by Anessa DeMers
New media have revolutionized the way we interact in the global community. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter connect people and ideas instantaneously across vast distances. Cell phone cameras, video hosting sites, and blogs allow people on the front lines of conflict to share the realities of their struggle with the outside world. On the streets of Tunisia, the death of a single man sparked a cascade of revolutions across the Middle East in a movement eventually known as the Arab Spring (Ryan). This uprising was blogged, tweeted, and networked to unprecedented success (Anderson). Yet, in Burma, bloggers attempting to rally support for their oppressed people frequently have their accounts hacked by the government, and are sometimes arrested for attempting to escape the harsh censorship laws (Head). New media can and do have a powerful effect on the way people organize and communicate, but it is easy for their use to be suppressed or perverted. It is important for countries to recognize the impact of these technologies and to work with, not against, the profound changes they bring.
Burma has been smothered by the harsh control of a military Junta since the 1960’s (Johnson). The junta largely opposed the advances of the information age. The government cracked down heavily on internet use, and in recent times it has been estimated less than one percent of the country’s population has access to the internet (Holmes). Conditions in the country are poor. When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in 2008, government interference resulted in weeks of delay before international aid organizations were allowed to step in (Larmer 96). Public health has accounted for less than one percent of the national budget, despite numerous diseases ravaging the populace, and many human rights abuses have been reported of the Burmese authorities. Yet, despite all this, surprisingly little information makes it past Burma’s borders (“Background Note: Burma”). Since the mass protests of 2007, cell phone signals have been regularly blocked, internet use has been harshly regulated, and the price of being caught using any of these technologies without permission is imprisonment for years or decades (Dobie). The government employs teams of hackers who hijack the websites and emails of well-known dissidents (Holmes). Even for those trying only to view internet resources, extreme censorship through the two state-sponsored internet providers limits access to many of the sites that could potentially be used to organize or inform Burma’s populace (Crispin). Even though bloggers have attempted to spread information about the conditions in their country, their efforts are often stymied. Uproar surrounding the protests by Buddhist monks in 2007, which could have become a focal point for widespread change, was suppressed widely and failed to bring change to Burma (Dobie). Despite recent reforms in the government, little has changed overall for the Burmese people as a result of new media (Harvey). A combination of harsh censorship laws and a lack of unified effort mean that, in Burma, the use of these new technologies has not aided in building a sustainable peace.
Tunisia, in sharp contrast, used new media to catalyze a swift, overwhelming, and far-reaching revolution. For more than two decades, the Tunisian people suffered under the regime of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with abysmal financial opportunities and heavy oppression in daily life (Ryan). But, as the internet came to their country, many Tunisians stood strong against their corrupt government. State-sponsored censorship proved surprisingly ineffective in the face of public pressure. Many Tunisians became vocal proponents of internet freedom, and waited in anticipation for a chance to speak out. Finally, a video of educated and underemployed Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire found its way to the internet and sparked mass uprisings across Tunisia. (Ammar). The tragedy itself was not the deciding factor—other frustrated Tunisians had turned to self-immolation before Bouazizi (Ryan). The difference was, when outraged friends of Bouazizi began to protest in the streets, internet coverage led to many Tunisians empathizing with the sense of hopelessness and frustration surrounding Bouazizi’s actions (Ammar). Quickly, online groups promoting internet freedom began demanding freedom in Tunisian life as well. The international hacker group Anonymous was attracted to the struggle and began targeting and shutting down many of the websites managed by the corrupt government (Anderson). Neither were they the only group outside Tunisia that took an interest. A Facebook page offering English-language coverage of the revolution gained more than 5000 followers in less than a week (Ammar). As the uprisings gained momentum, citizens across the country used social networking sites, like Facebook, to coordinate their efforts. Tunisians could share the locations of protests, possible government responses, and news from other parts of the country at lightning speed (O’Neill). The government escalated its censorship as the conflict escalated, but the protests could not be stopped. The movement had long been intimately involved with the internet, and many of the rebels were savvy users. Sympathetic observers from around the world were eager to help Tunisians avoid the censors (Anderson). The rebellion was focused, organized, and widespread. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled the country, and his regime collapsed behind him (Ryan). The world watched with sympathy and eagerness, and even before the dust had settled, other nations were following Tunisia’s example. The series of uprisings that would come to be known as the Arab Spring began because the Tunisian revolution had such power and influence. The strength of the revolution was, in large part, due to the effective use of new media.
New media have been used across the world with great success, but their use can be suppressed or twisted. As in the case of Burma, nations where internet use is limited and heavily censored find it difficult to harness new technologies. Citizens may capture footage of a protest on their cell phones, but if they fear being arrested for posting it, the video will never make it to a wide audience. In other places, the internet may not be dangerous in and of itself, but can still lead to disaster. Such was the case for a young Muslim girl who was killed by her father for interacting with men on Facebook (Kirkpatrick 274-286). In more privileged countries, much of the population has access to the internet, but may turn a blind eye to a crisis if the information available is confused or disorganized. Such a glut of information is available through modern technology that only an organized effort can garner widespread attention. Tunisia had simmered under the heavy hand of Ben Ali for years, but Bouazizi’s self-immolation provided the focus for a swift, united effort. In Burma, the information that escaped the censors was scattered and diverse. The recent government reforms were concessions granted by the junta, not signs of surrender to the will of the people. The new media can be used to great effect, however. Tunisia and the rest of the Arab Spring were impressive examples of how people can use modern technology to coordinate their efforts, stay informed, and seek aid. The great strengths of new media are in communication. Distance becomes irrelevant, and national borders dissolve. Young, vigorous people of all nations have immense resources at their fingertips and the drive to help others (Tapscott 26). It is often the young generation that understands how to use new media to the best effect (Bartholet 102). As these young people mature, they can use their technological prowess to lend power to their hopes and perspectives (Kirkpatrick). This power only has as good an impact as the will of the people dictates, but as long as it is available, it has a strength that cannot be denied and should not be ignored.
As new media gain prominence, those in power and those seeking change must not ignore its power. Protestors and political factions must make sure their efforts are organized if they seek influence on a regional or global scale. Government leaders cannot afford to ignore the pressure of public opinion harnessed by social media. If the opinions expressed are contrary to the government’s wishes, that must be addressed, but ignoring or attempting to suppress this expression only allows the problem to stew. Freedom in life can be built through freedom to inform, freedom to communicate, and freedom to unite. This is the power of new media.
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