Social Media: An Instrument of Democratic Advocacy

By Sul-ki Lee Post date: Mar 28, 2014


The events of the Arab Spring revolutions demonstrated the push by citizens for political rights and social issues. The subsequent mobilization that occurred is credited to the use of social media as a tool to inform both the domestic and international public of events instantly as they happened, beating other channels of news distribution. In order to continue the effective promotion of democracy abroad, strict regulations, censorship, and blocking must be alleviated to increase citizen exposure to information. The free flow of knowledge will thus become a forum for innovative ideas and dialogue to establish an up-to-date and well-informed civic-minded public.

The spread of democratization has resulted in adverse effects. In particular, the events of the Arab Spring that spanned from 2010 to 2013 demonstrated the effects of democracy and its presence in transitioning nations. During this time, the Arab Spring movements refuted the notion of “Arab exceptionalism” and reinforced the democracy-promotion agenda of the Western world.[1] However, through democratic assistance, often this foreign aid and influence is perceived as inherently bad and as a rhetorical façade of Western imperialism.[2] Consequently, the enforcement of Western ideals and political systems is viewed as a source of more harm than good. In order to successfully promote democracy in light of these notions in foreign areas, organizations must take into consideration factors like the varied needs of the country and respond with appropriate strategies catered to address these specific issues.[3]

The use of social media as a means to organize movements and spread information mobilized domestic protestors while informing international organizations of events as they were occurring. Although Twitter played an important role in the unrest that occurred throughout Iran, it is unclear if Twitter was used as an organizational tool for these protests or if its role was more limited to raising awareness as an “information hub”.[4] The instruments of social media enable an existing social order to become more efficient but is viewed as an insufficient means to provide the required and often needed social change.[5] The internet serves as a platform where the civic-minded can rally around a cause and to push for change; however, the issues of regulation, censorship, and blocking are crucial factors that hinder the actual ability and productive activity of these groups to advocate for their opinions. Not only do we see a highly regulated system in the Middle East, this occurrence is prominent in nations like China with a “great firewall” that forces a complex and multilayered regulatory system.[6] These blocks on the internet through service providers filter various website addresses as well as politically sensitive words. The same form of restrictive regulation is observed in Tunisia and Egypt where the governments hacked and blocked websites to hinder movement. This strict regulation, however, catalyzed groups of “hacktivist” developers who worked on open-source anticensorship and anonymization software.[7] The hacker community created a unified effort as activists to continue this movement of data to preserve the gate of information and maintain its flow.

In nations that lack the free flow of information, liberal regulation, and free accessibility, social production cannot flourish. An environment that controls exposure ultimately influences what information people are knowledgeable of. Advocacy and social advancements in society cannot occur in an atmosphere without democracies and in regimes that act without the consent of those who are governed. It is only in these free environments provided by social media that important interactions and crucial exchanges of ideas, intellectual thought, and discussion occur. Due to government regulation, users are constantly blind, unaware of the plethora of options available to them on the internet which cripples the potential to grow and become more educated. This limited and censored view of the world chokes possibilities of improving and developing nations in transition to a democratic system.

The fear of technology as a tool to mobilize dissent and influence social norms and cultural classifications internationally has resulted in this firm grip that prevents access to information. Despite the strong foothold that regimes attempt to maintain on social media outlets, groups continue to push for more information to spread awareness of what is happening as they occur. During an interview with Naguib Bebawi, a previous writer for the International Center for Journalists, the journalist emphasized the importance of constantly advocating for more rights and freedom of speech. Regimes are paranoid of losing control and giving their citizens the freedom of expression because this provides an outlet for new ideas that disperse throughout various sectors of society.[8] This then permeates through the existing structure which weakens the strong foothold the regime possesses on the people. The instrument of social media works as a crucial tool to make the “existing social order more efficient” and in the case of the Arab Springs, social media worked as a tool to provide information to protestors within the area as well as those following the news abroad.[9] This uncensored voice provided social media as an instrument through which citizens could speak from first-hand and personal accounts putting into perspective what needs were dire to the people.

The political unrest that resulted from the movements of the Arab Spring turmoil have led to surrounding Arab nations to respond with a mixture of “combining patronage, outright repression, and outreach to the protesters”.[10] In nations like Libya and Egypt, violent discord has caused further political chaos and regarding the case of Bahrain, the peaceful demands have not led to any effective solutions. However, Tunisia demonstrates a more positive shift of democracy in the works in spite of the domestic challenges the nation faces with radicalism and opposition. A “gradual path of constructing lasting democratic structures” has been paved through motions like the National Dialogue process which is “set to defuse the crisis by providing an agreed-upon interim structure”.[11] The Tunisian example demonstrates that a “stronger civil society is a guarantor of progress”.[12]

Efforts made through the EU initiative as well as any future international influence must be mindful of uncertainties since civil strife has the potential to persist for years after the conclusion of the protests.[13] Regardless of promoting the protection of human rights, cooperation within the region, and overall good governance, institutions sponsored by organizations like the EU must be flexible to the needs and work with the agenda of each country.[14] The process of promoting democracy abroad takes time and careful attention to detail. Nonetheless, social media outlets like Twitter work as a tool to not only transmit but communicate views and assessments through fast and instant information flow.[15] Although diplomatic channels are available, they are slower forms of communication where in a democratic society, there is a strong emphasis placed on discussion and dialogue.[16] In the case of the Arab Springs, uprisings that were occurring in Tunisia were being spread as they happened, keeping people both in and out of the country informed of the activities.

By creating more channels for discussion and intellectual exchange, more people can become informed and aware about events occurring throughout the world. This fight for the freedom of expression must continue in order to further the promotion of democracy in foreign countries. Although international organizations must take into consideration the domestic issues and policies of nations, current economic status, as well as social norms of each country, the presence of social media can contribute to countless dialogues that lead to more innovation and critical thinking. The open access and exposure to the information that is available via the web enables viewers to not only become more knowledgeable of international topics but also become witnesses who are given the power to document their personal accounts to inform other viewers. By maintaining a society that is liberated from heavy censorship and data blocking, the free flow of knowledge will provide for a forum for innovative ideas and dialogue, establish a well-informed civic-minded public, and further promote the democratic principles of free speech.

[1] Huber, Daniela. "Democracy Building since the Arab Spring: In Need of “Diversification”." German Marshall Fund. (2012): n. page. Web. <

[2] McFaul, Michael. Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009. Print.

[3] Huber, Daniela. "Democracy Building since the Arab Spring: In Need of “Diversification”." German Marshall Fund. (2012): n. page. Web. <

[4] Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion. Public Affairs, 2011. 15. Print.

[5] Gladwell, Malcom. "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted." New Yorker.  (2010): n. page. Print.

[6] MacKinnon, Rebecca. Consent of the Networked. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bebawi, Naguib. Internet Chat Interview. 21 Mar 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Colombo, Silvia, Kristian C. Ulrichsen, et al. "The GCC in the Mediterranean in Light of the Arab Spring."German Marshall Fund. n. page. Web. <

[11] Mneimneh , Hassan. "Tunisia's National Dialogue is a Post-Arab Spring Success Story." The German Marshall Fund. N.p., n. d. Web. <

[12] Ibid.

[13] Leigh, Michael. "Europe's Response to the Arab Spring."German Marshall Fund. (2011): n. page. Web. <>.

[14] Ibid.

[15] "Carl Bildt: Social Media Will be Vastly More Important in the Future." The German Marshall Fund. . 25 Jun 2012. Web. .

[16] Ibid.