World History 2 271 - 15.3.2 The Internet and Social Media

The process of globalization has been accelerated by the rise of the internet and the various social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter that exist there. Many people were introduced to the potential of computer networks for sharing information and creating small social networks in the 1980s, when individual users became able to connect their computers to others by using modems and telephone networks. This connectivity gave rise to regional bulletin board systems (BBSs), in which one person’s computer served as a host for those of other users (Figure 15.18). BBSs functioned much like websites today. Though they ran far more slowly and had limited capabilities, they allowed users to share computer files like games and images, post messages for others to read, participate in virtual discussions and debates, and play text-based online games. BBSs used phone networks to communicate, and long-distance calls were then expensive, so their users tended to be local.

An image of a black computer screen with words and numbers typed in white, blue, green and pink all over is shown. Across the top in a gray bar are three circles on the left, the words “ArchLinux32” in the middle and an oval rectangle on the right. Across the bottom in a gray bar are the words “To direct input to this virtual machine, click inside the window.” are printed. On the bottom right are 10 icons: a picture of a camera, a gray box with a line branching off in three parts, a rectangle with a dark rectangle on the bottom, a line with two lines in a “v” shape on the left and two triangles on the right, a black circle with many other circles inside and two white dots on either side, a rectangle with a white circle at the top, three squares with “<” on the left and “>” on the right of those squares, a speaker with round circles coming out on the right, and a box with two people walking toward each other in it. At the bottom right are three lines drawn across the corner.
Figure 15.18 Bulletin board systems like this one relied on colorful text and simple graphics to make them appealing. They appear very limited compared to today’s websites, but in the 1980s, they were revolutionary and opened new possibilities for the future of communication. (credit: “Screenshot of OpenTG’s Group Permissions Editor” by Chris Tusa/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Throughout the 1980s, BBSs continued to be popular with computer hobbyists and those intrigued by the idea of unique virtual communities, while networking technology improved steadily behind the scenes. The United States, Europe, and other developed countries were busy adopting a uniform protocol system that would allow computers around the world to easily communicate with others. Once this protocol had been established, the commercial internet as we currently understand it was born.

As early as 1987, about thirty thousand hosts resided on the burgeoning internet. Soon telecommunications and software companies began to exploit this new network by creating online service providers like America Online (AOL) to act as gateways to the internet. Initially, they used standard phone lines and modems to connect, much as BBSs had. But as the volume of information on the internet increased exponentially, service providers turned to more expensive broadband connections that used cable television lines and even dedicated lines to connect. During the 1990s, the first websites, the first internet search engines, and the first commercial internet platforms were established.

By 2005, more than one billion people worldwide were using the internet regularly. They were able to shop online, make phone calls around the world, and even create their own websites with almost no technical training. Never before had the world been so connected. In 2004, Facebook was launched. Originally a networking tool for Harvard students, it quickly expanded globally to become a giant in the new world of social media. By 2010, nearly half a billion Facebook users around the world were sharing images and messages, creating communities, and linking to news stories. By 2022, the number of Facebook users had reached nearly three billion.

Before 2007, almost all internet users gained access to the network via a personal computer, either at home or at work. That year, however, Apple Inc. released the first iPhone, a powerful cell phone but also a portable computer capable of performing all the tasks it once required a desktop computer to do. Even more revolutionary, it connected to the internet wirelessly through cell-phone infrastructure. While the iPhone was not the first phone to connect to the internet, its revolutionary touch-screen interface was far superior to earlier systems. Within just a few years, other cell-phone manufacturers were imitating its design and putting smartphones, and thus internet access, in the pockets of users around the world.

Smartphones have transformed life in developing countries, where they have helped bypass some of the traditional stages of infrastructure creation. In Africa, for example, people living where no landlines existed can now communicate with others using cell phones. Small farmers and traders can use cell phones for banking and to connect with potential suppliers and customers. In communities without libraries, schoolchildren can access the internet’s resources to study.

Smartphones have also democratized the internet, serving as powerful tools for organizing and promoting political change. The large pro-democracy movement in Cairo’s Tahrir Square captured the world’s attention in 2011, for example. But it began with twenty-five-year-old activist Asmaa Mahfouz’s YouTube video of January 18, 2011, in which she spoke directly to the camera and urged young Egyptians to protest at the square as part of the larger Arab Spring, a call for government reform and democracy that echoed across in the Arab world.

The Arab Spring was touched off in December 2010 when Muhammad Bouazizi, a young college graduate, set himself on fire in Tunisia after government officials there tried to interfere with the fruit cart that was his only source of income. Other young Tunisians took to the streets in protest, and demonstrations began again in January 2011. As people died in confrontations with government forces, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, and Tunisia’s prime minister resigned shortly thereafter.

The Tunisian protests led to similar demonstrations in Egypt. On January 17, 2011, an Egyptian set himself on fire near the nation’s Parliament to protest the lack of economic opportunities. Crowds of mostly young people responded with massive demonstrations that lasted weeks (Figure 15.19). These demonstrations were fueled by and broadcast to the world through text messages, photos, tweets, videos, and Facebook posts sent by thousands of mobile phones, including that of Mahfouz. The devices amplified the calls for democracy and showed the world the Egyptian government’s use of violence to try to silence the protestors. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011. He was later convicted for his role in ordering government forces to harm and kill protestors.

A picture and an image are shown. (a) A picture shows a large circular area in the middle of a large crowd of people filling every space. Inside the circular area are many white tents with people underneath. Banners surround the circular area with Egyptian writing. In front of the circular area there are six rows of people kneeling on the ground with their heads down. Another large tented circular area is shown behind the first area. In the background tall buildings and the sky can be seen. (b) A map of northern Africa and some of the Middle East is shown. Egypt and Yemen are highlighted purple to indicate “Government overthrown multiple times.” Tunisia is highlighted green to indicate “Government overthrown.” Libya and Syria are highlighted beige to indicate “Civil war.” Morocco, Western Sahara, Oman, Jordan, and Kuwait are highlighted pink to indicate “Protests and governmental changes.” Algeria, Sudan, and Iraq are highlighted yellow to indicate “Major protests.” Mauritania, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia are highlighted orange to indicate “Minor protests.” Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Gabon, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are highlighted blue to indicate “Other protests and militant action outside the Arab world.” All other parts of the map are gray and the water is white. There is a thick, dark green circle drawn on the map on the eastern shore of Saudi Arabia.
Figure 15.19 (a) Internet-connected cell phones using social media applications like Facebook were a common site at the large 2011 protests at Tahrir Square, Cairo. (b) The map shows the results of other uprisings in Africa and the Middle East that were part of the Arab Spring of 2010–2012. (credit a: modification of work “Tahrir Square during 8 February 2011” by “Mona”/Flickr, CC BY 2.0; credit b: modification of work “Arab Spring and Regional Conflict Map” by Ian Remsen/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the wake of the Egyptian protests, activists in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries coordinated their activities using computers and smartphones to access social media, video, and mobile phone messaging. These efforts resulted in protests, changes to the laws, and even the toppling of governments, such as in Egypt and Tunisia. They also led to civil war in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, leading to thousands of deaths and a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. While Twitter and Facebook were useful for scaling up protests, the movements to which they gave birth often struggled to find a purpose in countries without a well-established resistance movement.

Link to Learning

In this interview, Egyptian-American journalist and pro-democracy activist Mona Eltahawy talks about the Arab Spring and revolution in Egypt and the use of social media as a tool for organizing. She addresses the role of social media in two parts. Take a look at her answers to “Did the government completely misjudge what they were doing?” and “Could this have happened without social media, without these new technologies?”

Since 2011, governments around the world have come to recognize the power of social media to bring about change, and many authoritarian and even ostensibly democratic leaders have moved to limit or block social media use in their countries. China has blocked Facebook and Twitter since 2009 and encourages its citizens to instead use the state-authorized app WeChat, which shares information with the government. In 2020, India banned the social media app TikTok, claiming it threatened state security and public order. In March 2022, following its February invasion of Ukraine, Russia banned Instagram and Facebook because, the government alleged, the platforms carried messages calling for violence against Russian troops and against Russian president Vladimir Putin. Turkmenistan has gone further than China, India, or Russia. It not only bans Facebook and Twitter, but it also requires citizens applying for internet access to swear they will not try to evade state censorship.

Link to Learning

China is noted for its strict internet censorship, and its government blocks access to a large number of sites in a policy colloquially known as the Great Firewall of China. The Comparitech service allows you to see websites blocked in China by entering and searching them.

In the United States, lawmakers have recognized that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can both promote and endanger democracy. Social media provides extremist groups with the ability to attract followers from across the nation and incite violence. Groups can use the platforms to spread fake news, and a report by the U.S. Senate has concluded that Russian intelligence operatives used Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to manipulate voters. Legislators have called on social media to more actively censor the content on their platforms and limit or block access by groups or persons spreading hate speech or disinformation. The potential for misuse of technology is heightened by advances that enable the creation of deepfakes, computer-generated images that closely resemble real people.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax