The use of social media and the internet in recent protest movements

by | Jun 7, 2017 | Protest and repression | 0 comments

by Jessica McGuinness

In recent years many protest movements have formed in response to different injustices and social issues and arguably the most important factor in allowing these movements to happen is the use of social media and the internet. I shall focus on three recent protests, the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Occupy Wall Street and the 2017 Romanian protests, and how social media outlets on the internet were of great importance in allowing them to take place.

The Occupy movement began in September 2011 as a critique of the current global order and argued that an alternative way of life is possible if we fight for change. Protestors took hold of various public spaces near Wall Street in America as these were symbolic of the economic corruption responsible for many social problems. In particular, the movement wanted to highlight the injustice of a rich minority and poor majority, and a Tumblr blog partly responsible for sparking the protests summed up the idea by adopting the slogan “We are the 99%”. The protestors identified with the fact that whilst a small group of the elite in society control much of America’s wealth, many citizens work hour upon hour for less than minimum wage; they considered themselves the backbone of the economy and yet had nothing to show for it. The availability of social media enabled the initial protest to be easily and efficiently organised and was essential in inspiring the first wave of protesters to follow through and turn up. Some critics question “When most of the activists are armed with smartphones, how does social media transform the public screens on which activists act? How does today’s experience of…smartphones empower social movements to be a presence in the world?” (DeLuca, Lawson & Sun, 2012, p.486). The answer is that smartphones mean immediate access to the internet and this, in turn, means connection to social media. Social media creates platforms with which people with strongly held views can quickly disperse their message and this inspires others to take action alongside them. Furthermore, it means protests can be arranged within minutes by the creation of a Facebook event, Twitter feed or Tumblr blog. They can also be utilised in the middle of protest action to record current happenings and broadcast them on sites such as YouTube. This often provides support for the cause, brings the fight home for many people and mobilises more individuals to get involved. As one journalist describes “When I exited the T-station in downtown Boston on the day of global actions in support of #Occupy Wall Street and the burgeoning #Occupy Everywhere movements, I immediately accessed my Twitter account. The latest tweets displayed on my Android phone indicated a large group of protesters was on its way from the #Occupy Boston camp at Dewey Square and would soon turn a nearby corner. Minutes later, hundreds of mostly young, energetic marchers appeared” (Juris, S, J. 2012, p.259). This highlights the ability the movement had to keep the public updated on its whereabouts, making it easier for people to join and be convinced of its enduring existence days after the initial protest, all through the use of social media.

Similarly, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was sparked by the creation of a Facebook page named “Kullena Khaled Said – We Are All Khaled Said”. It was created by Wael Ghonim, a marketing executive from Egypt who, after learning of the death Khaled Said, decided justice was needed. Khaled Said had been brutally beaten to death by the Egyptian police and many young Egyptians faced this same brutality and oppression at the hands of the ruling political party. The anger continued to build amongst citizens, resulting in a mass protest lasting 17 days in Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo. Access to mobile phones and therefore social media was essential in the organisation of the protests and this was enabled by the government’s efforts in previous years to expand internet access in Egypt. Statistics display that “in February 2010, more than 21% of Egypt’s population of 80 million had access to the Internet, and more than 4.5 million used Facebook. Additionally, more than 70% of the population had a mobile phone subscription” (Eltantawy, N & Wiest, J. 2011, p.1212) and this ever increasing ability for individuals to freely connect to others without interference from the government is key in allowing protests, such as those in Egypt, to take place.

Social media has also been essential in allowing the recent Romanian protests to happen more efficiently and on such a large scale. The protests began in January of 2017 in response to the government secretly passing a decree that decriminalises any corruption amounting to less that £38,000, which would work to the advantage of current government officials such as Liviu Dragnea, currently under investigation after allegations he has defrauded the state of around £20,000. I recently had the chance to meet and speak with a young Romanian who is working in Manchester. He explained that the Romanian people feel a great sense of hope as social media has allowed them to connect with and watch other protestors in other countries and spread the word of their efforts. For example, he is able to stay in touch with his friends and family back in Romania who can update him on current events even though he is living in the UK. It is a troubling time for his country as one article describes “Romania is considered one of Europe’s poorest and most corrupt countries. Last year, a report by the IPP think-tank revealed 15% of MPs elected in 2012 were either under investigation for graft, had already been convicted, or chose to step down for other positions” (Fishwick, C. 2017). The only glimmer of hope here is that the ever-evolving world of social media can make the efforts to protest for change easier to conduct.

In all three protest movements, social media and use of the internet and mobile phones has been essential in organising and mobilising people to get involved. I believe this is the way forward for future protestors and I hope those individuals currently suffering across the world find inspiration in these events and know that change is possible when social media is utilised to its full potential.


DeLuca, K., Lawson, S. & Sun, Y. 2012. Occupy Wall Street on the Public Screens of Social Media: The Many Framings of the Birth of a Protest Movement. Communication, Culture & Critique. p 486.
Eltantawy, N. & Wiest, J, B. 2011. Social Media in the Egyptian Revolution: Reconsidering Resource Mobilisation Theory. International Journal of Communication 5, p.1212.
Fishwick, C. 2017. ’27 years of corruption is enough’: Romanians on why they are protesting. The Guardian [Accessed 22/04/2017]
Juris, S, J. 2012. Reflections on Occupy Everywhere: Social media, public space and emerging logics of aggregation. American Ethnologist, 39(2), p. 259.


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