How Twitter and Facebook are changing protests and journalism



By Will Spens

The recent demonstrations across the Arab world, unrest in Ireland, Greece and France and the student protests in Britain have highlighted what appears to be an unprecedented revolt against power structures around the world.

Chaired by Steve Crawshaw, author and international advocacy director for Amnesty International, the discussion focused on the role of social media in modern uprisings and how the mainstream media  is responding to the use of social media in facilitating and reporting people movements.

Turi Munthe, CEO of the citizen journalism newswire, Demotix discussed how social media tools were being used for rallying people, organising protests as well as for conveying news of events, adding that the audience for such information is generally supportive:

It is absolutely clear that there have been protests over time but the question is now: does social media have an impact? It may be a zero sum game [if both sides have the technology] or do these tools serve dislocated people power better?

We’ve learnt these things more and more. One of the reasons social media has been so driven is because the audience is mainly pro what’s going on. It’s a very particular demographic.

Jacky Rowland, an Al-jazeera English correspondent based in Paris agreed that social media was an important tool but added that in previous revolutions she had covered young people had always used tools that were available in creative and courageous ways:

Yes social media provide tools, but what we are looking at here is the sheer guts and determination of young people who use what they have at the time. When you have no information about what was happening, you couldn’t read the tweets – and so you get on the streets.

Guy Aitchison, co-editor of openDemocracy’s UK blog, OurKingdom and phD student in politics at University College London, who was involved in the occupation over student fees, said social media was a way of subverting corporate influence driving aspects of mainstream media and likened it to political activism going ‘open source’

Is the consumption of news being driven by certain corporate agendas? I’d like to see these agendas being challenged through social media. Twitter is a tool like any other tool. It undermines the monopoly over information and collective actions

Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight economics editor, when asked whether social media is changing the way people protest, rather than just being a tool, said:

It is technology and the communication revolution that has done this to protest. It breaks up some of the power structures that we used to think of. The point is this – if they [protestors, for example in Iran] can’t have revolution, they will create an area of control that exists with the power structure

As to how social media has influenced the coverage of media organisations, he came up with what might have been the most memorable quote of the evening:

If you give Frodo Baggins a mobile phone, the plot of Lord Of The Rings becomes a lot shorter – social media allows you get to the end of the story a lot quicker.