You Say You Wanna a Social Media Revolution? Get a Picture

The phenomenon of the social media revolution is about four years old, if you take the June 2009 Green Movement or Green Revolution in Iran as a starting point. So now seemed like an appropriate moment to do a quick recap of social media uprisings to date, and survey them for any common elements. One thing certainly stands out: the incredible power of visual imagery and short video clips shared over social media.

The most recent protest movement, in the Philippines, brought 100,000 people into the streets over the weekend to protest “pork barrel” politics: many protesters wore pig masks to show what they thought of the current inhabitants of the halls of power. The anti-corruption protests were triggered by photographs of the daughter of one corrupt businesswoman whose extravagant lifestyle has earned her the nickname “the new Imelda,” after the shoe-collecting wife of dictator Ferdinand Marcos: the 23-year-old’s Facebook and Twitter accounts included pictures of her frolicking London and Paris, her Porsche, her extravagant birthday parties, and -- wait for it -- her luxury shoe collection.

In Turkey in May and June of this year, a small demonstration to block the destruction of a public park in Istanbul became a massive protest movement after users posted photos of instances of police brutality when the authorities broke up the original, peaceful sit-in. Later the protests gained momentum when participants shared photos of police manhandling young women. The Turkish government viewed the threat of imagery so seriously that they subsequently arrested several dozen people who shared photos of police brutality on charges of inciting rebellion.

In Egypt, the revolution which toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was sparked by photos of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old who was beaten to death by the police after refusing to pay them a bribe. Pictures of his bloody, battered body were circulated via social media, and the Facebook page set up to commemorate him, “We Are All Khaled Said,” became a focal point used to organize protests.

More broadly the Arab Spring of 2010 (of which the Egyptian Revolution was a part) was triggered by the public suicide of a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself after being slapped and insulted by a municipal inspector. Photos of Bouazizi’s self-immolation, and another photo of him in happier times, soon became icons of the desperation and hopelessness felt by Arab youth across the Middle East. Photos and video of subsequent protests in Tunisia, picked up from social media by Al Jazeera and broadcast across the region, helped touch off protests in other countries.

The original social media rebellion, Iran’s Green Movement, also had its martyred icon: Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot by a pro-government militia member at a protest on June 20, 2009. Like the other images discussed above, the harrowing footage of her death, taken by a fellow protester as her music teacher desperately tries to save her life, galvanized public opinion against the Iranian government in a way that no verbal propaganda ever could. And again like the other images it will live online forever, an eternal wellspring of revolution.

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