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OP-ED: The Arab Spring: Youth, Freedom and the Tools of Technology

CALIFORNIA, U.S., Apr 16 2012 (IPS) - Wielding mobile phones and computers, the young activists across the Middle East have altered the way the world approaches popular mobilisation, social networks and Internet freedom.

The Internet can be a transformational force for societies and individuals, allowing for organisation on a mass scale and the free flow of information. However, we must remember that the Internet and social media are tools that do not bring change themselves, but act as facilitators in spreading the ideas.

The seminal use of social media as vehicles for change in the Arab Spring uprisings exemplifies the power of web-based communication and makes a strong case for Internet freedom.

Web-based communications have been used by young, tech literate activists across the Middle East for three core purposes: organisation, exposure and leverage. Youth led efforts to organise social and political movements, expose the injustices of governments and leverage internal and external stakeholders acted as catalysts for uprisings which would have otherwise remained dormant.

Social networks allow for communication across geopolitical, cultural and linguistic barriers. This tool allowed the youth leaders of Egypt, the West Bank, Jordan, etc. to organise in revolutionary new ways by creating online communities of supporters and using those networks to bring people into the streets and rally international support for their cause.

As mobile devices and smart phones become increasingly common, protesters are able to gather at a moment’s notice. This level of organisation is made possible by near instant communication and a network of vigilant, tech literate devotees.

Additionally, groups are able to develop, collaborate on and distribute content to a seemingly limitless audience. The ability of young activists to organise using technology has brought the nature of citizen action to a new level and given voice to previously unheard narratives.

Web-based communications, including blogs, YouTube and RSS allow for personal, unofficial or nongovernmental narratives to be exposed and widely consumed. Embedded in the nature of the Internet is the possibility to share multiple narratives through an array of platforms.

With the barrier to Internet access lowered each day, more people have the option to participate in self-expression via the web. However, the idea that everyone should have the ability to share their opinion over the Internet has quickly become contentious.

Citizen journalism and activists’ blogs have exposed the atrocities perpetrated by otherwise opaque regimes. In these situations, the Internet poses an existential threat to the government’s power to control a national narrative, but provides a space for free speech.

Predictably, civilians have been targeted and tracked by their governments for attending rallies, publishing anti-government content or posting footage of state perpetrated violence. Websites have been censored and attacked. Web access has been limited or debilitated. Clearly, social media and Internet-based communications are tools that hold the potential to both help and harm.

The leverage young activist have is both domestic and international. Much like the Velvet Revolution when youth mobilised across all sectors of Czech society to protest Soviet rule, the young activists of the Arab Spring brought people from across age, religious and class barriers together under a single banner.

Exposure of governmental wrongdoing through online citizen journalism can pressure the international and domestic media to focus on particular important events. However, leverage can reach even further; the protests in Tahrir Square helped pressure the United States to reassess its support of Hosni Mubarak.

Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee affirmed that the protections guaranteed by International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) apply to online communication. This announcement confirms that bloggers have the same protections as journalists.

Additionally, U.N. Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue issued a report which states that Internet use has become an important means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression. Denying such a right is a violation of the ICCPR.

While the idea that unrestricted Internet as a basic human right is far from a reality, its use by a young generation of tech-savvy Middle Eastern activists has put web-based social media communications at the centre of the debate on freedom, democracy and change.

*Megan Martin’s specialty is ethnic identity and U.S. foreign policy in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. She has a master’s degree in politics from New York University.

© 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

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