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Social Media under Duress: State Responses to Political Expression and Social Mobilization in Repressive Regimes

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Social media, in a number of diverse forms, figures prominently in both routine and crisis situations to initiate and amplify political action. Events beginning with the Green Revolution in Iran (2009), anti-government protests in North Africa (2011), and violent protests in Syria (2012) have employed varying methods of social media mobilization. Political mass movements are relying on social media networks for late-breaking events, civil disobedience, network activism, and a host of similar functions. These technological potentialities are proving to be effective methods for keeping protest movements active, recruiting both leaders and followers, and in countering state-controlled media. Governments have been slow to recognize the power of social media to organise and direct opposition and protest movements. Yet the experiences of 2011, especially during the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, have raised the profile of social media in the purview of state and society alike. Governments unsympathetic to organised, unmanaged political opposition are planning and implementing specific technical and political and other measures to control the access and use of social media networks for political action. This paper will utilize a model that takes these experiences and events as inputs through which to profile the interactions between political opposition and civil society groups, and steps taken by governments to inhibit or suppress social media-based mobilization. The model generates four dimensions of social media use: (1) Access; (2) Anonymity; (3) Awareness; and (4) Advocacy. Each dimension represents a scale of conditions that enables and enhances the power of social media in the context of political protest or, conversely, inhibits the utility of social media to place demands on government. I will examine three cases (Iran, 2009, Tunisia, 2010-2011, and Egypt 2011) to: (1) illuminate the initial conditions in each country for the employment of social media as a catalyst for political opposition and protest; (2) chart the course of various social media techniques and parallel human organization during active periods of public protest; (3) identify initial attempts by governments to control or inhibit the use of these social media and their underlying communications infrastructure; and (4) reveal subsequent plans and actions by successor governments to encourage, discourage, block, or otherwise control, future use of these technologies.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 February 2013

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  • The St Antony's International Review (STAIR) is the only peer-reviewed journal of international affairs at the University of Oxford. Set up by graduate students of St Antony's College in 2005, the Review has carved out a distinctive niche as a cross-disciplinary outlet for research on the most pressing contemporary global issues, providing a forum in which emerging scholars can publish their work alongside established academics and policymakers. Past contributors include Robert O. Keohane, James N. Rosenau, and Alfred Stepan.
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