By AYI S. MUALLAM
MANILA — The recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt have shown that social media can be a driving force for social and political change.
The protests in Egypt, greatly influenced by the uprising in Tunisia, were fueled by frustrations over decades-long authoritarian rule, poverty, and unemployment. A toothless political opposition, which should have checked these conditions way before, created a vacuum that was filled by the online movement, mostly the youth, who used the medium to express their anger and to channel their protests. As Wael Abbas, Egypt’s most famous cyber-dissident, puts it, the web is “our only media.”
Cyber activists in Egypt used Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to rally supporters and coordinate the time and venues of protests. These served as practical guides for would-be demonstrators and for those already out in the streets on how to deal with teargas attacks and how to dodge arrest. They provided citizens with a list of constitutional rights that they can invoke in case they are detained. They also provided journalists, who find it impossible to cover different places at once, about developments in various protest areas.
The Internet and social media have their own weaknesses — government crackdowns and government firewalls, such as what China did — but in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, the more the government repressed the flow of information, the more online users were mobilized, thus more sympathizers took the cause to the streets.
Here in the Philippines, the closest we got to a “keystroke revolution” was the Edsa 2 uprising in 2001, which can be aptly called the text revolution. The continuous flow of text messages compelled people to join the protests in Ortigas to denounce the death of truth and democracy, when senators prevented the opening of that envelope during the impeachment trial of President Estrada.
In recent years, particularly during the time of the much-hated Arroyo regime, various groups, particularly those from the Left, have also taken advantage of social media to inform, organize and mobilize. Rallies and mobilizations are announced on social networking sites. Alternative media groups and writer-activists use blogs and micro-blogging sites to provide their readers live updates of issues and activities. Photos, videos and other multimedia content can be easily shared online.
Unfortunately, much of the public seems content with ranting in their blogs about corrupt politicians, signing online petitions and joining Facebook pages and causes in the comfort of their homes and/or coffee shops while drinking overpriced caffeinated drinks. While this may be good – enlightenment, after all, is the first step toward revolution – much of the attempt to harness social media for political activism has remained online. Not much else was being done offline. Could it be because, by ranting in their blogs and Facebook, they’ve vented their frustrations about, say, corruption in government, so that the outrage never really developed into something more politically explosive – the kind that revolutions or mass protests a la Egypt or Tunisia require?
I agree completely with Kabataan Rep. Mong Palatino when he said that activism demands sacrifice. He goes on to say that a right formula is needed to effectively combine online and offline activism.
Empowering the oppressed may start with a couple of keystrokes but the struggle for change should go beyond cyberspace. Activism is to be with the masses, joining their fight in communities and in the streets, where the struggle for meaningful change – as the Tunisians and Egyptians have shown in the past few days — is always present.