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Social Media Collides with Social Unrest at the #WomensMarch

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Olivia Jeffers

January 22 · Issue #11 · View online

Welcome to Compassionate Technologies. Here you'll get a dose of real science and business in your inbox every Sunday morning. Why? Because cutting-edge research shouldn't be locked in an ivory tower. This newsletter covers the relationships between machine learning, robotics, genetic engineering, and climate science. It's all connected, and it's my passion to simplify and make clear those connections for all of you. Love, Olivia.


Yesterday at the Women’s March in Boston Common, the cell towers were so overloaded that we lost messaging, Twitter, and Instagram. In the sudden void of mobile comms, I thought back to other protests and riots driven by social media, where the government responded with communication censorship. Here’s a reflection on social media, technology, and unrest since 2009.

My thoughts exactly, from the #WomensMarch in Boston Common
My thoughts exactly, from the #WomensMarch in Boston Common
The largest threat to any dictatorship or monarchy is the unrest of the people. The introduction of social media technologies layered on top of global communications creates a shift in government-civilian power dynamics, tilting and warping centuries old status quos into confusing Van Goghs.
Social media has driven protests and revolutions all around the world. Let’s take a look at a few, starting with the unrest in Muslim China in 2009, the Arab Spring in 2011, and the nationwide #WomensMarch following Trump’s inauguration just yesterday - we ask the question, how is our relationship with government changing?
2009, Xinjiang Riot, China Censors Twitter and YouTube
Watching footage from the Xinjiang riot is enough to make anyone sad for humanity. Strangers walking down the sidewalk threw cinder blocks at and kicked a poor man unlucky enough to already have been beaten. Crowds grabbing, shaking, flipping and burning cars. The mentality that exists in mob situations brings out the worst in all of us. A certain pleasure in savagery and violence that unrecognized and not dealt with, manifests in the worst of ways.
After the riots, China quickly shut down Twitter and YouTube within the country and dedicated resources to deleting posts from domestic social media sites like Founfou.com, China’s version of Twitter at the time.
The tensions that existed in the area have existed for a long time, with the Han Chinese (the majority race) being appointed to Uighur Xinjian (minorities) regions to tip the population scales in Han favor. While this arrangement has been by no means favorable to either party involved, the autonomous regions stayed in a rickety balance through the following exchange: Xinjiang is a large buffer to Muslim land and a large territory for China, China provides infrastructure and government support from a central location to a relatively sparsely populated area.
The technological shift: Imagine now that the sparse and previously nomadic populations can communicate more frequently by social media and cell phones. They no longer need government support as much. What happens? How does the relationship change?
2011, The Arab Spring, Catalyzed by Social Media
In 2011, social unrest in the Arab world, across the Middle East and North Africa, blossomed into a series of protests and revolutions, taking international social media by storm. While social media was not the cause of unrest, it was a catalyst that merged many small pieces of burning kindling into a large and roaring fire. The results from the Arab spring being long term and lasting changes in the direction of democratic governance.
In Egypt, Wael Ghonim, a Google employee with more than 200,000 followers became active in helping throw off the scent and lead protests. In response, the Egyptian government shut down Internet access. Engineers at Google and Twitter then created Speak2Tweet, allowing direct voice-to-Tweet communications.
The technological shift: Before mobile communication and social media, a small protest in one village would burn out by the time news reached the next. Getting the right rhythm and frequency of unrest necessary for a larger revolution was difficult and risky. However, with social media, power went into the hands of the connected masses and out of the hands of militaristic or autocratic rulers.
2017, The Women’s March, Born on Social Media
Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of watching the Women’s March from a treetop in Boston Common. Tens of thousands of men and women gathered in a tidal wave to advocate for equal rights for people of all races, genders, religions or ability. Women gathered nationwide in major cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago - all posting on twitter #WomensMarch, uniting the movement across the nation.
The spark? Donald Trump, and maybe he sure did make America great again by mobilizing women and other underrepresented populations to stand and march together. Not exactly the wall he was talking about during the election period, which was highly publicized on Twitter and Facebook, whose newsfeed algorithms may have fanned the flames of partisan divide.
Similar to the Rally for Sanity in 2010 in Washington, D.C., telecommunications were interrupted and I was unable to share or access Twitter, Instagram, or even message at the event. In rare situations like this, I truly realize and feel the power of mobile communications when I was suddenly left without.
The technological shift: There have been other movements such as Occupy Wall Street in 2015 that were born on social media. The Occupy movement was much more violent, as opposed to the Women’s March where people seemed to be happy to be out and socializing under a common cause. However, lack of violence does not imply lack of effectiveness. There is an increased potential for action derived from the feelings of unity and cohesiveness that were generated today.
The Big Questions for Technologists
Will women’s groups be able to organize and strategically use social media to channel the potential for action in a controlled manner, versus the large and violent eruptions of the past? Time will tell.
Useful Links...
Is China fraying?
China tightens Web screws after Xinjiang riot
The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring
Let's design social media that drives real change
The Triumph of Occupy Wall Street
Thanks from Olivia :)
Timelapse of the Boston Common #WomensMarch
Timelapse of the Boston Common #WomensMarch
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