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Social Media and Youth Participation in Protest Activity

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 4589 words Published: 7th Aug 2019

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Media and technology have had various uses over the past few decades including the spread of information, entertainment etc. But one of the most overlooked uses is that of their involvement in social reform. Many popular ideas are spread through various forms of media which make it an important influencer. However, the most fascinating ability of new media is that it enables ordinary citizens to connect and organize themselves with little to no costs, and the world to bear witness. Ideas generated in such conversations can sometimes be used to bring about social change in the community and emphasize the social facts that are already present. But this social reform is not just limited to professional journalists – people, especially youth, are now taking matters into their own hands through internet campaigns.

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This paper aims to analyze the progress of media and the internet’s role as a medium of social change and how this capability has been leveraged by the young citizens of the world to foster revolutions. This paper will examine certain social media reform movements, focused on protest activity in oppressed regions, and see how the internet mobilization was helpful in promoting the social change discussed. For information about these reform movements, data will be used from articles, archives, and reports. This paper aims to find out whether the development of media and technology over the past few decades has helped people organize social reform initiatives and how much of a role do the young people have to play in this. Since there has been tremendous globalization and improvement in communication technologies, many movements have been able to garner a greater amount of support. The introduction of social media such as blogs, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter as a new means to network socially, acts as the new catalyst tool in the formation of social movements. However, it is important to see where that growth is coming from. New variables as the measures of social, economic, and institutional well-being, as well as, the presence of social media in different countries, must be discussed in order to explain the occurrence of social movements. It is also essential to see whether this increased interaction and engagement are producing the required results. Finally, this paper will use the case study of the Egyptian revolution to understand the role of the social media and the youth in protest activity. Thus, even though the magnitude of social reform has increased over the past few years, the role of social media and technology in promoting that growth must be brought to light.

Political Action and Protest Behavior in the Modern World

Political action in the recent democracies has had three elements in common: the dominant role of the youth, absence of political parties as the main organizers and the use of social media as means of political action. All these factors are a result of various developments in the world and have become characteristic of protest behavior in several countries.

Firstly, the youth have been extremely active in taking political action because of their ‘post-materialism’ ideology (‘Post-materialism is the transformation of individual values from materialist, physical and economic to new individual values of autonomy and self-expression). Modernization and value change theory argue that economic development leads to a spread of the post-materialistic values among people and encourages self-expression and behavior challenging those in a position of power (Valenzuela, Arriagada & Scherman 2012). Since most of the youth today have been brought up in this long period of rapid development and growth, they are more likely to adopt these postmaterialist values. This also makes them more likely to engage in protests rather than conform to the traditional electoral system.

Second, most of the protest activity that we see today is a result of people connecting and protesting as a whole. There is usually no political party or leader heading these movements. This happens because people in these movements have a distrust for power and because the formation of virtual networks has allowed a flattening of the organizational hierarchies. It is a true representation of democracy where people come together to fight against a concentrated source of power. This has been seen across the world – from Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution to Egypt’s Tahrir Square Protests (Valenzuela, Arriagada & Scherman 2012).

Third, social media has begun playing a very important role in connecting people to give rise to the aforementioned leaderless movements. People can organize themselves at almost no cost and in minimal time, and expand their network to almost anyone who supports their cause. Given the rapid increase in the use of social media, this network allows people to communicate news and organize events. Also, since the youth has begun engaging in protest activity and is privy to the use of the internet, social media provides the perfect mode of communication to mobilize support.

Social Media and Social Movements

Tilly defines social movements as a series of contentious performances, displays, and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claims on others. Such movements can be important for social change and can have implications in the form of a regime change. Study of such movements helps us understand the grievances of the people and how they effectively mobilized to bring about reform. In recent years, this mobilization has been brought about by social media. The younger generation has taken to the internet to inform and network with people to engage them in political conversation. While social media is seen as a major positive force in today’s social reforms, the major question that must be examined is that of the extent of the role of social media in making these movements a success. Claims for these questions are divided into three parts – optimism, pessimism, and ambivalence.

Techno-optimists argue that social media technologies have immense potential to solve social problems. They acknowledge the challenges that come with social media, but still, believe that the benefits outweigh the costs. One of the strongest statements for this optimism can be found in Manual Castell’s Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (2012). In this work, Castell argues that as the information age (which he alternately refers to as network society or informational society) develops, the real power goes in the hands of programmers and switchers. He believes that the only logical form of communication in such a society is social media. But along with this online network, there needs to exist a physical network that brings this cyber network to life in the form of street protests. He is therefore of the opinion that cyber-activism complements street activism. Another popular techno-optimist, Clay Shirky, believes that “the key issue is not the technology itself but the change in human behavior that the technology enables. Using both sociology and psychology, Shirky claims that humans avoid coordinated action because of the fear that others will freeload off their altruism. But that fear of action shifts when the speed, costs, and risks of action are reduced and when there are trustworthy safeguards in place that govern the actions of others and reduce the risk of freeloading.” (Kidd & McIntosh 2016)

Techno-pessimists, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the discussed benefits of social media are superficial and that they have no real-world consequences in relation to human interaction. Malcolm Gladwell, a well-known journalist, is a techno-pessimist who argues that social media activism is only a small change and that to start revolutions, you need to have a stronger and more tightly knit network. He also reviews Morozov’s work, who argues against the overwhelming exaggeration of benefits of social media by cyber-utopians. While Morozov acknowledges that social media can be powerful, he questions the use of such media by the right people. He urges people to have a cyber-realistic approach as social media can only inform people but not make them come out on the streets.

Finally, techno-ambivalents fall in the middle. They refuse to hype the results of the past or the possibility of the future. They wait for the results of the action resulting from social media and its impact on political activity. Techno-ambivalence recognizes the power that individuals have in engaging with each other over social media. It balances the scales by understanding the possibility of social media instructing social change but also does not assume that it is a direct outcome of the Internet.

Youth, Social Media and Political Participation

Youth have generally been disengaged from conventional politics, but their role in recent political activities is noteworthy. While this progress is assumed to have been fueled mostly by the problems they face in society, grievances alone are not enough to give birth to revolutions. This is where social media comes in and gives people a tool to successfully garner support and put their message across with little to no costs.

Social networking websites function as information hubs that allow users to remain in contact and exchange updates regarding their activities with others who share their interests. Those who belong to social movements and political groups can thus build relationships with one another, receive mobilizing information that they may not obtain elsewhere, thus expanding their opportunities to engage in political activities. This effort is also dependent on the networks we have in society and the transfer of power through those networks. As Foucault mentions, “Power must, I think, be analyzed as something that circulates, or rather as something that functions only when it is part of a chain. It is never localized here or there, it is never in the hands of some, and it is never appropriated in the way that wealth or a commodity can be appropriated. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power” (Foucault 1976). Thus, a modern interpretation of these networks would be the social networks that we have online. These networks have a flow of information through them and give the youth power to share grievances and organize.

Additionally, since young people are influenced by the postmodernist values, they tend to question the concentration of power with the elite and become particularly involved in spreading out that power to the citizens. As mentioned earlier, the postmaterialist values drive today’s youth to fight for their rights and express their feelings against the injustice that they have suffered. But because of the rise of fake news and control of many media outlets by large corporations or political parties, it has become difficult for people to be fully informed before engaging in political action. As McNair (2009) puts it, “high-quality, independent news journalism which provides accurate and thoughtful information and analysis of current events is crucial to the creation of an enlightened citizenry that is able to participate meaningfully in society and politics.” However, since this model has recently failed around the world, the younger citizens have decided to use social media to spread news relevant to them and engage in citizen journalism to inform people before taking political action.

Technological Determinism

Many people have attributed the success of several successful revolutions to the use of social media. Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and an online activist who created the Facebook page that helped organize the Egypt uprising, called it ‘‘Revolution 2.0’’ and said, ‘‘I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him . . . if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet’’ (Lim 2012). However, other people are of the opinion that protests will happen when people are oppressed, and that social media and the Internet have a very minimal role to play in it. Such opinions are a part of the polarized discussion around the effect of the Internet on politics and technological determinism.

Technological determinism is the theory that a society’s technology determines its cultural values, social structure, and history. It has been a widely debated concept throughout history, with differing opinions by many famous writers. During the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan won a large following as he argued that every major form of communication had reshaped the way people saw their world, causing changes in both public behavior and political institutions (Nye 2006). He believed that technology was deterministic and that it affects the social and cultural context. However, Nye (2006) argues that deterministic conceptions of technology seem misguided when one looks closely at the invention, the development, and the marketing of individual devices. While these opinions are at the ends of the spectrum, Marx (2010) provides a more balanced view. According to him, “By consigning technologies to the realm of things, this well-established iconography distracts attention from the human—socioeconomic and political—relations which largely determine who uses them and for what purposes.” Technologies are not inherently deterministic; their effect on society depends on how people use them. In the case of social media and protests, just the presence of technology does not make the chances of a successful revolution higher. Only when humans use social media for a collective action with purpose does technology change the social context. Technology is just a tool that can help create networks to reach people and inform and persuade them for a purpose.

Case Study: Egypt

An important case study to understand the influence of social media and the youth on protest activity is the revolution that took place in Egypt. While many people attribute the success of this revolution to technology, it is an oversimplification to call it a “Facebook revolution”. There needs to be a recognition that the social media was an important tool in helping people share ideas and form networks, but it was ultimately the people who came together, took initiative and toppled the Mubarak presidency.

While the revolution became popular globally only around 2010, it can be traced back to the Kefaya movement in 2004, which was started by online blogs and forums. It was the first oppositional nonpartisan coalition movement that had no physical headquarters or meeting place.  The participants of this revolution communicated with supporters through its main Website, Haraka-Masria.org, and through MisrDigitial.com, which hosted ‘‘Egyptian Awareness,” the country’s first independent digital newspaper. The movement also helped the emergence of the youth activism online on Facebook and Twitter in 2008.

The youth of Egypt is said to have played a major role in this revolution because of several reasons. First, around the time of the revolution, unemployment soared and reached 24% in December 2010. Since about a third of Egypt’s population at the time was in the age range of 15-29 years, they were the ones struggling with the burden of no jobs. Second, the Egyptian youth had high biographical availability. Biographical availability can be defined as ‘‘the absence of personal constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation, such as full-time employment, marriage, and family responsibilities’’ (Lim 2012). From this perspective, the youth had lower costs of participating in political action and so were active in this revolution. Finally, Egypt has a high social media usage among young urbanites because of increased internet penetration. Since the youth already had a high level of biographical availability, social media provided them with the platform they needed to organize. This increased the size of the movement and expanded the likelihood of participation through the networks.

The Kefaya Movement initially used mobile phones and the Internet to connect people and coordinate their protest activity. This helped them bypass mainstream media, especially in countries like Egypt where most media are state-controlled. It also contributed to a shared sense of purpose and probably became an important factor in the overall revolution. The Kefaya movement also gave birth to the Youth for Change. This was a group created to reach the youth by using more relevant forms of social media and popular culture. However, by 2008 the Kefaya movement was in decline because of its limited use of the Internet. This gave rise to the April 6th Youth Movement which was a call for a strike on April 6th, 2008 by young Egyptians belonging to various political organizations. It was the first movement to take advantage of Facebook as a platform for political conversation, along with traditional Internet sources like blogs, Youtube etc. While many people joined the Facebook groups and increased online participation, it did not necessarily translate into the offline protests on the streets.

However, this passive participation changed with the “We are all Khaled Said” movements. It started on 6th June 2010, when 28-year-old Said was seized by the Egyptian police at an Internet cafe in Alexandra and beaten to death in the street. Once this news of police brutality was publicized on Facebook, people started to organize themselves in large numbers. This was because they now had symbolic representation and a figure to fight against the authorities. Further, Facebook allowed the movement to bring in people who were previously weak ties in the network and get them to participate in the movement. It was this sentiment and outreach through Facebook that made the protest in Tahrir Square in 2011 a reality.


Social media plays an active role in helping individuals connect with each other. The networks built through these modes of communication go beyond the physical confines of distance. This ability to connect and transfer information plays a major role in helping people organize and protest in the modern world, at little to no cost. This participation is also seen as being higher in the youth because of their upbringing in an age of networks and information, postmaterialist values and familiarity with the technology. Such participation becomes more apparent when the youth feel more strongly for the cause and have high biographical availability.

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However, increased use of technology itself cannot drive social movements. People need to believe in the cause and be motivated to give up time and energy. As we saw in Egypt, there was great online participation but that did not translate into street activism until people had an event or a cause that united them. Thus, while social media is essential for creating a fertile context and mode of communication for a revolution, it cannot cause the revolution itself. Participation from citizens, especially the youth, is required for a movement to be a success.

Annotated Bibliography

Foucault, M. (1976). Two. In D. Macey (Trans.), “Society Must Be Defended” Lectures At The College De France. New York: Picador.

Foucault spends a lot of time discussing the power dynamics in this chapter. She believes that power is not about who possesses it or how it is being used – it is about how it is obtained and how it flows through society. This flow of power can happen through networks, procedures, systems, and institutions. Power also does not stay in the hands of one person for long. It precedes any form of government and can be reorganized. Power mechanism are also unique to the time, place and demographics. I thus use this source to analyze the participation of the youth through the power shifts and understand how they were able to attain the power through social media.

Kidd, D., & McIntosh, K. (2016). Social media and social movements. Sociology Compass, (9), 785.

This essay explores social science claims about the relationship between social networking and social movements. It examines research done on the relationship between social networking, the promotion of activism, and off-line participation in the streets. It examines if social networking sites are helpful in helping people communicate their message and getting people to organize. It further tries to determine if it is just one of many tools they may use or is the technology so powerful that the right use will tip the scales in favor of the social movement. I use this source to define the relationship between social media and politics and understanding the range of opinions regarding the influence of social media on protest behavior.

Lopes, A. R. (2014). The impact of social media on social movements: The new opportunity and mobilizing structure. Retrieved from https://www.creighton.edu/fileadmin/user/CCAS/departments/PoliticalScience/Journal_of_Political_Research__JPR_/2014_JSP_papers/Lopes_JPR.pdf

This source seeks to explain and test the formation process of social movements by addressing two overarching interrelated factors: opportunity structures and mobilizing structures. It explains how social movements are caused by opportunity structures such as economic, institutional, and social contexts of a country conditioned by its access to social media. Social movements are not created by a single variable but rather by a set of variables that create an interaction effect. The introduction of social media into the discussion is thought to have completely changed the way people are able to organize. I use this source to explain the interaction between social media and movements in terms of the structures of society.

Lim, M. (2012). Clicks, Cabs, and Coffee Houses: Social Media and Oppositional Movements in Egypt, 2004–2011. Journal of Communication, 62, 231–48.

This source helps to deepen our understanding of the relationship between social media and political change during the Egyptian uprising of early 2011 since I explore the role of social media in the protests in this region. According to the paper, events in Tahrir Square must be situated in a larger context of media use and recent history of online activism. For several years, the most successful social movements in Egypt, including Kefaya, the April 6th Youth, and We are all Khaled Said, were those using social media to expand networks of disaffected Egyptians, broker relations between activists, and globalize the resources and reach of opposition leaders. Social media afforded these opposition leaders the means to shape repertoires of contention, frame the issues, propagate unifying symbols, and transform online activism into offline protests. This aids me in explaining the cultural and political context of the protests and why social media became such a powerful tool in this time and region.

Marx, L. 2010. Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept In Technology and Culture, 51: 561-577.

Technology — both the word and the objects it describes — is rampant in our world. It is shaping the life of almost everyone in this world in at least one way every day. This is what Marx sees as the hazard of technology, saying that technology can be a problem if we let it be. I use this theory by Marx to bring in an argument about the use of technology. I use his argument to understand technological determinism and conditions required for a technology to be helpful for society, as opposed to being “hazardous”.

McNair, B. (2009). Journalism and Democracy. (n.d.). In K. Wahl-Jorgensen & T. Hanitzsch (Eds.), The Handbook Of Journalism Studies. New York: Taylor and Francis Group.

This chapter explores the role played by journalism in democratic societies, past and present, both from the normative and the pragmatic perspectives and critically assesses its contribution to the development and maintenance of democratic political cultures. Journalism has been a cornerstone in democratic societies by providing information to the country’s citizens to help them make informed decisions. But sometimes the media is oppressed, and journalism is not able to fulfill these roles. Thus, I use this source to understand how these features of journalism are a part of the social media movements and how the concept of citizen journalism rises in this context.

Nye, D. E. (2006). Does Technology Control Us? In Technology Matters: Questions to Live with. The MIT Press.

In this source, Nye discusses technological determinism and how it affects society. He strongly disagrees with the idea that technology can bring about change in the society on its own. He also discusses the opinions of McLuhan on the subject, which I use to give a better understanding of the concept. I use this source to determine how social media is generally used and perceived and how its impact changes when it is used for a purpose. I also use this source to explore the theory of technological determinism and whether it plays a role in the context of political uprising through social media. 

Valenzuela, S., Arriagada, A., & Scherman, A. (2012). The social media basis of youth protest behavior: The case of Chile. Journal of Communication, 62, 299-314.

While this source is majorly about the political protests in Chile, it helps us draw some conclusions and parallels with the situation in Egypt. Protest activity has become a central means for political change in Chile. The paper explores how this situation has risen from the association between social media use and youth protest, as well as complex mechanisms of this relationship. It is found that Facebook use was associated significantly with protest activity, even after taking into account political grievances, material and psychological resources, values, and news media use. I use these findings to inform my analysis of the connection between the youth, their social media use and political unrest in Egypt and also viewing it from a more fundamental perspective that could be applied anywhere in the world. 


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