What China can tell us about social media’s role in the spreading Jasmine Revolutions
Mainstream media treatment of technology’s role in the civil uprisings that started in Tunisia in December has ranged from blissful enthusiasm to sur-Gladwellian scepticism. Social media has undoubtedly facilitated organisational communication between grassroots activists and unhappy citizens, it has contributed to the speed with which civil action has taken effect in uprising nations, and has added an element to coverage of such actions that is new to the global media landscape.
However, the degree to which technology has instigated the upheavals and how effective they might have been without social and communicative technologies is still up for debate.
Yesterday, Taipei Times reported that over 100 people were arrested in Beijing, Shanghai and 11 other cities for demonstrating against China’s communist government – action that was originally called for on the US based, Chinese language news site boxun.com.
Today, the boxun homepage was redirected to a “Temporary Site,” the top of which read they “can not be open during the attack,” according to Google Chrome’s native translate function.
This morning, much was reported on the Chinese government’s sophisticated technological response to the call to action.
The Australian reported that Chinese president Hu Jintao called a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, provincial and military leaders to “properly understand the new changes and characteristics in the domestic and international situations.” Jintao said: “All elements that cause disharmony should be erased at the offspring stage, and the virtual world (internet) should be closed watched, and public opinions should be better guided.”
The New York Times reported “The words ‘Jasmine Revolution,’ borrowed from the successful Tunisian revolt, were blocked on sites similar to Twitter and on Internet search engines, while cellphone users were unable to send out text messages to multiple recipients.”
The AP, via www2.scnow.com said the Chinese government “has limited media reports about [the Middle Eastern uprisings], stressing the instability caused by the protests, and restricted Internet searches to keep Chinese uninformed about Middle Easterners’ grievances against their autocratic rulers.” ”Beijing’s tight grip on the country’s media, Internet and other communication forums poses difficulties for anyone trying to organize mass demonstrations.”
Al Jazeera emphasised the tech edge to swelling popular discontent, by leading its story with the headline: “call me if there’s a revolution.
Via the Independent, the AP went a step further in connecting the dots between social media and effective civil unrest: “The chances of toppling the Communist government remain slim, considering Beijing’s tight controls over the media and the internet.”
So, is social media the bit of organisational lubricant that’s instigated the speed and, in some cases, effectiveness of the situation in North Africa, the Middle East, and now in China? Or are we seeing the media beat the drum of an easy angle that makes Westerners feel good and comfortable about their increasing addiction to Facebook, Twitter and their constituents?
N.B. – Wikipedia had included a China section in its “Jasmine Revolution” entry as early as 6am Monday, 21 February.