They’re the rock stars thrashing today’s socio-political stage. They’re the ones harnessing the power of new media and playing to a sold out world venue. Glued to our computers and smart phones, we forgo playing Angry Birds and Hipster or Homeless? in favor of watching them unite their people to forge a new reality.
Who are they? They are digital citizens, and they live all over the world. These days, we closely follow them in North Africa and the Middle East, watching their protests after they, the protestors, have uploaded their footage to YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook
But this isn’t the first time that activists have used digital technology to broadcast their movement’s breaking news to the world. In 2009, social media played a complex role in Iran’s uprising against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial re-election. Text messaging was blocked and websites were screened; and however marginal a role Twitter played in the organization of the protests, it (along with Facebook) was widely used as a communication tool by the opposition.
Although the Islamic republic’s government also tried to enforce a ban against foreign media coverage of the uprising, dissident supporters and journalists kicked its censorship decree in the proverbial nards. Digital citizens everywhere took to the virtual streets, protecting the anonymity of Iran’s in-country news sources while spreading real-time information across every channel possible.
Digital citizenship—a topic that’s most closely associated with the expanding curriculum and policy that keep children protected online—actually includes all behavior as it relates to the comprehensive understanding and responsible usage of connected technologies.
Digital citizens are those people who conscientiously communicate, share, buy and sell, and game online and across new media devices. On a global scale, they’ve taken that concept, grown from the seeds of safety and ethics, and broadened its meaning. Recognizing how their homegrown efforts affect their neighbors and populations abroad, digital citizens use technology to report events, organize action and mobilize supporters across nations.
What we’re arguably looking at is the 21st century version of grassroots activism that extends beyond government control and traditional media confines.
This is a modernized take on civil unrest in the 60s. Protest signs have been traded in for Twitter accounts and hashtags People log in instead of sit in. And handcuffs are unnecessary, because it’s now been proved that a government can’t control a people when they want to be seen.
As it stands, much debate revolves around digital technology’s actual role in activism. Lovers say that the Internet plays an essential part in rallying groups and educates otherwise oblivious bystanders, even turning some into fighters for the cause. These so-called "journalists of the streets" can bring everyone into the fold as the epic event takes place, bypassing total after-the-fact speculation.
Haters argue that social media’s value has been inflated, adding that the digital component only waters down the cause by attracting fringe involvement from "likers" on Facebook. They also point to the strong possibility that the authoritarian bodies that activists are fighting against will eventually exploit these platforms to track and hunt down resistance leaders.
So, is new media to take the credit for driving political demonstrations in Iran and Egypt, or in Moldova and Spain? In the end, no. Humans are. They’re the ones strategically reaching out, connecting with like-minded individuals who together will make a change. However, they’re putting an online spin to their grassroots activism, harnessing an electronic network of communication that turns the world’s eyes on their struggles. A feat made much harder without the help of technology.