History repeats itself. We’ve all heard it – and everyone has that point in history where they believed they have witnessed this recycling of events. But much like us, chronicles of the past evolve. Sometimes the evolution isn’t evident until we recognize it in history’s reproduction.
Left: Fifty years ago, students on the University of California, Berkeley campus ignited protests over a ban on political activity. Crowds surrounded a police car holding student activist Jack Weinberg on Oct. 1, 1964. Photo courtesy U.C. Berkeley, Bancroft Library Source: PBS; Right: Egyptians join the military in solidarity as they celebrate protests on top of an Egyptian Military Tank in Tahrir Square during the January 25, 2011 revolution Photo: Yannis Behrakis/Reuters
“My gas mask and helmet didn’t stay in the car: there was plenty of anger in the streets, plenty of action. Tear gas and police batons often filled the air… Emotions ran high. Often the reason behind the demonstrations and marches… was lost in the battles between the protestors and the cops. Who was provoking who became the issue, and certainly it made exciting television. Homegrown battles filled the airwaves, to the point where they eventually became routine.”
This is a scene that could describe so many of the conflicts occurring today. And it is particularly descriptive of the Middle East during the 2011 Arab Spring and in the years since – once the cradle of civilization, the Middle East has redefined itself as the “Cradle of Revolutions.” But this scene does not depict the Arab Spring, the Middle East, or even an event from this century. This is a recount by a former UC Berkley student as he recalls his participation in the birth of the Free Speech Movement.
The Free Speech Movement of 1964 that began at UC Berkley celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The foundations of this movement and the political freedom it sought were the seeds for even more powerful rights battles in the decades to come. The 1960s and 1970s were a turning point in American history for freedom fighters, labor unions, African Americans and women – and their movements could not have succeeded without the critical role of the media.
This was especially true during the Vietnam War era. Abroad, the presence of brave journalists in Vietnam is largely regarded as a defining moment in the perceptions of war from perspective of the Western public. At home, journalists were exposing the brutalities committed by police and the government against peaceful protestors from the civil rights movement and on through the anti-Vietnam War era. The media’s exposure of the atrocities of the war taking place both away, and in their own communities, emboldened the American public to “fight the man” and gain the civil rights and liberties that we enjoy, and are free to continuously fight for today.
Source: Ron Torossian Blog
Once again history has repeated itself, but not on our own soil. The Free Speech movement of the 21st century takes place in the “Cradle of Revolutions.” As the world watches the turmoil unfold in Kobani, and elsewhere across Syria and Iraq under the terror campaign of ISIL, media publications in every language contain daily headlines referencing ISIL’s inhumane sweep across the region and the governments trying to – or not trying to – stop them. Media plays an important role in revealing the atrocities of war and imposing checks and balances upon government. Brave journalists from the West and the Middle East continue to risk their lives to show you and your governments what is happening to the people of the Middle East – whether in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, or Egypt.
However, one voice that is often left out of the media is the voice of the people suffering in those regions. The headlines become about politics rather than people. Death tolls are represented in numbers of causalities by ethnicity or nationality rather than as parents, siblings, or children lost. The Western media that once sought to reveal the atrocities that were shielded from the public is inadvertently dulling the extent of those brutalities today.
Since the 1999 Columbine school shooting, experts and politicians have argued over how desensitized our society has become to violence: TV shows, video games, even music are blamed for this desensitization. Yet, what I find difficult is the fact that we have created a culture where some types of violent imagery are ok to consume and widely distribute, and other types are not. Primarily due to the fact that the kind of violence society has deemed acceptable is only the kind that can be turned into a profitable commodity. As a result of the ways we view censorship, in American media today you won’t find images of the horrific acts occurring on the ground to people caught between terrorist groups and tyrannical governments. But we are reaching yet another milestone in the influence of media accessibility on how the public understands an ongoing war.
This time around, the news medium is uncensored and the reporters unpaid – the free speech movement of the 21st century is being guided by social media and driven by the people on the ground. Citizens who are risking their lives to show you their story and make their voice for peace and freedom heard, much like our own people did half a century ago. Citizen journalists are fighting online wars armed with smart phones and Internet connections.
We have all witnessed the vast influence of social media on the Middle East. The Social Media Revolution that sparked the Arab Spring has forever changed our world. But even in the nearly four years since the Arab Spring began in January 2011, social media continues to revolutionize the voice third world, and the way the first world hears them.
The most recent impact of these social media citizen journalists can be seen on any given day through Twitter and Facebook – venues where the hashtag is the global protest sign of the future.
A quick search of #Gaza on Twitter will immediately yield photos of destruction, dead and injured children, and even body parts that are left when nothing else remains. These are no images anyone wants to see, but they NEED to be seen. The heavy influence of the Gaza Palestinians’ use of social media to acknowledge their dead in the public eye made the war less about Hamas, and more about the innocent civilians of Gaza who were trapped in the middle – at least to the global public. It was a war won by Israel on the ground, but not on social media.
In Syria, where many journalists are no longer able to go, it is social media that first revealed Assad’s atrocities, from his continuous bombardment of Homs in 2012 to his use of chemical weapons on civilians in 2013 – even as the global media continued to report the regime’s statements to the contrary.
A report from Al Arabiya on May 20, 2014 revealed that of the 135 million Arabs connected online, over 75 million of them use social media. Thirty percent of those on social media consider Facebook and Twitter their primary sources of news – a similar number to those considerations for traditional news outlets in the Arab world.
Critics of social media activism question whether or not it is true activism – some even calling it “slackivism.” And hey, I get it. I grew up in an industrial union city where true activism meant you stood out in the rain or snow and protested with your fellow union members for workers’ rights or for your political party– often bringing your family along with you (as my dad did with us). But activism today is not just about the physical expression of activism; it’s about the size of an audience and the message they receive. Political essays never brought down buildings, but they inspired people to do so. Letters to the government didn’t change their actions until the press made it public.
“In the same way that pamphlets didn’t cause the American Revolution, social media didn’t cause the Egyptian revolution. Social media have become the pamphlets of the 21st century, a way that people who are frustrated with the status quo can organize themselves and coordinate protest, and in the case of Egypt, revolution.” – Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative
Many of those tweeting pictures of destruction from Gaza, to Kobani, would tell you that they want the world to see what is happening to them – and technological accessibility allows the international community see them with a #hashtag that can be read around the world. The global population can’t be reached with a local picket line — unless of course someone tweets about it.
The use of social media as a window through the eyes of those on the other end of your Internet serves its greatest purpose in connecting us with those very individuals whose suffering we feel through the web. Unlike traditional media, social media elicits a response, and for those unable to join in the battle on the ground, social media has also created a new means of engagement via crowd funding, social media activism, and viral petitions. Movements we witnessed and once considered “their” cause have now become “our” cause. People feel more engaged when they can relate to an image of a mother and her lost child – rather than simply a number of causalities substituted in for that loss.
For all of the impersonal exchanges that take place through technology, the Arab world has regenerated the humanity behind the screen by sharing the inhumanity that has plagued their daily lives. If you’re used to getting your news through the paper or on TV, take a step forward into the rebirth of history and check out the same news in the Twitterverse. It’s your turn to take part in the new free speech movement, one that goes global and fights for the same freedoms that we celebrate today – read, watch and listen to the people the story is really about – the way they want you to see it.