The social media is occupying a central position in the country’s political scene. Thanks to the activities of demonstrators over the past five weeks and efforts of the government to catch up and get its message heard. And that is why President Omar Al-Bashir described what is going on as an attempt to clone the Arab Spring.
It was popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria in what is termed as Arab Spring that drew the attention to the role of the social media in the political change.
Looking at the outcome of what happened seven years results vary, but one thing is clear: social media is a powerful tool and that tool is challenging governments in two critical areas that they used to have absolute monopoly: the ability to disseminate information the way they like and organize their activity accordingly.
It was the control of governments on the flow of information and freedom to assemble, among other things that helped them keep anti-political movements under check.
It is this communication revolution, or the third revolution in the words of the American thinker Alvin Tofler that is making a new milestone in the world history. While the first revolution was based on agriculture as he pointed out and the second in industry, the third is making a powerful shift in knowledge that is opening new gates for change in a way that undermines the existing forms and institutions inherited from the industrial revolution. Among these is sovereignty and its tools like censorship to guard airspace and land borders and restrict freedoms of people, assembly and expression under whatever pretext governments use.
Moreover, government media is no longer playing the only game in town. Social media can provide an alternative avenues to spread whatever information it wants to disseminate and make organizations accordingly bypassing governments’ regulations, censorships and control.
It was interesting to see how people respond to calls for anti-governments demonstrations in the time and place indicated, which refers to the high credibility the organizers enjoy.
But here comes a serious qualification that has to be taken into account. The flow of information in social media is hardly filtered the way traditional media operates in terms of double checking facts, sourcing information and so on. And that is why it is easy to dismiss much of what is posted there as just a WhatsApp or a Facebook, i.e a virtual operation that does not reflect what is going on ground.
More serious is the tendency of the social media to group and communicate with those harboring the same ideas or within the same political camp without any significant room for serious debate on alternatives and how to cover the gap between the status quo and the hopes for a better future.
Wael Ghonaim, an Egyptian social media savvy credited with kickstarting the popular uprising in Cairo with his Facebook page back in 2010: We are all Khaled Said, set up in homage to a man who had been tortured to death by the police.
Ghonaim’s take from the experience then sums the issue “the euphoria faded, we failed to build consensus and the political struggle led to intense polarisation,” said Ghonaim at a recent Ted Talk. Social media quickly became a battlefield of misinformation, rumours and trolls – “the same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart,” he said.
In a typical government approach the Sudanese government tried to restrict access to social media hoping to get the upper hand on the 13 million using internet and 28 million with smart phones, but the response was typical by resorting to virtual personal networks (VPN), which undermines the government’s move and shows clearly that the communication revolution has a lot to offer.
The government feeling that it is losing in the social media battle field started to speak about opening a dialogue and taking to the youth, a good gesture that needs more than mere lip service to create a credible move. High on the list of steps is open up the political space for more freedoms for the media and assembly. On the other hand the young forces that are spearheading demonstrations need to make use of Arab Spring experiences and work on developing a political forums or bodies that can absorb the new energies leashed and organize them in a way that points to desired results and move forward.