How SOPA, #Occupy, Arab Spring and.... LOLCats reshaped the public sphere - Part 2

By Stefano on 8 February 2012

Note: This is the second of a two-part post. Part one can be found here

What do Occupy, Arab Spring & Stop SOPA have in common? – The blackouts

All three movements (SOPA, Arab Spring and Occupy) gained significant momentum and widespread media coverage following alleged/actual widespread censorship of content on social media tools and networks. 

Tunisia censored all of YouTube, Dailymotion, Flickr, Vimeo etc. when they couldn’t remove videos depicting police brutality. The censoring of entire websites lead to questions of why these websites that are used everyday by many are no longer reachable. This eventually lead to protests across the rest of the country (now referred to as Arab Spring).

The Occupy movement received widespread mainstream media coverage when social networks began to buzz with theories of a media blackout of the movement and alleged police brutality.

SOPA also enjoyed widespread media coverage on the 18th January, when a number of sites voluntarily blacked out their entire sites to protest against the bill.

In the case of SOPA, Google Trends offers interesting insight (on the right) about how successful the blackouts were in raising awareness: search queries containing “SOPA” reach an all-time peak on the day of SOPA blackouts. This suggests that more people wanted to know what SOPA is because of the blackouts.

An analysis of the frequency of conversations on the blogosphere (on the right) indicates that the conversations peaked on the day of the blackouts. The blackouts, by their very nature, are designed to stop information from spreading.  Why did they have the opposite effect when it came to social media?

LOLCats and rebirth of the ‘Public Sphere’
Ethan Zuckerman has developed a theory called ‘The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism’. He argues that the web was invented so physicists could share research papers while Web 2.0 was invented so we can share cute pictures of our cats  –  a metaphor for sharing rich media (a wordplay originating from the the very popular LOLcats site).

Zuckerman argues, “With Web 2.0, we’ve embraced the idea that people are going to share pictures of their cats, and now we build sophisticated tools to make that easier to do... There are twin revolutions going on – the ease of creating content and the ease of sharing it with local and global audiences.”

Websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc. have transformed the traditional boundaries of the public sphere from a physical to a digital space. Zuckerman continues “This is a good thing if you’re an activist. Most [users] don’t identify as activists and might not be engaged with politics. But... they’re interested in seeing cute cats being adorable online.

When the government blocks DailyMotion, it impacts a much wider swath of [users] than those who are politically active. Cute cats are collateral damage when governments block sites. And even those who could care less about [political] shenanigans are made aware that their government fears online speech so much that they’re willing to censor the millions of banal videos on DailyMotion to block a few political ones.”

This is what happened in Tunisia right before the Arab Spring: the government blocked a number of sites including YouTube and DailyMotion, which featured videos of police brutality. The removal of these platforms really grabbed the attention of the majority of the population. After all why on earth would a government want to block a site which shows videos of cute cats? 

Similarly claims of a reporting blackout of the Occupy movement in the media and a voluntary blackout by the Stop SOPA movement really helped grab the attention of the entire world.

What was the role of social media in these revolutions?
Could these revolutions have taken place without social media? They probably could have, after all, so many others have taken place before computers existed.  

But based on what we do know, we can say that social media helped these revolutions by reshaping the public sphere – it has revolutionised the way we share/create content and participate in conversations. It has become so intertwined with our daily lives that when access to these tools is turned off, we sit up and really take notice.  An activist's best chances therefore, in countries such as Tunisia or Egypt, are to use these social networks as a tool for activism. Governments often have no way to silence individuals other than by switching off the network for the entire country.  The Google Trends and blog mentions relating to SOPA certainly support this thought.

Despite the success of Stop SOPA, just days after the bill was stopped, Twitter announced that it had implemented measures which allow individual tweets to be blocked across countries.  

Perhaps now it's time to move the conversation on, what have governments learned from these events and how are they planning to deal with alleged dissent in the future?  Perhaps even more importantly, how are social networks policing their platforms and who is holding them accountable?... After all social media has become such an integral part of how we communicate – at the end of the day, who can resist a cute cat

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