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Communications Professor’s Book Examines ‘Tweeting to Freedom’

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Years of studying how activists use the internet as a global social justice platform has ballooned into a book for Anthony Fellow, professor of communications.

“Tweeting to Freedom: An Encyclopedia of Citizen Protests and Uprisings Around the World,” released in June, compares worldwide efforts to harness of the power of the internet to push for greater liberties, while some governments bar web access, filter content and intimidate its users.

“Perhaps the greatest fear among American social media users is any notion of government-imposed filters on the internet,” Fellow says.

Co-authors Fellow and Jim Willis, a retired Azusa Pacific University professor, both teach courses in international communications, which include discussions about the impact of globalization and media on economics, politics and culture.

Fellow summarizes some of the duo’s research with his answers below.

What key and common components of social media activism have you discovered in your research of more than 30 countries?

Social media activism is more likely successful if a community of like-minded people have the courage to participate. It cannot take place alone. We found that common threads can be seen when the internet is used to promote social movements. That is, they are used to:

  • Promote the need for the causes;                                                                 
  • Recruit volunteers and donors;
  • Make plans for street protests or other strategic gatherings and demonstrations; and
  • Group together like-minded individuals fighting for causes.

How has the use of social media for citizen protests in America differed from other countries?

In the summer of 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man on trial for killing Trayvon Martin, #BlackLivesMatter was made a Twitter hashtag by California labor organizer Alicia Garza, who began tweeting about the perceived injustice of letting Zimmerman go free. Dozens of different civil rights activist groups across the United States have aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, all pushing for change in the ways that African Americans are treated by police.  

In Egypt, 28-year-old Khaled Said was dragged out of an Internet café and killed by police, the same group he was accusing online of corruption. Facebook executive Wael Ghonim developed a Facebook page which spurred some 100,000 people to join the scheduled protests focusing on police brutality.

In Turkey, where 77 million citizens are active internet users, demonstrations erupted over an urban development plan for Taksi Gezi Park in Istanbul, but the protests spread when police challenged the people with tear gas and pepper spray. Later, the president and government of Turkey blocked Twitter and YouTube.

Why is this important for CSUF’s future journalists, publicists and filmmakers to study?

What makes this an intriguing topic to study is the fact that some 1.6 billion people, about 23 percent of the world’s population, have no say in how they are governed. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, among others, allow the voiceless or disenfranchised to have a voice, though the consequences could lead to punishment, imprisonment and/or death.

Social media already has had a tremendous impact on journalism. We now teach future journalists how to master multimedia and social media to tell a story. Years ago it would require expensive presses to disseminate news, opinion and entertainment to large audiences. Today with just a cell phone you could have the same impact.

What’s the future of social media uprisings?

Social media uprisings require a community of similar beliefs. Why doesn’t an Arab Spring-type of revolt occur in North Korea? No community or communications exists between like-minded persons in that country. North Koreans will tell you they are loners in a nation where officials watch their every move. Loners can’t bring about changes or uprisings. In Egypt and Iran, thousands of like-minded people gathered after a Facebook or Twitter call to demonstrate, but no changes occurred because they could not overcome the force of intolerant government officials.

We will likely see more successful protests such as we have seen in Poland and Beijing, where the citizenry bombarded legislators with relevant studies and information.