Would social media have helped Nelson Mandela fight apartheid?

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday. There are various conversations and events happening online and offline celebrating his life and impact. What stood out to me is the above video which chronicles Nelson Mandela’s life via social media.

According to Mashable,

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Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela

“To commemorate the occasion, Prezence Digital Production created an information-packed but easily digestible video detailing the events of Mandela’s life. The four-minute video is a quick tour of Mandela’s timeline, told through a combination of hypothetical Facebook status updates, tweets, Instagram photos and Foursquare check-ins. It contains archival photos and actual quotes from Mandela, relatives, friends, political figures and media outlets.

The video, backed by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, runs on the premise that Mandela may not have spent 27 years in captivity if social media platforms were available back then.”

While the video is meant to be a fun way to explore the life and impact of Nelson Mandela, it also made me wonder: what role does social media play in moving social movements forward?

Do you have examples or thoughts on this? Share them below.

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Comments (3)


  1. Hannah writes:
    July 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I was recently having a conversation with a friend about whether social media is making the world a better or worse place. This hypothetical scenario, along with the very real ones happening all over the world now, provide excellent support for the argument that social media is indeed making the world a much freer and better place.

    Thanks for sharing the video!


  2. Thomas writes:
    July 19, 2012 at 5:08 am

    Hi Hannah,

    I also agree with you, but I don’t think if the world is getting better or worse. It is changing, and the most visible of this changes is that, thanks to the development of the communications, we are empowering people and building a more democratic media. The relations in the media are moving fast from a top-to-down orientation to side-to-side one. But things change so fast nowadays and life in big cities is so crazy that we don’t have time to assimilate all these changes.

    I am optimistic and I really believe that internet and other IT as tools to defend Human Rights and democracy. However, it should be clear that there is no virtual world with no real world, and a strong and organised civil society will be still for very long time essential for any social change. I’ve heard the Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim a couple of weeks ago who emphasized that, at the time of the beginning of the Arab Spring, Internet was not easy to access in that country. The revolution, she said, was organised by Blue Tooth of mobiles and it was only possible because they had social organisations willing for change and ready for everything.

    The social media however, she reminded, was important for its triumph, as, in a certain moment, it made the mainstream media (Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC, etc) wake up, what empowered even more the Egyptians. Gigi, in the end, was one of the citizen journalists who was producing material and giving (or selling) them straight to this channels.

    A last thing. Of course governments are more aware nowadays and one should be careful using internet in hostile zones. But today there are new ways to combat injustice, and, with creativity, they can be very useful in some situations. They still have a lot to be explored.


  3. Veronica writes:
    July 20, 2012 at 2:08 am

    I understand that since the “Arab Spring” uprisings, using Egypt as the main example everyone likes to point at and think social media started the uprising, I think that this premise overlooks many important factors, namely access to technology, education, and social bonds. Egypt suffered 30 years of oppression under Hosni Mubarek and I think it is an overly simplistic view to give all credit to social media when discussing organizing for political action. Who has access to technology? Same goes for Apartheid in South Africa, especially when up against entrenched poverty, racism and colonialism backed by the power of military might. Those that have economic and physical access to computers and technology requires education and being savvy enough to use technological communication tools in a way that evades the attention and punishment of those whose interests are in keeping the status quo by any means neccessary.

    Malclom Gladwell’s article “Small Change” published in the New Yorker in 2010 about growing American student activism encapsulates this point (see here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell) by examining the student led sit-ins at lunch counters during the modern Civil Rights movement .

    Secondly, as someone who follows recently passed and under-reported legislation on internet “safety,” “security,” and “protection” (i.e. the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protecting Act (CISPA), Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)- those who control the medium are also able to control the message and thereby the spread of any information considered counter or treasonous to the wishes of the political structure. A good example of this is Google’s agreement with the Chinese governement to redirect any queries on Tiannamen Square to the Communist Party state website. Sure, the use of Twitter could hypothetically help organize a flash mob of Chinese protesters interested in forming a democratic union, but how is that possible if their activities are deemed illegal and punishable by the current communist administration and shut down? Or worse. In Egypt, activist websites were cloned by the Egyptian government to send out misinformation in efforts to discredit and disrupt protest activites. This is the name of the game not only in China and Saudi Arabia, but sadly may be coming to a United States near you if you care to research the above mentioned pieces of legislation (particularly that little bit in CISPA which requires Google to monitor, store, and report on any of your visited websites and online activity to the FBI) in addition to their kin already in the legislative pipeline.

    While I agree that social media is a powerful tool at dissiminating information very quikly in a pattern that mimicks a ripple-effect, at issue is the complex nature of long term solidarity to a cause with others you have never met and whose activism ranges from simply clicking a button to “like” your movement from the comfortable confineds of one’s home or ordering a T-Shirt to show solidarity (Kony 2012). This is in contrast to joining a protracted struggle where you might be beaten or arrested with a longterm friend whose home you’ve eaten at, whose parents also raised you- that sense that you are all in this together becuase you have personal first-hand experience and are able to bear witness to the consequences of oppression, injustice, etc. and being willing to risk your life or sustain injury to protect that person in your fight for justice as hundreds of military personnel chase and beat you with batons. I just don’t think Facebook engenders that type of commeraderie and bravery. Real people having real conversations in person produce real movements. And for that there is no substitue.


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