A decade on from the Arab Spring, social media has changed how people protest

Olivia Rudgard
Demonstrations continue on Monday against the death of George Floyd while in police custody on June 01, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City - Spencer Platt /Getty Images North America 

When the Arab Spring kicked off in 2010, commentators hailed social media as the great leveller - a radical new technology that could amplify voices, aid organising and connect people. 

The debate is still raging over how instrumental Twitter and Facebook really were in that era. But anyone watching social media over the past week would see that it is still a major tool for organisers and supporters of more recent protests. 

As protests following the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis, spread across the US and around the world, videos and images of police brutality, looting and rioting have been uploaded instantaneously.

Protesters are using social media to spread events, images and educational resources. After a decade of misinformation scandals and allegations of radicalising and endangering users, some see the latest civil unrest as a return to the grassroots movements that saw social media firms praised for their roles in the Arab Spring.  

In 2020, the online platforms are more complicated than it was a decade ago. The services which fuelled the 2010-2012 uprisings have become ideological battlegrounds, with state actors, political groups, conspiracy theorists and campaigners all pushing their own agendas. 

The claims of executives like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that unfettered free communication between all people is unambiguously good now seem somewhat laughable.

Now, as then, it’s undeniable that social media has been a huge help for spreading the word. The original video showing the killing of Mr Floyd - originating on Facebook Live - was shared around the world very quickly and caused widespread attention and outrage. 

At San Francisco’s protest on Sunday, more than one demonstrator said that seeing the video online had been a motivator for them to show up. Eva Jurado, 29, said that when she saw the video she “lost it”. “It’s f****** heartbreaking. It breaks my heart,” she said. 

“Social media serves as an accelerant for information transfer that goes around the legacy intermediaries that would have made it more difficult for these stories to get a wider audience,” says Professor Nate Persily of Stanford Law School. 

However, he says that social networks also encourage the most incendiary and emotion-laden content that will receive a larger audience. “We should not assume that what we're seeing on our social media feed is an objective reflection of what's happening on the ground. But that was also true with television before the internet,” Prof Persily says. 

Social media posters have stretched to claiming that Mr Floyd is not really dead, and that George Soros, the billionaire who is a frequent target of right-wing, antisemitic propaganda, is funding the unrest. 

America's existing conspiracy theory groups, such as QAnon, have played a role in spreading the allegations. Donald Trump has said he would designate the amorphous organisation antifa (short for antifascism), a terror group, claiming without evidence that it has played a major part in fuelling the unrest.

About | QAnon

In theories echoing anxiety around foreign influence in America's 2016 election, social media users have also suggested that the protests are fuelled by Russia and China, while left-wingers have suggested that violence is being started or provoked by right-wing agitators and white supremacists.

Jennifer Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, says police and governments are also using social media for their own aims. One of the major developments since 2011 and even 2014, when the first Black Lives Matter protests erupted, is that institutions like the police and government are much more social media-savvy.

“Police have very large media channels. This is a form of propaganda at this point that is influencing public opinion, the narratives around police and police work.

“This is where we need to look at platforms, and the role that Facebook is using to amplify police propaganda.”

Journalists have also been repeatedly shot at, arrested and pepper-sprayed by officers conscious that what they are doing will not look good on camera, Grygiel says. Police can now speak to the public directly, so the traditional communication between law enforcement and media has broken down. 

It might appear that social media is the great leveller, but platforms also feed the imbalance of power between protesters and institutions. 

Police departments and governments are handed “verified” status, which gives them extra features and privileges on these platforms, while individuals without the backing of a corporation have a harder time getting attention for their message. 

“It’s unclear if people of colour and minorities have equal verification status and the ability to tap into the algorithm. I am concerned that it’s skewed toward already powerful institutions and people,” Grygiel added. 

Privacy experts have also feared how law enforcement can examine videos and images posted on social media to identify leaders and crush dissent, with protesters urged to avoid posting images that show people’s faces and identifying characteristics. 

Last week Twitter added a fact check to tweets about postal ballots posted by Trump, who retaliated by trying to reduce the power of Section 230, the longstanding US law which protects social media platforms from being sued. 

Twitter's rules explained

It also added a warning that another of the President’s tweets, which read: “when the looting starts the shooting starts,” was “glorifying violence”. 

Critics decry this as too little, too late. And Twitter’s major rival Facebook has come under even more criticism for its failure to act. Last week #DeleteFacebook trended on Twitter, and this week its own employees have begun speaking out and walking out over its handling of the President’s posts.

Both companies face a choice between angering a President and right-wing establishment which accuses them of censorship, or alienating the users who want them to crack down on misleading posts. 

It’s no longer enough for social media platforms to claim to be neutral disseminators of information. In 2020, companies are pushed to consider who they are amplifying, and what purpose their technology is going to serve.