Course taster

The arab spring uprisings

There can be little doubt that social media played a key role in catalysing the rapid growth of major protests that spread between countries and that are often collectively referred to as the 'Arab Spring'. A University of Washington report indicates:

Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising... people throughout the region were drawn into an extended conversation about social uprising… it helped create discussion across the region.

O'Donnell (2011)

Another commentator reflects that:

...[social media] carried the promise that social media and the Internet were going to unleash a new wave of positive social change... Activists were able to organise and mobilize in 2011 partly because authoritarian governments didn't yet understand very much about how to use social media.

Hempel (2016)

Certainly, social media empowers citizens and facilitates mass protests in respect of demands for political change. However, this does not necessarily mean that such protests will be successful:

This muted effect is not because social media isn't good at what it does, but in a way, because it's very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly... but it often results in unanticipated consequences. Before the Internet, the tedious work of organising that was required to circumvent censorship... helped build up an infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

Democracy Digest (2014)

Governments have been quick to learn from the ways in which activists capitalised on social media during the Arab Spring and to use it to their own advantage in ruthlessly suppressing dissent:

Social media, it turns out, was not a new path to democracy, but merely a tool. And for a few months, only the young and the idealistic knew how it worked.

Hempel (2016)


In the UK in 2011, riots occurred in a number of cities. Police quickly realised that rioters were using social media to organise and strategise their activities. Subsequently, the Prime Minister informed Parliament:

Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

Pfanner (2011)

Somaiya (2011) writes:

...Iran, criticized by the West for restricting the Internet and curbing free speech, seemed to savour the moment and offered in the immediate aftermath of the riots to 'send a human rights delegation to Britain to study human rights violations in the country'.

1 - Consider the case that long-standing democratic countries such as the UK introduce further significant web censorship legislation. Discuss the broader ramifications – particularly how this may be used to promote and justify censorship by authoritarian regimes.

2 - Suppose that as an IT professional you are asked to provide information to the media on the ethical ramifications of the suggestion made by the UK Prime Minister (quoted above). Determine and discuss your ethically-based stance on this matter.

This situation has now changed and in many countries, governmental organisations are becoming increasingly adept at using social media to spread misinformation, which is often intended to discredit activists who are seeking political change:

You can now create a narrative saying a democracy activist was a traitor or paedophile... The possibility of creating an alternative narrative is one people didn't consider, and it turns out people in authoritarian regimes are quite good at it.

Hempel (2016)

In parallel, governments are able to draw on a broad range of seemingly plausible (and often laudable) reasons for introducing significant levels of censorship:

Drawing on arguments that are often powerful and compelling such as 'securing intellectual property rights', 'protecting national security', 'preserving cultural norms and religious values', and 'shielding children from pornography and exploitation', many states are implementing extensive filtering practices to curb the perceived lawlessness of the medium.

OpenNet Initiative (2017)


A great deal of the illegal and extreme forms of Internet activity takes place via the 'Dark Web'.

1 - Research and discuss what is meant by the 'Dark Web'.

2 - To what extent (if any) can censorship laws be used to control 'Dark Web' activity?