Is social media the key to revolution?

Credit: Penny Appeal

Zuzanna Filipiuk
Writer

Zuzanna Filipiuk reflects on the impact of social media activism for the Sudanese revolution

Alaa Salah was only 22 years old when she climbed onto a car in Khartoum and started leading the chant: “Religion says that men, if they see something wrong, won’t be quiet.” A video featuring the “Nubian Queen” calling for the President of Sudan to step down went viral on social media in April. Almost instantaneously, she became the symbol of the Sudanese struggle for democracy. Thus, it is hardly surprising that when the military overthrew Omar al-Bashir only a few days later, people were euphoric — there was finally hope for their country. However, what came as a result of this coup d’etat was much less hopeful than initially thought.

It was only two months ago that I came across the first mention about the Khartoum massacre and media blackout in Sudan, which I found whilst scrolling aimlessly through Tumblr. Hundreds of thousands of my fellow users had already shared this message, hoping that it would help to raise awareness of the situation in Sudan. I wanted to help too. All I had to do was double-tap my screen. As soon as I did, I felt somewhat proud and fulfilled — I had now become part of the global social campaign, part of something bigger. And I did it without leaving the comfort of my bed.

The revolution which is currently taking place in Sudan is not the first attempt to better the socio-political situation of the country. Similar protests have taken place in Sudan twice before, but they were nothing like this revolution. For years, dissidents have tried to overthrow the government of Omar al-Bashir, but it turns out that all it took to finally take him down was one thing: bread. The rising cost of basic necessities, such as a loaf of bread or the price of fuel, led to growing unrest. Eventually, the worsening economic crisis motivated people to take to the streets with enough power and enthusiasm to finally bring Sudan one step closer to achieving democracy.

Sudan is a relatively young country which came into existence only 63 years ago, when in 1956 it gained independence from British and Egyptian rule. For 30 out of these 63 years it has been under the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, a man charged by the International Criminal Court with three counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and two counts of war crimes. The economic crisis seems to have been the last straw which brought the divided country together to overthrow Bashir. What is happening in Sudan right now could define the future of entire generations. Furthermore, it could define the future of other African countries in a similar situation to Sudan.

So what made it possible for the extremely divided country to unite against the dictatorship? Something we use for an average of two hours every day to post pictures of our daily Starbucks coffee: social media.

From the moment social media came into existence in the early 2000s, it has been used predominantly as a communication and entertainment tool. Today, it is used by 3.2 billion people around the world, which accounts for over 40% of the population. It has become a massive communication hub which allows for the rapid spread of information across the globe. No wonder it has been utilised by revolutionists from around the world as a tool for exerting social change.

In the case of Sudan, social media has not only been used to organise protests and bring Sudanese people together, but it has also been employed as a tool for raising awareness and gaining international attention. Some of the hashtags created by the protesters on Twitter and Instagram include #TasgutBas, which called for al-Bashir to step down, and #BlueForSudan, which followed the massacre in Khartoum carried out by the military in June after the social media blackout. The latter became a widespread campaign, with celebrities like Rihanna, Cardi B, and Naomi Campbell turning their profile pictures blue to spread awareness of the massacre and show their solidarity with the Sudanese people.

The moment the internet was restored, another hashtag was born: #KeepEyesOnSudan. It was meant to help inform the world about what had happened during this blackout and it accompanied thousands of images and videos featuring violence which took place during the blackout; it has become a crucial campaign which allows the world to track the progress towards democracy in Sudan.

Thanks to the persistence and global attention which these social media campaigns have drawn to the Sudanese revolution, the military government felt pressured into releasing political prisoners and resuming talks with the protesters. Eventually, with the help of Ethiopian mediators, a number of agreements have been reached, including the creation of an 11-member sovereign council consisting of both military and civilian members, as well as a transition period of three years and three months, with the military in charge for 21 months and civilians for the next 18 months.

However, as the Sudanese protesters finally reach some agreements with the transitional government, a troubling question arises: is it enough? Do these agreements stand up to the scale and potential of the protests and campaigns which they inspired? Is social media falling short in its role as a socio-political tool?

The Sudanese revolution is not the first one to use social media as a means of organising and highlighting the need for some kind of socio-political change. Before that, we have had campaigns and revolutions such as the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and the Gezi Park protests. All of these campaigns reached hundreds of thousands of people and they united the world – for a moment.

In her TED Talk about social media and its impact on social change, Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish writer, academic and techno-sociologist, draws attention to one of the major problems faced by social media activism — the fact that it tends to be short-lived.

“Nowadays, a network of tweets can unleash a global awareness campaign,” says Zeynep. However, “the achievements they were able to have, their outcomes, are not really proportional to the size and energy they inspired … are we overlooking some benefits of doing things the hard way?”

The difference between social media activism and social activism from before the internet seems to be defined by one major feature — the speed with which it develops. Social movements, such as the one led by Martin Luther King, developed over a number of years and, according to Zeynep, they “created the kind of organisation that could think together collectively and make hard decisions together,” as well as “keep going together through differences”. Zeynep highlights that we don’t have this kind of organisational structure in social movements today. Social media may be helping us to organise more quickly and raise global awareness, but without this “organisational base” and resilience (which characterised the social movements in the pre-internet era), we may miss out on the full potential of social media as a socio-political tool.

The Sudanese revolution is still going strong, with a constitutional declaration signed only at the beginning of August this year. Its future course, whether Sudan becomes a democratic country or not, and the effectiveness and longevity of social media activism, remains to be seen. But with such revolutions as the Arab Spring in mind, maybe we should remember that social media is not a golden medicine or a recipe for a successful social revolution. At least not on its own. Looking back at prominent social movements of the past — the suffragettes, the fight against slavery, and against segregation — maybe we should keep in mind that change takes effort and that this effort requires good organisational structures and logistics. This is something that social media activism is yet to provide.