A storm of protests in 2011 disputed the legitimacy of the institutional status quo across authoritarian and democratic countries alike. From the Arab Spring to the Indignados, from the London riots to the Occupy movement, a heated debate unfolded about whether people hitting the streets were helped in any way by the use of social media. The debate has lingered for a decade now and is revisited with every new uprising that rises to international prominence.
This debate stems from anxieties toward social media technologies that can be used for unintended, nefarious (read socially-destructive) ends. Public discourse cautions against unverified rumors, romantic radicalization, and armchair politics with no follow-through beyond the computer screen. By contrast, the decentralized architecture of the Internet coupled with autonomous action is welcomed as enabler of civic political dissent that holds the political elite accountable in an age of widespread apathy. Either assessments hinge on the notion that communication on social network sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, scales up through social contagion much faster than before.
In a new article in the Journal of Communication, we query the type of information that scaled up on Facebook and Twitter during multiple instances of political unrest. Our first case is the Indignadosdemonstrations that started in Spain on May 2011 as a protest against welfare cuts, the political establishment, and the financial system. The second case is the Occupy movement that started in September 2011 reportedly inspired by the Spanish uprisings and the events of the “Arab Spring.” The movement spread to cities across the United States, and soon demonstrations happened in 951 cities in 82 countries. The third and last case is the Vinegar protests that started in Brazil on June 2013. Initially sparked by opposition to bus and underground train fare raises, the political agenda rapidly shifted against the running costs of infrastructure projects associated with sports events. An estimated quarter-million protesters took to the streets of major cities across Brazil before marches turned violent.
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