Arab springs, British summers, and social media revolutions

We’re all still reeling a little from the events that have rocked home turf recently. From where we’ve been sitting on Mount Street, surrounded by boarded up windows and businesses still counting their losses, things aren’t that easy to overlook.
Of course here in Manchester the city and its residents got off comparatively lightly. Unlike Birmingham and London nobody died, there was no Nottingham-style firebombing of a police station, and homes were not razed to the ground. Still though the damage is evident on almost every street from Victoria to Barbirolli Square, and we’re British, not just Mancunian, meaning the situation in our capital and rival second city, amongst other places, will always affect us, and for more reasons than the devastation wreaked on some of our favourite independent record labels by the Sony/PIAS distribution centre fire.
So what should we take from all of this? There are some very serious questions to ask, with the long and short of this particular situation being that people do not usually act in such an abhorrently anti-community way if they are happy and content. But let’s leave the rest of that discussion to the social theorists and research houses, in turn allowing our attention to settle on the glaring argument for anyone interested in social media. If 2011 has seen a rise in public unrest at least aided, if not fuelled, by online networking then should we celebrate the real democratisation of free thought, or pine for simpler times when hordes of marauding rioters would only be able to organise themselves face to face, rather than via encrypted electronic messages?

It’s a debate that bastion of logic and intelligent thought, BBC Radio 4, had on Tuesday. No doubt it’s one that will take over many like-minded offices over the next few weeks too. In many Arab states the so called ‘spring’ of uprisings that continues to rock country after country has been in no small part made possible by modern media, as few would have heard about the dissent taking place behind closed doors if it weren’t for You Tube video uploads, while Twitter served as a veritable revolutionary message board. Any sceptics should take one glance at the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report (Second Edition), or at least these two statistics:
*9 in 10 Egyptians and Tunisians surveyed in March admitted to organising or spreading information of protests via Facebook.
* Egypt, Jan25, Libya, Bahrain and protest were the most popular #s in the Arab region over the first three months of 2011.
Bloodshed is never a good thing, but without viral information the toppling of dictatorships would, in many cases, still be unimaginable. It’s a message China turned into a warning for Britain, and the West, in response to the recent problems in London, Manchester, and other major UK cities. The notoriously autocratic superpower has labelled the riots ‘bitter fruit’, with state media pointing to Britain’s refusal to control social networks as a root cause. In contrast Beijing has taken an increasingly hard line against online dissent following the Middle Eastern revolts.

On the flip side though, China’s own Twitter doppelganger,, turned against its government following a high-speed rail crash last month, even with strict policing. Without getting too bogged down with specifics, 26million posts were made about the devastating train wreck in which 39 people died and hundreds were injured, making it very difficult for the powers that be to keep things under tight wraps, with the accident now being branded a metaphor for the country’s dangerously hurried modernisation. As Channel 4 news reported, such websites are “in some ways putting the fear of god into [Chinese] officials”, which isn’t surprising, considering people who have been incapable of open speech are finally being afforded a little space to talk.
Obviously the wholesale looting of high end consumer goods (and, apparently, copious right shoes) cannot be compared to real political struggle, irrespective of whether a matter of serious public interest originally sparked the troubles. So can we simply conclude that any benefits of social media, in terms of free speech, can only really be realised in oppressed regions, while those already basking in the luxury of century old democracies will only ever use such tools to spout ridiculous commentary and incite pointless violence? Have we made a mistake by allowing such online communities to develop worldwide without first outlining a comprehensive way in which to monitor these channels? Or have we finally reached a point in history wherein the world’s inequalities, injustices, and crimes can no longer be hidden, meaning the age old policies of subjugation and sweeping annoying issues under the carpet will no longer cut it?