be classified as ‚user generated:‘ (1) it should be available on a publicly accessible website or on a social networking site that is available to a select group, (2) it entails a minimum amount of creative effort, and (3) it is ‚created outside of professional routines and practices.’” (Joseph 2012: 146)
“Participation” and “transparency” are the key concepts of new media use. Other than media like newspaper – even online versions – in the internet users can generate their own, independent and equal to other news, content and share it in real-time with people they do not know necessarily personally, but they may share the same ideas or ideologies.
Does social media matter? Has the usage of social media an impact? In the reflection of the Arab spring, two clearls opposed views of the new technologies are emerging. There is “Techno-optimism” (Fuchs 2012: 387) that “consider[s] these kinds of devices as an indispensable tool for the rebels” (Communello and Anzera 2012: 462), whereas “techno-pessimissm” (Fuchs 2012: 387) assess the impact as negligible.
“Techno-optimism and techno-pessimism are the normative dimensions of technological determinism. The problem with [these] arguments is that they are only interested in single aspects of technology, and create the impression that there are only one-sided effects […] It ignores the fact that technology is embedded into society, and that it is humans living under and rebelling against power relations, not technology, who conduct unrest and revolutions.” (Ibid.)
If technology is embedded into society, it may useful to stop examining its impact from above, but instead at the way how social media is used by the “users” (“users” as a term of protesters they use social media). Based on the resource mobilization theory, we can deploy some general criteria. As rational individuals, users ponders the impact of use of social media from a personal point of view. If they can see a positive impact, they will use it. After a certain time they will value the impact again, now resources, such as time, money, organisational skills and certain social or political opportunities become important in their considerations (Eltantawy and Wiest 2011: 1209). If they still assess the impact again as positive, they will continue. Of course it is thinkable, that users will overestimate the impact or that the analysis comes to early and is therefore distorted. To exclude faults we will concentrate on one third of that time, which passes since the conflict started, until the conflict has ended or the investigated timeframe. This is open for any interpretation when the conflict started, but this has not be part of the theory.
The advantage over other approaches is, that this theory is exclusively for the use of social media. Most debates about the impact of social media mixes different aspects of a phenomena which can not described by only one term. The internet and the usage of the internet is too wide that one theory can explain all possible utilisations. Where it can successfully help to fight hunger in Kenya (Straub 2012: 17), it can on the other side be used by several intelligence services to spy out citizens, not only by authoritarian regimes. This does not mean, that the internet is bad or good, it is just another part of a complex reality. And as this it has to be regarded as such.
3 Case studies
Two current instances can illustrate the large usage of social media.
Since participation and transparency are characteristics of social media, it is often said, that it will therefore enforce democratically processes. Meanwhile, this is not more than a romanticised way of understanding them, as the example of the Islamic States (IS) shows. Al-Qaeda, ideological precursor of the IS, already used social media like video platforms to communicate with the world. This concept was adopted by the now called IS, and “has proved fluent YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, internet memes and other social media” (Telegraph 2014) like Facebook, “Diaspora”, similar to Facebook and “Quitter”. While traditional and critical media is either killed by IS or only reporting in a negative way on the IS, IS is using decentralised social media to illustrate their view and to recruit new fighters. The former FBI agent, Ali Soufan said, that “armies of bloggers and writers are working for IS” (Spiegel 2014), the most of them are located in North African and the Gulf States. More than 60’000 social media authors could be identified by “Recorded Future”, a social media monitor (2014). There are two reasons for IS using social media. First, they communicate their own successes, like the beheading of opponents and prisoners and, secondly, to present to fight for the IS as an attractive aim for young people all over the world. Messages are not only sent in Arabic, but also in English, German or other important languages. Since the rise of IS the use is on a high level (Recorded Future 2014) and could not be stopped effectively. For instance, although twitter forbids to post violent content, and is deleting such accounts, new accounts are created immediately. But even if they do not document ferocities, social media is used to romanticises the caliphate, as the hashtag #catsofjihad proved (Haaretz 2014). Since the IS is declared as a terroristic organisation, the use of social media is more difficult, but still important. We can see, social media is used by the IS, even if it is getting harder. We can infer that social media is assessed as important and influencing the success of IS.
The limitation of digital infrastructure is a threat for all users, especially in conflict situations and is the most common instrument, mostly of a government, either direct or via pressure on the platform. Limitation reaches from blocking whole platforms to just blocking hashtags (or comparable), either for a long or a short time. Chinas regime is using all of these instruments, common platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Youtube are completely blocked, Instagram or Sina Weibo, Chinese Twitter equivalent, are largely censored. Anyway, the Chinese users found ways to avoid censorship via proxy servers or using hashtags they are not directly linked to the actual meaning (Parker 2014).
The protest in Hong Kong began on September 26 when China rejected demands for free and open elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executive. The protesters used mainly social media to communicate and by doing so raised a censorship storm, which reaches its peak at September 28, with 152 censored post per 10’000 at Weibo, a platform with more than 46 million daily active users (Allen-Ebrahimian 2014). In answer to this more than 200’000 people downloaded the app “FireChat” in Hong Kong, which “allows user to communicate even when they can not get online or send texts. FireChat directly connects users to other nearby users who are within 250ft (76 m) via Bluetooth or local wi-fi.” (Fitzpatrick 2014). Even if FireChat does not fit entire in the definition of social media, it is a kind of. Via WhatsApp or other apps the protesters are able to share content or to communicate with others. “While the current protests could certainly have happened without the Internet, social media is playing an important role” writes Emily Parker (2014) about the protest “social media and mobile devices have helped to sustain the protests.” While only a few newspapers gave coverage to the events “with most running an article by the official Xinhua news service that highlighted what it described as the ‚recklessness‘ of protesters” (Jacobs 2014), social media gave the protesters a platform to share their opinion.
In a world where the use of social media is as normal as daily lunch, it should not be discussed about whether a conflict is affected by social media or not. Social media is human behavior projected on digital life. Social media for itself does not change politics, but while it change the way people communicate among themselves. Social media did not invent new conflicts, at all times conflicts and revolutions took place, some peaceful, some successful and some were defeated bloodily. While megabits replaced paper, own critical thinking is as important as it was never before.
Allen-Ebrahimian, Bethany, 2014: In China, the Most Censored Day of the Year. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/09/29/in_china_the_most_censored_day_of_the_year.
Beaumont, Claudine 27.11.2008: Mumbai attacks: Twitter and Flickr used to break news. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/3530640/Mumbai-attacks-Twitter-and-Flickr-used-to-break-news-Bombay-India.html.
Comunello, Francesca and Anzera, Giuseppe, 2012: Will the revolution be tweeted? A conceptual framework for understanding the social media and the Arab Spring. Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations. 23:4. pp. 453-470.
Eltantawy, Nahed and Wiest, Julie, B., 2011: Social Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Reconsidering Resource Mobilization Theory. In: International Journal of Communication 5. pp. 1207–1224.
Finn, Tom, 2014: Iraq Islamists Goes on Offensive on Instagram. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2014/06/iraq-islamists-goes-on-offensive-on-instagram/.
Fitzpatrick, Alex 2014: Fire Starter. The app helping fuel protest around the globe. In: Time. October 27. p. 12.
Fuchs, Christian, 2012: Behind the News: Social media, riots and revolutions. In: Capital and Class. 36(3). pp: 383-391.
Gladwell, Malcolm and Shirky, Clay, 2011: Respnse. From Innovation to Revolution. Do Social Media Make Protests Possible. 90 Foreign Affairs 153. pp. 153-154.
Haaretz, 2014: Nothing says #jihad like cats with guns. http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle- east/1.599557.
Jacobs, Andrew, 2014: Chinese Web Censors Struggle With Hong Kong Protest. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/01/world/asia/chinese-web-censors-struggle-with-hong-kong-protest.html?_r=0.
Joseph, Sarah, 2012: Social Media, Political Change and Human Rights. In: Boston College International & Comparative Law Review. Vol. 35: 145. pp. 145-188.
Parker, Emily, 2014: Social Media and the Hong Kong Protests. Http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/social-media-hong-kong-protests.
Recorded Future, 2014: ISIS Jumping from Account to Account, Twitter Trying to Keep Up. https://www.recordedfuture.com/isis-twitter-activity/.
Spiegel, 2014: “Die beherrschen das perfekt.” Der Spiegel 47/2014.
Straub, Ute, 2012: Mit dem Handy gegen den Hunger. In. Böll. Das Magazin der Heinrich-Böll- Stiftung. Ausgabe 3. p. 17.
Telegraph, 2014: How terrorists are using social media. Terrorists groups are ‚embracing the web‘ more than ever.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11207681/How-terrorists-are-using-social-media.html
Osterhammel, Jürgen, 2009: Die Verwandlung der Welt. Eine Egschichte des 19, Jahrhunderts. Beck. München.