Most of us couldn’t survive day-to-day without the internet and its host of benign distractions. But for many others, the internet is quite literally a survival tool — one that connects them with the rest of the world and gives them a voice to speak out against tyranny.
And since the world now seems gripped by unprecedented political turmoil, it’s worth a look at how the internet — and social media specifically — has helped protests and political uprisings gain traction all across the world, from the Dakota Access Pipeline to the war-torn streets of Aleppo.
Dakota Access Pipeline
One of the most contentious political issues currently underway on American soil is the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which threatens a burial ground and water source used by the Sioux people living on the Standing Rock Native American Reservation.
Yes — in 2016, we’re still arguing about the merits of building new pipelines. Those arguing for construction point to crude oil and natural gas as inoffensive “stopgaps” to see us through until America gets serious about renewables. Those opposed to the pipeline suggest that the cost of the pipeline would be better spent on wind or solar farms, and that eminent domain is a terrible excuse for an oil company to seize and perform construction on land privately owned by American citizens. Either way, the burden of proof is now on Dakota Access, LLC, which has to prove the pipeline would perform a “public service” and that it has thoroughly addressed the standard safety concerns for a project of this magnitude.
Whatever your feelings on the matter might be, there’s little question DAPL protesters have been grateful for the soapbox afforded them by social media. People all across the country have been “checking in” at the Standing Rock Reservation on Facebook in an attempt to 1) Confuse local police officers hoping to track would-be protestors and 2) Stand in (virtual) solidarity with the protesters in South Dakota and their supporters.
The demonstration has now reached a fever pitch, with Senator Bernie Sanders openly encouraging the President to halt the pipeline indefinitely. Thanks to the internet, this messy issue is getting the attention of all the right people.
Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War
Elsewhere in the world, social media is bringing attention in areas of conflict where the stakes are even higher.
The Arab Spring has been an absolutely monumental event in recent history. It has helped to topple brutal dictatorships and bring awareness to Arab civilians throughout the world that there are entire hidden communities dedicated to rooting out corruption and weakening religion’s stranglehold on politics and public discourse. The Arab Spring reverberated throughout the world, but held special significance for Tunisia, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Although messy and complex conflicts rage on in several of these countries, Tunisia has made the successful transition to democracy.
But that would never have been possible if the internet hadn’t allowed these would-be revolutionaries to collaborate.
Fear is the greatest enemy to a cause like this one. When what’s being fought against is so entrenched and so powerful, simply knowing others out there share your vision for the future is strength enough. That’s the role Twitter played in Arab Spring — and continues to play in the Syrian Civil War that resulted from it. People know now that they don’t struggle in isolation, and that their problems have the attention of world governments that can help bring an end to the bloodshed.
In other words, if Syria goes on to follow in Tunisia’s footsteps, it will be because their revolution was emboldened by modern communication technology, which helped accomplish that which would have been impossible in another time and place.
Black Lives Matter
Finally, no roundup of social media-backed revolutions would be complete without mentioning Black Lives Matter. You may be as troubled as I am by the pushback this movement has received from America’s conservative wings, but that’s a discussion for another time. For right now, it’s worth merely reflecting on this loosely affiliated group’s understanding of the power of social media.
Consider for a moment the message sent by Philando Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, when she live-streamed the aftermath of his death on Facebook. It’s hard to believe that Castile was just one of scores of black men killed by white cops this year, but his story was unique in the speed with which it was spread and the method used to do so. America knew what was happening even before the blood was dry, which is as remarkable as it is chilling.
This is an extreme example, to be sure — but it’s incredibly instructive. The world has grown much smaller in just a few short years, and we owe it all to modern technologies. Without the Internet, police brutality, abusive pipeline companies and their (literal) attack dogs, murderous dictators and racist Presidential candidates would all still hold sway in their respective corners of the globe, unopposed. Technology gives us a voice — and with that voice, unity.
Next time you hear a friend rhapsodizing about how contemptible social media is and how “alone” it makes us, point them in the direction of DAPL, or Syrians on the ground in Aleppo, who are proving that technology can be something more than a distraction.
Top photo: Twitter/Allen Brown
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Holly Whitman is a feminist writer and political journalist, originally from London but now based in Washington DC. Her work has been featured on Feministing, Fortune, Babble, Yahoo Finance and more. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman or at her blog, Only Slightly Biased.