Social Media = Revolution?

It has become fashionable for many Western journalists and academics to enthusiastically endorse the idea that digital media and the internet are facilitating a praiseworthy grassroots-driven activism across the globe. Mobile phones, social media and You Tube are deemed to be tools making possible the spontaneous upwelling of pro-democratic agitation. Within this logic, digital media inherently becomes an agent of positive social change. More importantly, within this logic, digital media become associated with spontaneous grassroots activism – wherein ordinary people are now empowered to change their world for the better. One example of such a boosterist endorsement of digital media was the narrative constructed by Western journalists to eulogize the Arab Spring.

The question is – should we not be more circumspect in our thinking? Should we not be asking some critical questions about who is using social media, mobile phones and other forms of digital media as political tools? Just because interactive digital media looks like it produces bottom-up grassroots communication does not mean this communication is actually as innocent as it looks.

With this in mind, I invite readers to view the list of YouTube videos posted here. These videos reveal that the so-called spontaneous use of digital media by grassroots activists during the Arab Spring may actually encode agendas that are not at first apparent. In particular, there is a need to recognize that as with all media platforms, interactive digital media forms are also susceptible to being used as weapons by large political actors who mobilize surrogate warfare as tools of their foreign policy.

Surrogate warfare Obama-style

The videos show that Obama’s State Department is displaying considerable creativity in developing and deploying a new variety of surrogate warfare – one that has incorporated the use of digital media, mobile phone technology, and social media as new weapons of warfare.

As with earlier (Cold War) US-surrogate actions, the Obama-administration still seeks out political players who can be adopted as allies and partners. These partners are then turned into political actors of value to US foreign policy goals by providing them with training and resources that makes them more politically effective.

A key moment in the development of Obama-era USA-surrogacy came in November 2008 when the US State Department announced at a Press Conference that it was launching a new partnership called the Alliance of Youth Movements. The State Department partnered with Google, Facebook, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, CNN, NBC, MTV and the Columbia Law School to ‘bring together global youth groups and tech experts to find the best ways to use digital media to promote freedom and justice, [and] counter violence, extremism and oppression’ (US Department of State, 2008). The resultant Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) brought leaders from 17 organizations based in 15 countries to New York in December 2008 where they were exposed to US technology experts, media players and Obama consultants who showed them how to use media as political tools.

Within this emergent Alliance the role of Howcast was especially important in generating the new wave of surrogacy driven from Washington because Howcast is an online company that makes and hosts “how to videos” (Bratich, 2011: 626). What AYM has been teaching America’s new youthful partners is how to use social media to build political organizations, mobilize crowds, and build insurgent movements. One of the outcomes of the 2008 summit was an online ‘How-to’ Hub which hosted a series of videos on How to create Grassroots Movement Using Social Networking Sites; How to Smart Mob; and How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy (Bratich, 2011: 627). Importantly, AYM also teaches its youthful activists how to make videos geared to stirring Western publics into a state of indignation (see examples below) – in effect to produce video material that global news media like CNN and BBC can use to help build a mood for action against those the USA deems to be tyrants. Such videos have become an important feature of the Syrian conflict.

Videos and social media as weapons in Syria

One example of an NGO that has learned to use videos, You Tube, Facebook and Twitter as weapons is the Syrian Free Press. The Syrian Free Press has clearly learned that if you make videos that Western journalists find newsworthy, and post them to the Web, your material is likely to get picked and used by news media around the world. Some of these videos have clearly been made using mobile phones. Effectively the Syrian Free Press have learned the art of Public Relations (PR) and spin doctoring, and have successfully deployed this understanding of PR to distribute anti-regime messages via You Tube, Facebook and Twitter. The way in which the Syrian Free Press has successfully used a range of digital media to distribute its media releases is instructive of how easy it has become for political activists with an understanding of both digital media and PR techniques to get their messages out to global news media.

And what we have witnessed during the Arab Spring in general and the Syrian conflict in particular is that many mainstream media organizations have been all too willing to use the material posted to the Web by political activists, NGOs and citizen journalists often without verifying its contents. Without doubt the easy availability of such material on the Web has impacted on how journalists now report conflicts. But it is changing more than the nature of global news, it is also changing how struggles can be conceptualized by both political activists and the large global powers who are seeking ways to overthrow regimes of which they disapprove.


Bratich, J. (2011) User-Generated Discontent, Cultural Studies, 25 (4-5)

US Department. of State (2008) Press Release on Alliance of Youth Movements Summit, December 3-5.

An introduction to the AYM’s vision of online activism

Hillary Clinton’s message to the youth alliance built by the US State Department

About Eric Louw

Eric Louw has previously taught at a number of South African universities and worked as a journalist on the Pretoria News. He also served as the chair of a Non-Government Organization engaged in development communication work in Africa. He now works at the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Queensland; . He is the author of ‘The Media and Political Process'.

17 thoughts on “Social Media = Revolution?

  1. Thanks for a great article, Eric. AYM is a fascinating nexus, indeed. A couple of things occurred to me. For one, it seems like these practices – especially those of the Syrian Free Press you describe – seem to represent the evolution of the old “video news release,” a PR strategy that took advantage of dwindling mainstream news resources to plant stories. And resources are particularly dwindling in the case of foreign news bureaus. Second, I wonder how much of the AYM endeavor is a DOD research endeavor into new opportunities for informational warfare brought on by social media. AYM is about building alliances, yes, but it must also be about taking social media seriously as a potential threat. The name “Alliance of Youth Movements” and all this talk about democracy might in part be a cover for the real goal of knowing thy enemy and making sure that Arab Springs don’t happen in allied nations like Egypt again. In other words, might this be a kind of human terrain initiative for social media?

  2. Exactly, this is a creative response to the availability of social media – responding to both the threats posed by social media and the potential of social media . The surrogate warfare dimension would necessarily involve USA trying to map out all the constituencies and then trying to work out who might be potential surrogates and/or allies.

  3. The USA’s foreign policy, expansive and secretive, is routinely subjected to conspiracy theories of its nefarious intentions. This particular article argues that the US’s support for Web 2.0 technologies aiding democratic activism is a form of surrogate warfare. While the US State Department has indeed supported Web 2.0 technologies aiding democratic activism, this does not constitute surrogate warfare. Democratic activism, particularly in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region during the Arab Spring of 2010 onwards, has often unseated or threatened the stability of key US allies. Poor internet penetration and resultant limited use of Web 2.0 technologies in the early stages of the Arab Spring indicates the limited role they played and hence are an unlikely tool for surrogate warfare. Recently, highlighted by the rise of the Islamic State (IS), the US’s enemies have proven far more adept at influencing the Web 2.0 mediascape. The mixed influence of online democratic activism on US foreign policy and inability to effectively dominate the mediascape during the war in Syria and Iraq undermines the case that such support of Web 2.0 technologies is a form of surrogate warfare.

    This article argues that social media (SM) tools of web 2.0 (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.) are promoted by western media as revolutionary tools for democratic, spontaneous grassroots activism. The ease in which SM facilitates contact between individuals and groups with similar ideas would remove barriers for forming groups or movements. In addition, as SM breaks down the traditional sender-receiver roles of pre-web 2.0 media it provides everyone, who has an internet connection, with a public platform to promote their ideas. This universalisation of communication and associated ease in democratic activism was seen as a means effectively peacefully challenge repressive regimes. The most famous case of this was the “Arab Spring” originating in Tunisia in 2010, which saw mass protests against MENA governments by newly connected citizens.

    SM appears to be an ideal tool for democratisation however this article argues that the grassroots activism aided by SM is “not as innocent as it looks”. In particular this article alleges that SM is being used as a weapon of “surrogate warfare” by global powers, especially the USA. An organisation called the “Alliance of Youth Movements” (now “Movements” (2015)) which connected democratic activists with tech experts was sponsored by the US State Department, large technology and news companies. Through the website Howcast (an affiliate), instructional videos are distributed on organising activism through SM.

    In addition to providing organisational advice, Howcast informed activists on crafting their messages to a western audience, increasing their attraction to major western news organisations. This is intended, according to this article, to “stir Western publics into a state of indignation” which is used to “help build a mood for action against those the USA deems to be tyrants”, in particularly against MENA governments including Syria.

    The State Departments and major Western corporations’ role in Movements is indisputable as is Movements’ liberal democratic agenda (Movements, 2015). To argue that SM activists are being mobilised for surrogate warfare against the USA’s enemies is fallacious. Firstly, while there are certainly US-influenced political agendas on SM, such as various counter-Islamic State (IS) sites (Farwell, 2014), the sheer volume of anti-USA sentiment on SM in MENA overwhelm these (Jamal, et al., 2015). Secondly, SM activism has caused issues for repressive MENA governments however this has generally unseated key US allies (Naar, 2013) and consolidated its enemies (Ingram, 2015). Finally, it is difficult to see how providing resources and endorsement to an open platform for broad collaboration constitutes surrogate warfare.

    The proliferation of anti-US sentiment on Arabic SM undermines the argument that the US uses SM and democratic activists for surrogate warfare or, if such a strategy existed, it has utterly failed. Jamal et al conducted an events-based analysis using Arabic Twitter between 01/01/2012-31/12/2013. They found that, concerning tweets with US content, negative tweets outnumbered positive tweets by 3:1 (Jamal, et al., 2015, p. 59). Crucially the majority of negative traffic was concerned with US politics, particularly its foreign policy towards the MENA region (Jamal, et al., 2015, p. 60). In Syria, where Jamal et al analysed tweets before and after the chemical weapons attacks of 21/08/2013. After US inaction, anti-US anti-regime tweets increased from 350% to 1200% more than any type of pro-US tweets (Jamal, et al., 2015, pp. 62-3). Rather than being a vehicle for surrogate warfare against the US’s enemies in the MENA region, SM appears to be a forum for US foreign policy dissent.

    SM is promoted as the crucial enabler of the Arab spring, as it enables individuals to create mass media. This theory is flawed due to the low rates of internet connectivity and SM usage in the MENA region during the Arab spring. Brym et al analysed SM during the 2011 Egyptian protests (2014). Only 7.7% of Egyptians used Facebook and 0.15% used Twitter, while 80% had a mobile phone (Brym, et al., 2014, p. 269). By analysing the limited Twitter data, they determined that 9 of 10 Egyptian protest tweets originated outside of Egypt (Brym, et al., 2014, pp. 270-1). Hence Twitter’s role was “more like a megaphone broadcasting information about the uprising to the outside world than an internal informational and organizing tool.” (Brym, et al., 2014, p. 270). The organisation role of SM was also limited, with the majority of respondents in 2011 survey reporting TV to be the most reliable source of news during the protests (Brym, et al., 2014, p. 270). The limited usage of SM, particularly during the early stage of the Arab spring, indicates that SM was not an enabler of the Arab Spring and the resultant democratic activism was not a form of Web 2.0 surrogate warfare.

    There are two key factors that undermine the argument that the agenda of AYM and Howcast were forms of surrogate warfare. Firstly, the Arab spring protests overthrew key US allies such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia and threatened the stability of other allied regimes such as Jordan and Bahrain. Secondly, the highly sophisticated SM strategies of the US’s enemies such as IS and non-allied forces such as Iraq’s Shi’a militias suggest either the absence or backfire of a SM surrogate warfare strategy through AYM.

    In the words of Charlie Winter, who conducted the largest scale analysis of IS’s media strategy to date, “IS has revolutionised jihadist messaging” (2015, p. 4). While their media strategy has multiple simultaneous narratives and audiences, they have effectively targeted western audiences with their highly newsworthy brutal videos (Farwell, 2014). These videos are intended to “bait” western publics – encouraging a disproportionately violent state response from western publics (Kilcullen, 2015). This violent response (such as airstrikes) that causes civilian casualties feeds into IS narratives of victimhood and allows IS to portray itself as the only viable alternative for Sunnis, undermining attempts to eradicate it (Winter, 2015). Irregular forces opposing IS show a similar degree of sophistication with SM. One of the better known militiamen, Iranian-allied Abu Azrael, carefully curates his media activities to over 32000 followers (there are also numerous fan pages of him with their own followers) (Azrael, 2015). His viral videos appear tailored to a variety of audiences, including newsworthy combat footage for a western news audience (France 24, 2015) and quirky videos of him riding a small red bicycle (Azrael, 2015). Given the ease in which spin-doctoring knowledge can be proliferated and has been applied by such a wide variety of actors, it is difficult to argue that AYM and Howcast’s role amounted to a form of surrogate warfare.

    While US foreign policy is subject to many interpretations, the theory that its support of AYM as a form of surrogate warfare appears to be unfounded. While such support clearly existed, the broad nature of AYM’s goals and platform does not make it a clear candidate for surrogate warfare. The democratic activism encouraged by such organisations, despite technological limits, threatened the stability of US allies. Recently, the US’s enemies’ relative dominance of the Web 2.0 mediascape compared to the US’s, using many of the techniques suggested Howcast, suggest that AYM and Howcast were not agents of surrogate warfare. So while it is clear that such support existed, to classify it as a form of surrogate warfare is problematic.
    Azrael, A., 2015. ABU Azrael: Facebook. [Online]
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    Brym, R., Godbout, M., Hoffbauer, A. & Menard, G. Z. T., 2014. Social media in the 2011 Egyptian uprising. The British Journal of Sociology, 65(2), pp. 266-292.
    Farwell, J., 2014. The Media Strategy of ISIS. Survival, pp. 49-55.
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    Ingram, H., 2015. The strategic logic of Islamic State information operations. Australian Journal of International Affairs, pp. 1-24.
    Jamal, A., Keohane, R., Romney, D. & Tingly, D., 2015. Anti-Americanism and Anti-Interventionism in Arabic Twitter Discourses. Perspectives on Politics: American Political Science Association 2015, pp. 55-73.
    Kilcullen, D., 2015. Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State. Quarterly Essay, 01 05, pp. 1-98.
    Movements, 2015. Movements. [Online]
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    Winter, C., 2015. The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy, United Kingdom: Quilliam.

  4. Critical blog – POLS3512 – 42372499

    Eric Louw argues in ‘Social Media = Revolution?’ that the perceived ‘grassroots’ nature of social media movements and revolutions, masks the hidden political agendas of large-scale political actors. Louw uses the example of the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM), established by the US government in 2008, as evidence of a campaign of ‘surrogate warfare’, training and encouraging youth activists from ‘problem’ countries to launch nonviolent revolutionary campaigns against anti-democratic, oppressive regimes. Not only does this method support the US foreign policy agenda, it is also a means of garnering support for uprisings and revolutions from Western publics. The dominant media narrative of the Arab Spring emphasises the grassroots nature of the movements, but social media has become a key political mechanism of governments to implement their own foreign policy agendas and also for non-government organisations like the Syrian Free Press, to wage online propaganda campaigns to garner support from external audiences.

    Louw argues that the US government is engaged in ‘surrogate warfare’ which it enacts by utilising activists in particular countries to carry out their political agenda. The uprising in Egypt in 2010 provides an example of this warfare tactic. Cartalucci (2011) discusses the involvement of an Egyptian activist in the AYM, who returned to Egypt in 2010 and instigated the ‘April 6’ revolutionary campaign through Facebook, on behalf of the ‘US International Crisis Group trustee Mohamed ElBaradei’ to overthrow the President and put a US-supported, democratic leader in power (Kirkpatrick and Sanger 2011). These claims are based in the leaked United States government diplomatic cable, released by Wikileaks, which states that Saleh was detained on his return to Egypt as he had notes from the AYM summit ‘calling for democratic change in Egypt’ (US State Department 2008). Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Jack Bratich (2009b), labels this tactic a form of ‘information warfare’, with a façade of ‘civil society’ hiding a militarised agenda. Bratich (2009a) calls the AYM a ‘Genetically Modified Grassroots Organisation’, one that hasn’t completely eradicated the element of ‘grassroots’ but is, however, directed and orchestrated by political power from above. Mark Glenn, a journalist for the American Free Press Newspaper, argues in an interview on Russian news network RT, that US influence in Egypt can also be found in the placement of US intelligence services on the ground, directing and guiding the actions of the activists, tutoring them ‘in forms of nonviolent protest’ (RT 2013). He goes on to argue that the protest movements and revolutions take years of planning, and the likelihood that the Arab Spring uprisings emerged from the grassroots level is very low (RT 2013). This point is also argued by Anzera and Comunello (2012: 455) stating that it is not a simple process to organise movements and mobilise large groups of people and the process of challenging oppressive regimes that are very ‘skilful in suppressing internal dissent’, needs to be orchestrated by external political actors (Anzera and Comunello 2012: 455).
    Further evidence of the US government’s influence in the media environment, is evident in the power of the US State Department to request that Twitter postpone maintenance that was scheduled at a ‘critical moment’ in the 2009 uprising in Iran (Bratich 2009a). The power of the US government to intervene in the actions of a private social media company did not feature in the media narrative and Bratich (2009a) argues that this power ‘tends to get lost in a green wave of reports about social media belonging to “people power”. The US government has also been heavily involved in supporting internet freedom and criticising censorship that prevents activists from having their voices heard. In a speech as Secretary of State in 2011, Hillary Clinton discussed the US policy on supporting internet freedom, with the government’s ‘ear to the ground talking to digital activists’, and a massive 20 million dollars provided to activist groups, with an overall goal of $100 million (CNN 2011, Franceschi-Bicchierai 2015). In ‘repressive’ states, with strong internet censorship, the activists are limited by their inability to connect via banned social media websites, therefore the US government has it in their foreign policy interests to ‘fund anti-censorship technologies’ (Franceschi-Bicchierai 2015).
    Louw’s argument does not just focus on government actors but also analyses the activity of NGOs like the Syrian Free Press who have utilised social media as a means of spreading propaganda videos that are targeted not just at the Syrian population, but also at Western news sources. Marnicio (2014: 44) states that the Syrian Free Press uses platforms like Twitter and Facebook to disseminate information to ‘foreign media correspondents’, often written in English and directed solely at the English-speaking West. This method is a means for NGOs with a contained voice, to have their message spread around the globe, targeting Western audiences to garner support and possibly instigate policy action from large-scale political actors (Marnicio 2014: 44). These videos are often picked up by news outlets but there is a very limited process of verification. Western news sources often broadcast videos posted by the Syrian Free Press, without ‘verifying the validity of materials’, which Marnicio (2014: 45) argues, ‘disregards the political stance of the creator of the content’ and allows the organisation to create a particular image of ‘reality’ in the minds of the Western audience.

    Louw’s arguments are based in the relevant literature and are supported by the evidence collected from other opinion pieces, news articles and peer-reviewed papers. However, Louw’s argument is founded in the assumption that social media use plays a key role in social movements, particularly those of the Arab Spring. Here a counterargument emerges, that argues that although social media did have its role in these movements, it was not the key instigator or facilitator of such uprisings. Some activists may have engaged with social media platforms but rather than it being the cause of mobilisation for resistance, it played a somewhat smaller role than that stated in the media narrative. The Arab Spring revolutions were the first to be carried out in the ‘Web 2.0’ era, but despite an apparent democratisation of the media technologies, the predictions by the media and academics that this new format would be ‘the forerunner of radical social and political reform’ were hasty, with little consideration of the origin and foundation of the revolutionary movements (Errington and Miragliotta 2013: 178). Wolfsfeld (et al. 2013: 120) argues that the use of social media is more likely to occur after the initial stages of a revolution, rather than in the beginning, limiting its role as a facilitating medium. The reach of the US foreign policy agenda via social media is somewhat constrained by the limited availability of the internet in many of the countries where uprisings where taking place in the Arab Spring. In Libya, only 5% of the population had access to the internet when the resistance began (RT 2011). In Iran in 2009, Wolfsfeld (et al. 2013: 117) states that just 8,600 people had Twitter accounts. Louw’s argument is slightly limited by these points, as he bases the tactic of ‘surrogate warfare’ in the government’s ability to convince activists to utilise social media. If social media played less of a significant role in the uprisings, the US power to orchestrate movements in ‘problem countries’ was constrained by the limited availability of the platform.
    Despite this counterargument, Louw’s piece is relevant to the literature and discourse surrounding the topic, and is supported by a number of academics and journalists. The Arab Spring movements and the actions of NGOs like the Syrian Free Press can hardly be considered ‘grassroots’ when there are political agendas at play, utilising the media as a way to disseminate a particular narrative that supports their own interests.

    Anzera, Giuseppe and Francesca Comunello. 2012. ‘Will the revolution be tweeted? A conceptual framework for understanding the social media and the Arab Spring’. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 23(4): 453-470.

    Bratich, Jack. 2009a. ‘The Fog Machine’. Counterpunch. Accessed 4 October 2015. Available at

    Bratich, Jack. 2009b. ‘GMGOs: Direct(ed) Action and social movement networks’. Media Commons. Accessed 4 October 2015. Available at

    Cartalucci, Tony. 2011. ‘Google’s Revolution Factory – Alliance of Youth Movements: Color Revolution 2.0’. The Centre for Research on Globalisation. Accessed 4 October 2015. Available at

    CNN. 2011. ‘CNN: Lessons from the Twitter Revolution’. 15 Feb. CNN. Accessed 4 October 2015. Available at

    Errington, Wayne and Narelle Miragliotta. 2011. Media & Politics: An introduction. 2nd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

    Franceschi-Bicchierai, Lorenzo. 2015. ‘Why the US Government is Investing Millions in Internet Freedom Technologies’. Motherboard. 29 September. Accessed 4 October 2015. Available at

    Kirkpatrick, David D, and David. E. Sanger. 2011. ‘A Tunisian-Egyptian Link that Shook Arab History’. The New York Times. 13 February. Accessed 4 October 2015. Available at

    Marnicio, Ariana. 2014. ‘From Progressive to Repressive: The Role of Social Media in the Syrian Conflict’. In Trajectories of Change: Challenge and Transformation in the Wake of the Arab Spring. Houston: Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

    RT. 2011. ‘Retweeting democracy’. RT. 14 April. Accessed 25 October 2015. Available at

    RT. 2013. ‘Alliance of Youth Movements + Muslim Brotherhood are agents of US Department of State’. YouTube video, 2.13. Posted by ‘youpoliticaljersey’. 27 January.

    US State Department. 2008. ‘April 6 activist on his U.S. visit and regime change in Egypt’. Wikileaks. Accessed 4 October 2015. Available at

    Wolfsfeld, Gadi, Elad Segev and Tamir Sheafer. 2013. ‘Social Media and the Arab Spring: Politics Comes First’. The International Journal of Press/Politics 18(2): 115-137.

  5. The University of Queensland POLS3512 Critical Review (Dr Sebastian Kaempf)

    Irrefutably, social networking sites are popular and their usage and the number of participants in online forums such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube continue to grow exponentially. Sparking great scholarly interest is the way in which social media and other digital media are being utilised for means beyond just sharing with the online community images of an extravagant meal from a self-proclaimed foodie or a glamorous ‘selfie’ from a self-absorbed teenager. Hendricks (2014) and Wihbey (2015) assert that, in an era when traditional platforms of political protest are shifting towards online forums, the use of social media and all digital media are becoming powerful democratic and political tools. A Pew Research Centre study (2012) found that 66% of social media users have engaged in political activities online, 38% using social networking sites (SNS) to promote and disseminate information on political issues and 31% using them to shape their followers’ understanding of a conflict, mobilise support and encourage others to take action.

    In Social Media = Revolution, Louw argues that digital media and the internet have become important political tools instigating the spontaneous emergence of pro-democratic campaigning, acting as an agent of political and social change. He argues that social media have effectively promoted grassroots activism, endorsing bottom-up political agitation. Similarly, Stahl suggests that citizens now have the ability to virtually participate in an interactive war, in turn becoming a “virtual citizen-soldier” (Stahl 2010: 21). While the increased participation of citizens online is undoubtedly positive and promotes liberal, democratic values such as freedom of speech, Louw argues it would be prudent to be cautious of who is actually behind these online voices. Interactive digital political activity may appear to produce ‘bottom-up grassroots communication’; however, there is the possibility these messages could be part of a top-down strategic logic, orchestrated by large political actors who aim to surrogate warfare as a weapon of their foreign policy. Louw exemplifies this trend in two cases: the surrogate warfare adopted by the Obama administration and, secondly, the weaponisation of videos and social media in Syria.

    Using the video of Hilary Clinton addressing the Youth Movement Summit, Louw aims to demonstrate the ostensibly creative and innovative way in which Obama’s State Department is adopting surrogate warfare incorporating digital media, social media and mobile phones. Indeed, as Louw asserts, the end of the Cold War sparked transformative adoption of strategic logic from government bodies and insurgent groups, which synchronises information operations or media efforts with political and military activities. In 2008, the U.S. State Department launched its partnership with the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) and multiple media outlets such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, CNN and Howcast in an attempt “to explore ways to advance grassroots movements seeking positive social change through 21st century technology and tools.” (U.S. Department of State 2009) Moreover,
    “These young leaders will form a new group, the Alliance of Youth Movements, which will produce a field manual for youth empowerment. The field manual will stand in stark contrast to the Al-Qaeda manual on the basics of terrorism, found by Coalition Forces in Iraq.” (U.S. State Department of State, 2008)
    Louw and Bratich (2011) assert that the role of Howcast has particular significance in this wave of surrogacy, in creating ‘how to’ videos geared towards teaching the youth of America how to utilise social media as a political tool to build support, create awareness, mobilise the population and promote insurgent movements.

    Louw argues convincingly that social and digital media have become important political tools in empowering individuals and promoting spontaneous grassroots activism. Boulianne (2015: 524) and el-Nawawy and Khamis (2013) similarly assert that the Arab Spring in 2011 fuelled scholarly interest in the way in which social media affects citizens’ participation in political life. The uprising also drew stark attention to the fact that young digital activists had the ability to spark massive waves of political change through the instrumental use of social media blogging, texting, Facebooking and Tweeting (el-Nawawy and Khamis 2013: 1). Further supporting Louw’s argument is Gilmore, stating,
    “Journalism is transforming from a twentieth-century mass-media structure to something profoundly more grassroots and democratic…technology has given us a communications toolkit that allows anyone to become a journalist at little cost and (in theory) with global reach.” (2004: 60)
    As Idle and Nunns (2011: 20) assert, the value of various modes of social media is profound in creating networks, disseminating information, shaping populations’ perception of conflict and efficiently organising political events. This is exemplified in the Palestinian uprising, considered to be the Third Intifada, where young generations of Palestinians are engaging as a group in protest against the Israeli occupation. As Aris Roussinos explains in his VICE News documentary, Intifada 3.0, the conflict is characterised as a leaderless grouping of young Palestinians fighting for their country and, as a young protester explained, the Palestinian activists are far younger in contrast to previous Intifadas, as a consequence of the use of Facebook in creating awareness, disseminating information and organising political protests (00:05:35).

    Indeed, the convergence of media and political actions from a top-down strategic logic perspective holds paramount importance and young activists’ surge of activity in using social media for political purposes sparks the question whether the seemingly bottom-up, ‘unofficial’ messages are orchestrated. Louw is justifiably sceptical towards the apparent innocence of bottom-up grassroots communications. An article in an issue of al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine entitled ‘Advice for those who want to help al-Malahem Media’ is devoted to teaching AQ followers ways in which they “can help the mujahidin in within the confines of the media sector” (2010: 44). Also outlined within the issue are detailed instructions on ‘Destroying Buildings’ (2010: 39-41) and ‘Training with the AK’ (2012: 42-43).

    Louw’s central arguments are certainly supported by current scholarly literature. However, the perspective adopted for this research has immense implications for strategic policies and counter-narrative development in combatting the adversary’s propaganda efforts. Louw appears to present the use of social media in promoting grassroots activism and calling for support as an innovative technique in response to the surge in social media in the 21st century. Moreover, technological advances since the end of the Cold War have formed popular perception depicting the role of digital media in political activism and terrorist groups such as the Islamic state (IS) as innovative. Heickero (2014: 555) and Goodman et al (2006: 193) similarly stress that cyberterrorism with the use of the internet and various digital media is an intriguing phenomenon that deserves more scholarly attention. While undoubtedly technological advances have created a plethora of new political platforms, the objectives and primacy placed on information operations is not unique. In order to create successful counter-narratives, it would be sensible to adopt a broader comparative perspective analysing information operations in previous insurgencies and guerrilla movements (Huang 2015). When a broader historical contextual analysis is adopted, it becomes clear that the objectives and primacy placed on information operations is not unique and this trend can be traced back to the works of Mao-TseTung (1937), Che Guevara (2007), Ho Chi Minh (2011) and al-Muqrin (2009).

    In comparison with insurgent propaganda efforts, particularly those of al-Qaeda and IS, Western messaging continues to fall short. This is embarrassingly typified in the Australian Defence Force’s grossly fallible Twitter account created to fight IS propaganda. Nielsen (2012: 336) and Guiboa (2003: online) similarly assert that far greater strategic emphasis needs to be placed on efforts from the United States government to better protect American interests in cyberspace. As explicated by Rid and Hecker (2009), there is strong need to analyse the strategic logic of information operations of insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda (AQ), the Taliban and Hezbollah, in order to create effective counter-narratives. In agreement, Qin et al (2012: 72) state that research of previous movements shows that terrorists utilise the internet to enhance information operations and the only way in which these groups can achieve their objectives is to mould perceptions of the conflict and maintain popular civilian support. The public space and the role of the population are important political tools and their relationships with media efforts are essential in establishing successful political movements. Information operations constitute psychological warfare and its efficacy is dependent on the message. Focusing on the tools, i.e. the social media sites, tends to ignore the strategic logic behind these messages (Qin et al 2007: 71 and Lynch 2015). While employing the help of AYM and technical experts undoubtedly has its benefits, understanding the conflict and needs of the population is what has primary importance when developing counter-narratives and, therefore, it is the messages of these media efforts which need to be perfected.


    Al-Muqrin, Abd al-Aziz. 2009. ‘A Practical Course for Guerrilla War’. In Al-Qa’ida’s doctrine for insurgency. Translated by N. Cigar. Washington D.C.: Potomac

    Boulianne, S. 2015. ‘Social media use and participation: a meta-analysis of current research’. In Information, Communication & Society. 18(5): 524-538.

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  6. Reflections on Social Media & Political Impact

    Characterized by the shift from a ‘multipolar’ to ‘heteropolar’ media landscape, the greater degree of interactivity and collectivity fostered by digital technologies has been said to dissolve the previous dichotomy between sender and receiver, engendering agency in non-state actors (NSAs) in a manner fundamentally different than previously observed (Kaempf 2013: 598). Following the 2011 Arab Spring protests and the social media revolutions of the Middle East, this attitude of optimism was further entrenched (Comunello & Anzera 2012: 453). In line with the common consensus regarding the emergence of Web 2.0, the reliance on social media to organise groups and enable communication during the protests of the 2011 was seen as a vindication of the technology’s ability to mobilise the public and instigate political change, while simultaneously neutralising the capability of the state to retain the previously held monopoly of information (Shirky 2011: 29). Yet, while it is reasonable to state that the internet and related technologies have given rise to a greater degree of participatory culture, by the same measure it is important to recognise that it is a neutral platform that can be co-opted by larger organisations. While the effects of digital media in changing the media landscape and granting agency to previously underpowered actors should not be ignored, I agree with Louw’s argument that a more sceptical view should be taken when examining the impact of social media. In articulating my argument, I will first proceed with a summary of Louw’s argument. Secondly I will address the example of Alliance of Youth Movement (AYM). Finally I will address the issue of professionalised ‘spin doctoring’ and the usage of social media by the Syrian Free Press.

    Louw’s Argument

    Social media is often linked with democratisation through its ability to lower barriers of entry to media production and provoke innovative forms of public discourse (Loader & Mercia 2012: 3). Louw questions this line of reasoning in exploring the political impact of social media. While he appreciates the ability of social media in empowering NSAs to reconfigure how public events are communicated and represented, he invites us to be more sceptical – to question whether this impact is always authentically grassroots or rather if it encodes the hidden agendas of larger, more powerful actors. Louw maintains that while social media technologies may often be a vehicle for positive change, contrary to their popular reputation they can just as be easily be utilised as faux-grassroots masquerade for the hidden agendas of other actors. Louw uses two case studies to illustrate his argument. The first is the Alliance of Youth Movement and its role in the United States’ exportation of democracy. The second is the usage of the Syrian Free Press in manipulating the representation of the ongoing Syrian Conflict through usage of Public Relations techniques and targeted content creation (Louw 2013).

    Alliance of Youth Movement: Social Media as Surrogate Warfare

    Calling to attention the convergence between the state and social media, Louw argues that the American government support of AYM constitutes a form of surrogate warfare wherein seemingly grassroots organisations become conduits of American political will. In particular, Louw emphasises the way in which members of these organisations have been trained to produce content with the intention of ‘stirring Western publics into a state of righteous indignation’ – painting the West and the ideal of liberal democracy as the victims of foreign belligerence and aggression (Louw 2013). This aligns with Bratich’s proposition of ‘Genetically Modified Grassroots Organisations’ (GMGOs) – organisations which are created from ‘the bottom’ but are subsequently “seeded” by external actors whom adopt a degree of control. (Bratich: 2013: 624). The corollary is that the State is able to subsume social media and its grassroots appearances as a component of a broader foreign policy toolkit.

    Louw’s argument is sound. The emergence of social media technologies may have blurred the previously divisive boundaries between content creator and consumer, however, this does not automatically equate to the neither disappearance of the State’s ability to intervene and act against undesirable forms of communication not its ability to utilise these technologies for its own advantage (Bratich 2011: 632). The new information environment may have elicited a greater degree of agency for actors to participate in the information environment, however the agenda setting capabilities of the State remains active (Bratich 2011: 624). As opposed to the typical assumption of the amorphous, diffuse form of networked communication as facilitating resistance, the state can now be found within the network utilising techniques to prevent unwanted connection and driving the narrative. In this way, there arises a ‘bottom-up convergence of technology and government’ through which technology usage is subsumed by the State as an apparatus assisting strategic interest (Bratich 2012: 622).

    It is possible to argue against the proposition of the state’s ability to encode its own agenda within social media by drawing attention towards the relative strength of social media usage by oppositional NSAs (Rid & Hecker 2009: 205). At the same time this advantage of NSAs is not mutually exclusive with the States’ ability to use Social Media to their own ends. What this relative strength of NSAs points towards is not so much a lack of the state’s capacity or willingness to manipulate social media to encode its agenda, but rather a structural advantage employed by NSAs within the new informational milieu through the evolution of media technology into a platform for action. The evolved information landscape and increased significance of the media has meant that the insurgent gains a ‘penetration advantage’ wherein the asymmetry created by the diffused, decentralised nature of the networked NSA creates a heightened degree of uncertainty for the state. (Hoskins & O’Loughlin 2013: 155). In other words, the state does not lack capacity to use social media as a tool for surrogate warfare even if NSAs are able to render a stronger position by virtue of the advantageous informational landscape.

    Syrian Free Press: PR Manoeuvring & Social Media

    Louw’s argument regarding the use of public relations ‘spin doctoring’ by the SFP to coordinate its campaign is likewise sound. Focusing upon the SFP’s ability to mass disseminate ground footage of the conflict, he asserts that social media has reduced reliance of the public on professionalised news reporting, thus allowing users to reconfigure power by introducing new forms of content and an alternate narrative. Aligning with Gray’s argument, they effectively ‘mobilis[ed] technology…in service of revolutionary objectives’ (Gray 1997: 5).

    The notion of social media being utilised by the Syrian Free Press to communicate a certain depiction of the conflict is not a stretch of the imagination. Indeed, from a public relations perspective, the seemingly authentic nature of social media is crucial in its success as a platform for delivering targeted narratives (Henderson & Bowley 2010: 242). The additional the element of emotional immediacy moreover further propagates the power of the message communicated through social media allowing actors such as NFP to encode its agenda. As Jenkins hypothesises, the emotional effect upon users of social media can be capitalised upon. Examining the usage of social media in the Iranian election protests in 2009/10, he explained that ‘the protesters appealed directly to the desire among a large group of Twitter users to know what was happening and that group’s fantasy of exerting a greater influence over world events’ (Jenkins, n.d). A similar strategy was likely employed by SFP. To put it another way, the personalised nature of social media creates link of intimacy and empathy, with their global supporters thus facilitating the continued longevity of support through a manufactured construction of ‘authenticity’ and spontaneity that conceals a broader political strategy at play. When coupled with the lack of verification, it therefore leads to the reconfiguration of power and narrative by the SFP (Marnico 2014: 45).

    Gladwell challenges this argument by highlighting the ‘weak-tie’ nature of social media and ‘slacktivist’ culture which arguably fails to engender proactivity but simultaneously, that does not discount the emotionally affective abilities of social media nor its capacity in allowing ‘committed actors to adopt new strategies’ (Gladwell & Shirky: 2011).


    Louw’s arguments regarding the impact of social media are reasonable. While the abilities of social media to facilitate public conversation and generate new strategies for political action are of incredible democratising potential, the technology nevertheless exists as a tool which can be used to progress a myriad of hidden agendas both by state and non state actors. The advent of social media is no doubt a development, which has given rise to immense opportunities for political activists, but nevertheless should be viewed from a critical perspective.


    Bratich, Jack. 2011. ‘User Generated Discontent’. Cultural Studies 25(4-5): 621-640.

    Shirky, Clay. 2011. ‘The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change. Foreign Affairs 90(1): 28-41.

    Comunello, Francesca and Giuseppe Anzera. ‘Will the revolution be tweeted? A conceptual framework for understanding for understanding the social media and the Arab Spring’. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. 23(4): 453-470.

    Gladwell, Malcom and Clay Shirky. 2011. From Innovation to Revolution: Do Social Media Make Protests Possible?. Accessed 30th of October 2015: Available at:

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    Henderson, Allison and Rachel Bowley. 2010. ‘Authentic Dialogue? The Role of “Friendship” in a Social Media Recruitment Campaign’. Journal of Communication Management 14(3): 237-257.

    Jenkins, Henry. n.d. Twitter Revolution?. Accessed 30th of October 2015. Available at:

    Loader, Brian D. and Dan Mercia. 2012. Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics. New York: Routledge.

    Louw, Eric. 2013. The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?. Accessed 29th October, 2015. Available at:
    Marnicio, Ariana. 2014. ‘From Progressive to Repressive: The Role of Social Media in the Syrian Conflict’. in Trajectories of Change: Challenge and Transformation in the Wake of the Arab Spring. Houston: Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
    Hoskins, Anthony and Benjamin O’Loughlin. 2013. War and Media. Oxford: Wiley.

    Kaempf, Sebastian. 2013. ‘The Mediatisation of War in a Transforming Global Media Landscape.’ Australian Journal of international Affairs 67(5): 586-604

    Rid, Thomas and Marc Hecker. 2009. War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Informational Age. Wesport: Praeger.

  7. Critical Review POLS3512 Marissa Pattison (43232862)

    Recent developments, such as the emergence of ‘Web 2.0’, the structural shift from a multipolar to heteropolar media landscape and the erosion of the traditional media divide between sender and receiver, have drastically changed the role of non-state actors within the global political landscape (Kaempf 2013: 593). Due to the current accessibility and prominence of mobile phones and social media, non-state actors are now seen to be “…newly empowered”, with it being easier than ever for them to contest state-supported narratives regarding conflict, through ‘user-generated content’ (Kaempf 2013: 593). As a result of these changes and recent events such as the Arab Spring, social media has mostly been championed within mainstream media and academia as capable of creating positive change through the facilitation of grassroots activism (Louw 2013). However, in his spotlight Social Media = Revolution?, Eric Louw expresses scepticism regarding this narrative, asserting that we should all approach social media more critically (Louw 2013). This critical review will conclude that Louw’s article is convincing, when placed in the context of relevant literature. This will be evidenced through a summary of Louw’s argument, an analysis of related literature and how Louw’s argument fits within this, plus an analysis of the thoughts of authors opposing Louw’s view within their work.

    In his spotlight, Louw states that the biggest example so far of the “…endorsement narrative” regarding the democratising potential of social media and mobile phones was the coverage of the Arab Spring by Western journalists (2013). He cautions against this enthusiastic endorsement, stating that critical questions should be asked about the use of social media as a political tool, as its appearance of producing grassroots action may not be as innocent as it seems (Louw 2013). Louw then cites the US State Department as an example, arguing that they use digital media as foreign policy tools and mobilisers of US surrogate warfare (2013). To further evidence this point, Louw introduces the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM), a partnership formed in 2008 between the State Department and numerous groups including Google, Facebook, Howcast and more, with the aim of bringing together “…global youth groups and tech experts to find the best ways to use digital media to promote freedom and justice [and] counter…oppression” (Louw 2013). Louw also uses the example of the Syrian Free Press’ ‘spin doctoring’ to further demonstrate his argument. He argues the Syrian Free Press shows that a knowledge of PR and social media is enough to establish a platform for their political agenda within Western media (Louw 2013).

    As stated previously, Louw’s position is convincing, and this can be demonstrated by placing his spotlight within the context of relevant literature. Many authors support Louw’s encouragement of a critical attitude towards social media and its revolutionary potential. For example, Carr describes social media as ‘not autonomous’, and Haltiwanger reminds readers to consider the potential for power abuse as one of the serious downsides of social media, particularly within debates regarding activism and democratisation (Carr 2013: 631 and Haltiwanger 2014). Bratich also sides with Louw’s scepticism, stating that the reality of the power that actors such as the US State Department have over social media corporations gets lost too often in a “…green wave” championing social media as “…belonging to people power” (2009a). Haas echoes this, asserting that social media can be repressed by governments and therefore also used by them to shape agendas. Though his stance differs from Louw’s on the example of the Arab Spring, with Haas arguing that the role of social media has been greatly exaggerated (cited in Coldeway 2011). The views of these aforementioned authors show that Louw’s main argument is convincing when placed within wider literature. This can be further demonstrated through the example of the US State Department’s partnership AYM, which featured often in related literature.

    To further evidence his scepticism regarding the revolutionary grassroots potential of social media, Louw cited the AYM partnership as an example of how the US State Department is using social media as a form of surrogate warfare. Many writers also referenced this example of AYM to confirm the potential for political power plays regarding social media. For example, Bratich described AYM as “…information warfare meets youth culture: while the rhetoric is civil society: the tactics are military” (2009b). Bratich also coined the term ‘Genetically Modified Grassroots Organisations’ (GMGOs) to describe the artificial and non-grassroots nature of partnerships such as AYM (2011: 627). GMGOs are hybrid organisations, in that they do not originate in authentic grassroots goals, nor do they exist purely as a result of top-down power or manipulation (Bratich 2011: 627). In describing this, Bratich also supports Louw’s suggestion of critical thinking, stating that it would be delusional to believe the assertion that “…the State Department has been stricken by pacifism fever” in its approaches to internet freedom (2009a). Similarly, Shirky declares that in US foreign policy, internet freedom and social media are used as tools of statecraft, with parallels to be drawn between this assertion and Louw’s conception of such actions as surrogate warfare (Shirky 2011: 40). Support can also be found in related literature regarding Louw’s use of the example of the Syrian Free Press.

    Louw’s other case of the Syrian Free Press’ use of social media to elevate their agenda onto a Western platform is not referenced often in related literature, though some authors do express similar sentiments to his in regard to the potential of social media to be used for both peace and violence or empowerment and oppression. For instance, Kaempf states that giving non-state actors a platform for expressing their view and perspective, and even getting it elevated into mainstream media, can be a truly positive thing (2013: 600). However, Koerner (2016) uses the example of ISIS to demonstrate the danger of the empowering effect social media can have on such non-state actors. Koerner states that ISIS has been highly successful in the dissemination of digital propaganda, as it learnt the importance of digital media from its “…grainy predecessors”, such as the early content produced by Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda (2016). He states that now, through the use of Twitter, Facebook and the distribution of its PDF magazine Dabiq, ISIS has become a media conglomerate. This further demonstrates Louw’s point relating to the Syrian Free Press, that social media can be easily adapted for ‘spin doctoring’ and the spreading of alternative political agendas (Koerner 2016).

    Though no authors in the related literature specifically used the term surrogate warfare, as Louw did, there is no damaging counter evidence indicating that Louw’s main argument is incorrect. However, some authors, such as Shirky, did express differing opinions to Louw’s, though nothing so strong that it counteracted his argument. Shirky declared that connecting social media and internet freedom with goals to assist dissident groups or encourage regime change is “…likely to be ineffective on average”, and this evidences his disagreement with Louw’s suggestion of scepticism towards policies such as the AYM partnership (2011: 30). He elaborates further on this doubt, asserting that activists in both democratic and authoritarian regimes will use social media to effect change, but he doubts that the US State Department can effectively shape this kind of change (Shirky 2011: 41). Shirky further states that he disagrees with the reduction of social media’s potential roles to ‘duelling anecdotes’ and binaries, as he believes social media can result in more nuanced outcomes (2011: 29). Rosen (cited in Coldeway 2011) takes his criticism in a different direction, claiming that social media is not capable of disrupting regimes or causing revolution. Therefore, the worry regarding their potential misuse is pointless. While both differing opinions offer a new viewpoint upon Louw’s argument, they do not counter Louw’s argument or make it less credible.

    Louw’s arguments regarding the construction of social media’s potential are convincing when placed within the context of the wider literature written on this topic. He persuasively states that we should consume social media more critically, despite the media’s championing of its empowering potential through cases such as the Arab Spring. Ultimately, while there were some authors who disagreed on certain points regarding Louw’s representation of the role of social media, this critical review has shown that Louw’s spotlight presents a convincing argument about the inherent power struggle present between social media technologies and foreign policy.


    Bratich, Jack. 2009a. ‘The Fog Machine’. Counter Punch June 22.

    Bratich, Jack. 2009b. ‘GMGOs: Direct(ed) Action and social movement networks’. In media res: a media commons project 3 February. Accessed 24 September 2016. Available at

    Bratich, Jack. 2011. ‘User-Generated Discontent’. Cultural Studies 25(4-5): 621-640.

    Carr, Madeline. 2013. ‘Internet Freedom, human rights and power’. Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(5): 621-637.

    Coldeway, Devin. 2011. ‘Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine’. Jay Rosen Press Think 13 February. Accessed 21 September 2016. Available at

    Haltiwanger, John. 2014. ‘How Social Media Has Become The Greatest Weapon In War And Politics’. Elite Daily 8 October.

    Kaempf, Sebastian. 2013. ‘The mediatisation of war in a transforming global media landscape’. Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(5): 586-604.

    Koerner, Brendan. 2016. ‘Why ISIS is Winning the Social Media War’. Wired April 2016. Accessed 2 October 2016. Available at

    Louw, Eric. 2005. Social Media = Revolution? 9 April 2013. Accessed 20 September 2016. Available at

    Shirky, Clay. 2011. ‘The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change’. Foreign Affairs 90(1): 28-41.

  8. Critical review on Louw’s Social Media = Revolution?
    Internet has undergo profound evolution which allows consumers to upload as well as access informations in a remarkable speed. Hence, netizens utilize this medium to serve their own interest be it to sell their own products or to spread social awareness. As authorities recognize that this approach can effectively persuade and outreach more people compared to their conventional strategy, they make use of the netizens to advocate their interest. For instance, Eric Louw’s example of United States(US) effort in organizing Alliance of Youth Movement(AYM) which promotes digital media as “an agent of positive social change”. I partly agree with the main notion of this article, whereby he believes that powerful authority can manipulates social media to carry out their political agenda. Therefore, in the first part of this essay, I agree that the social media contents are biased towards western’s perspective and values. In the second part, I disagree as I believe, even without any external intervention, the protest will still take place. Before I conclude, I believe that social media play bigger part as a tool rather than causing a revolution.
    It is undeniable that the western has control over the media. Thus, in order for information to circulate in the media, the content must satisfy western’s perspective. Louw pointed out that AYM taught the participants to create a newsworthy video that appeals to CNN and BBC in which is only a minor example of having to meet western expectation. However, a most compelling evidence of western biasness and example that would strengthen Louw’s argument is the action of Facebook shutting down a page called “The Third Palestinian Intifada”. Facebook pathetically argued that this page has breached the terms of service for engaging in hate speech. It is irony that many other pages that calls for protest and “days of rage” which promotes protest in Middle East and North Africa(MENA) region were not being shut down. Hence, Palestinian as well as sympathizer questioned why the pages that promotes opposition towards other Arabs’ government were allowed but forbid protest against Israeli occupation(Comninos 2011:13). This illustrates that western has control over the content in the media. Moreover, the AYM initiative indirectly embeded US value of democracy and freedom towards its participants. This is because, the participant were taught by Howcast to use social media to organize social movement in which may not be compatible with their local social value. For this reason, this effort contradicts to Howcast’s idea of local and grassroot approach as it needs to understand the local internet culture. Moreover, this effort also opposes Clinton’s notion of empowerment as participant were controlled or in other word, “taught” to comply to western standard such as the Howcast’s lesson of creating the newswhorthy videos. Inarguably, the global power, in this case, the western and the US, do have control over the media.
    Although the fact that the powerful authority may have manipulated the social media to benefit their own agenda, protest or any social movement would not take place if the local citizens are satisfied with the governing body. In the case of the Arab Spring, the demonstration took place due to the long period of oppression done by the ruling regimes(Lopes 2014:13). With this in mind, the Egyptian Revolution which aims to overthrow 30 years of Mubarak’s presidency is due to corruptions, lack of freedom in free speech and brutality done by the authority(Anderson 2011:5, Eltantawy & Wiest 2011:1210). Consequently, the civilians make use of social media as a tool to mobilize the protest as a result of the accumulated grievance of Mubarak’s tyranny. Moreover, to claim that the global power such as the US can influences the social media to “ovethrow regimes of which they dissapprove” is also untrue as Egypt is known to have a good diplomatic relationship with the US. As Aoragh and Alexander claim, Egypt has been the second biggest receipient of US military aid as well as a key ally of Isreal(2011:1347). Equally important, it is fallacious to assert that social media approach will spontaneously result to grassroot activism as it requires a thorough planning to have such big-scale social movement. For example, the demostration that took place in Libya to overthrow Gadaffi was carefully planned before the revolt took place on 17 February(Lidgren 2013:210). This shows that the existing hatred towards the government with the unstable socio-political and economic condition further motivate local citizens to organize protest. It is untrue to claim that global power has the capability to control the social media in order to spark local upheaval as the citizens itself have to experience the injustice done by government for them to respond to it. It is also less likely for social media to produce instant result as an excellent planning is needed to ensure a successful social movement.
    Lastly, Louw’s claim of social media being a tool is surely true, but, I disagree with his notion that it causes social revolution to happen. It is unquestionable that social media play a big part in the Arab Spring, but only to the extent that it plays its role as a tool to coordinate the movement and act as a catalyst for the uprising to take place. As social media has the ability to reach people in a very short time, the opposition used it to inform the protestors informations such as the location of the demonstration. For instance, in Egypt, the protestor utilized Facebook and Twitter to announce and publicize the initial protest on 25 January 2011 at Tahrir Square. Not only that, they also created a facebook group called “We are all Khaled Said” and the “6th of April Youth Movement” to pass information, distribute flyers, and email of a PDF file explaining the protest plan(Comninos 2011:8). Although the internet shut down on 27 January did affect the the distribution of informations and coordinating the movement, but it did not severely impact the mobilization(Aouragh & Alexander 2011:1350). Moreover, it is untrue to claim that the internet causes the revolution to happen as even without the internet, the social movement will take place. To point out, countries with among the highest level of internet usage, such as Bahrain with 88 percent of its population online and states with some of the lowest levels of internet consumption, Yemen and Libya, these countries experienced mass uprising (Stepanova 2011:3). Furthermore, social media does serve as an impactful catalyst of Arab Spring in a sense that it helps in spreading awareness effectively. Among reasons people easily convinced by the content of the internet is because of the ability for the informations to bypass biasness and external influence(Bhuiyan 2011:14). Although government may have censored certain content, they can never fully control the internet. Henceforth, with the existing frustration towards local government injustice, the informations spread in the social media further motivate the citizen to organize a social uproar. It is said that the neighbouring countries of Tunisia were not aware of Bouazizi’s self immolation for a few days. Not until the image started to circulate also with the Tunisians provoking other MENA countries to have social revolution, then , the domino effect started to occur and result to Arab Spring(Bhuiyan 2011:15). Facebook and twitter are among social media that are frequently used in the revolution, but only as a tool not the cause for the revolution to happen.
    In conclusion, although Louw manage to argue that global power have the capability to use social media to spread their own agenda, I believe, the external power has little influence in the local social revolution. I agree that the western are controlling the content circulating in both media and social media platform. I am convinced that the unjust condition done by the domestic government itself, motivate citizens to revolt. Even though Louw stated that social media is an effective tool for social movement, it certainly do not cause for the revolution to happen.


    Anderson, L. (2011). Demystifying the Arab Spring: parsing the differences between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Foreign Affairs, 2-7.

    Aouragh, M., & Alexander, A. (2011). The arab spring| the egyptian experience: Sense and nonsense of the internet revolution. International Journal of communication, 5, 15.

    Bhuiyan, S. I. (2011). Social media and its effectiveness in the political reform movement in Egypt. Middle East Media Educator, 1(1), 14-20.

    Comninos, A. (2011). Twitter revolutions and cyber crackdowns: User-generated content and social networking in the Arab spring and beyond. Association for Progressive Communication (APC).

    Eltantawy, N., & Wiest, J. B. (2011). The Arab spring| Social media in the Egyptian revolution: reconsidering resource mobilization theory. International Journal of Communication, 5, 18.

    Lindgren, S. (2013). The potential and limitations of Twitter activism: Mapping the 2011 Libyan Uprising. tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 11(1), 207-220.

    Lopes, A. R. (2014). The Impact of Social Media on Social Movements: The New Opportunity and Mobilizing Structure. Journal of Political Science Research.

    Stepanova, E. (2011). The role of information communication technologies in the “arab spring”. Ponars Eurasia, 15, 1-6.

  9. POLS 3512: Critical Blog Review
    Amiera Arbain (44026394)
    Nowadays, social media has become one of the most important platforms for the audience to get the latest news in just a click. Day by day, the number of users of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube has increased massively. As the technologies are constantly improving, the power of smartphones and the internet has gone a lot further than just for entertainment and communications. It has now become one of our priorities as we depend on them for our social lives as well as for works. Eric Louw’s central argument in ‘Social Media= Revolution’, is that social media has become the platform for the users to use it as a political tool by sharing and supporting the political activities. It acts as an agent of political and social changes. Other scholars such as Stahl also claimed that the citizens now can be part of the virtual soldier in a war by virtually participating in an interactive war (Stahl, 2006). The message that he conveys is quite convincing as the social media basically act as a cover for a political hidden agenda for the U.S to campaign the surrogate warfare and Louw uses the Alliance of Youth Movement (AYM) as an example.
    According to a Pew Research Centre study, they found that 66% of social media users use the social media for political activity purposes. Specifically, 38% of them use the social networking sites to promote information about the political issues while the other 31% use it to help their followers to understand about a certain conflict, give active support as well as inspire others to make a move (Perrin, 2015). People have been using Facebook and Twitter to promote their political belief and create some political movement hence has influenced others to do the same thing. Moreover, as suggested by Pew Research, approximately half of Facebook users receive their news from Facebook. However, instead of getting it directly from Facebook, majority of the users are exposed to the news through social network links on Facebook. Due to this incidental news coverage, social media users tend to be visible to get the information without having to search for it actively (Boulianne, 2015). Thus, social media, as suggested by Louw, although communication using the interactive digital media looks innocent but it also can be a threat to the users nowadays.
    Louw includes two examples to clarify the trend in his argument which is, the surrogate warfare that was adopted by the Obama administration and also the use of videos as a weapon and social media in Syria. One of the examples about Louw’s argument is back in December 2010, where young activists in Egypt had started a new political landscape during the Arab Spring where they used the internet and social network to communicate without being censored by the government. They use Facebook and Twitter as their main platform to organize and rally support as well as coordinate a large demonstration in Egypt. These platforms were used to spread the video footage during the Arab Spring and also act as eyewitness accounts (Banks, 2015). Moreover, the Arabs have been exercising their freedom of speech by using the digital media and as a space for civic engagement (Brown, Guskin, & Mitchell, 2012). Furthermore, the interest in networked digital connectivity and political action was triggered during the Obama presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, yet the data remain far from conclusive (Wihbey, 2015).
    Louw also argues that behind all the digital media that we are using, there might be a hidden agenda hence it is important for us to be cautious. He used the video of Hilary Clinton as an example to explain about the creative method that the Obama’s State Department in applying the surrogate warfare incorporating digital media, social networks as well as mobile phone that we are using nowadays. The U.S State Department established its corporation with the Alliance of Youth Movement (AYM) back in 2008. AYM was created by the U.S to train and encourage youth activists to start political groups, make a rally and also to build an uprising movement. This is one of their efforts in attempt “to explore ways to advance grassroots movements seeking positive social change through 21st century technology and tools” (U.S Department of State, 2009).This method does not only support the US foreign policy agenda, it also helps to gather supports for the uprisings and revolutions from Western publics. They cooperate with other social network companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Howcast and many more in order to train the youth to use the digital media so that they know the best possible way to promote freedom and justice by making videos that can catch the media’s attention when they posted the videos in the internet.
    In his article, Louw’s argument has convinced that social and digital media have become one of the crucial political tools in empowering individuals and promoting impulsive grassroots activism. Nowadays because of the shift in the current digital and social media, the citizens are no longer be the only one that receives the news since they can also be the one that give the news which is also called as ‘citizen journalist’. Louw’s argument was also supported by Gillmor where he said that “Journalism is transforming from a twentieth-century mass-media structure to something profoundly more grassroots and democratic…technology has given us a communications tool kit that allows anyone to become a journalist at little cost and (in theory) with global reach” (Gillmor, 2004, p. 60). As an example;
    “In Tunisia the pro-democracy movement became a viral phenomenon almost overnight, and as more people gathered most of the online action took place on Facebook (which is much more popular in Tunisia than Twitter). Facebook allowed for photos and videos posted that quickly spread and encouraged others to make a stance and join the protests. But as the government attempted to counter using its own media channels, the Internet still allowed the population to get stories out through the cracks” (Banks, 2015).
    However, although Louw’s main ideas were based on some relevant literatures and also supported by some scholars but his argument was made by an assumption that the social media plays a main role in the social movement, specifically the Arab Spring. Thus, to counter his argument, social media is not the main and the biggest role for the social movement. As Gladwell said that a successful activism needs an organized hierarchy that has rules and procedures controlled by a central authority. There is no leader in social media, thus shows that networks “have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals” which makes them “prone to conflict and error.” Gladwell proves that the social media is not the key role in the social movement as claimed by Louw thus shows that the social media aspect of revolutions is ineffective (Gire, 2014, p. 2). Furthermore, the use of social media for a movement is usually at the early stages of the revolution and not at the beginning. This is just to spread the propaganda first thus it is a limit for the social media’s role as an assisting platform (Wolfsfeld, Segev, & Sheafer, 2013). Although the number of people using the social media are increasing yet there are still some countries (especially during the Arab Spring) does not have a social media account. For example, in 2009, Wolfsfeld states that in Iran, only 8,600 people had Twitter accounts (Wolfsfeld, Segev, & Sheafer, 2013). Thus, they were not exposed to the movement that was posted in the social media.
    To conclude, social media does play a role as an agent of political and social changes as stated by Louw but it is not the main role that makes a social and political movement to success.
    Banks, R. (2015, January 19). Mobile Industry Review. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from
    Boulianne, S. (2015). Social media use and participation: a meta-analysis of current research. Information, Communication and Society, 18, 524-538.
    Brown, H., Guskin, E., & Mitchell, A. (2012, November 28). Pew Researcher Centre. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from
    Gillmor, D. (2004). We the media: The rise of citizen journalists. National Civic Review, 58-63.
    Gire, S. (2014). The role of social media in Arab Spring. Pangaea Journal, 1-10.
    Perrin, A. (2015, October 8). Pew Research Centre. Retrieved October 2, 2016, from
    Stahl, R. (2006). Have you played the war on terror? Critical Studies in Media Communication, 112-130.
    U.S Department of State. (2009, October 13). Retrieved October 2, 2016, from
    Wihbey, J. (2015, October 18). Journalist Resource. Retrieved October 2, 2016, from
    Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., & Sheafer, T. (2013). Social media and the Arab spring: Politics comes first. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 18(2), 115-137.

  10. POLS3512 Critical Blog

    The proliferation of social media use in grass-roots movements has led to the assertion that the medium serves as a political equaliser and a successful tool for democratisation, however these assertions require further analysis. Eric Louw attempts to draw attention to this need for analysis, arguing that the use of social media by social movements is not as spontaneous and grass-roots orientated as it may first appear and is instead being coopted by state actors to fulfil state motives. Louw makes a convincing argument by drawing the reader’s attention to the role social media plays in “surrogate warfare”. The Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) is used as an example of a state’s manipulation of social movements through social media. Louw also draws our attention to social media’s effects on main stream media conflict reporting and how political agendas can be framed by activists and states to better serve their motives. However, Louwe attempts to compound a multi-faceted argument into a short space and as such fails to address important issues, such as traditional and algorithmic gate-keeping.

    As Louw states in the beginning of his article, many academics and journalists have been quick to embrace the arguments in favour of the liberating potential of social media. Social Media has been heralded as a great tool to effectively organise and broadcast social movements resulting in further democratisation and positive social change (Shirky 2008,2011; Singh 2013). However, there has been a push back by the academic community towards these notions, proposing instead that social media cannot replicate the strong social ties needed for effective social revolutions (Gladwell 2010, Lindsey 2013) and that platforms are being effectively coopted by state and corporate interests, undoing their potentially revolutionising capacities for the general populace (Dijck 2013; Morozov 2011). Situated within the existing literature Louw makes a convincing argument for the re-examination of social media’s revolutionary capacity.

    Louw argues for a more critical view on the assertion that social media is a political equaliser, being utilised by grassroots organisations to create effective social movements. Instead, Louw calls our attention to the use of social media by government and corporate actors to further their own agendas under the guise of supposedly spontaneous social movements. Louw points to the evolution of the U.S.A’s foreign diplomacy methods to include social media as a form of “surrogate warfare”. This is in line with the USA’s foreign diplomacy strategy of “Twenty-First Century Statecraft” (USDOS 2009) which involves using social media to “advance America’s interests” (Hammer 2013:135). Louw argues that the U.S seeks to manipulate social movement through the use of political partnerships with social media companies. The Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) is used as an example of this hybrid state and partnered organisation that uses social media to export U.S.A foreign policy.
    The AYM serves as an example of a state’s ability, in conjunction with social media corporations, to seed social movements that are easier to manipulate to better serve state interests. Louw draws on the work of Jack Bratich’s, who has written extensively about groups like the AYM and their societal consequences (2009;2011). Bratich (2009) labels the AYM as a “Genetically Modified Grassroots Organisation” (GMGO). A GMGO is neither “wholly emerging from below (grassroots) nor purely invented by external forces” (Bratich 2009) and is constructed around methods to control the resulting social movement (Bratich 2009). The aim of the AYM was to identify political groups which did not utilise social media and then encourage these political groups to foster a social movement (Bratich 2011:626). Through-out the ‘how-to’ videos, mentioned here by Louw and Bratich (2011), the underlying message of non-violence and out-ward looking tactics serve to manipulate the tactics of AYM members as well as implying that these tactics should not be used against the U.S as it has alright reached the epitome of transparency and openness, being the facilitator of the alliance (Bratich 2011:627). Bratich then goes on to link the AYM with the Arab Spring through Google’s Wael Ghonim (2011:630). It is obvious then, as stated by Louw that through groups such as the AYM states are able to utilise social media to manipulate the outcomes of political movements, and as such social media as a medium is not as ‘revolutionary’ as it is credited to be.

    Louw goes on to discuss how NGO’s within conflict areas have adopted social media to better share content that will be appealing to Western media outlets. Louw correctly wonders at the consequences these practices will have for journalism as often these videos and images are picked up without verification due to the ease of their accessibility. Louw is also concerned with how the conceptions of a conflict can be manipulated using social media, by both activists and states alike, who seek to overthrow regimes that do not align with their own interests. This ‘spin-doctoring’ or ‘propaganda’ is nothing new in a conflict landscape (Welch 2004:5-11), however the ease of accessibility and speed of the communications does pose some interesting questions as to the volatility of such communication for the political sphere.

    Louw is attempting to make a multi-faceted argument in a short space and as such cannot touch on all important aspects of the issue at hand, such as the role both traditional and algorithmic gate-keeping play in determining whether a social movement or political cause is widely reported. Traditional media still plays a significant gatekeeping role, choosing what to report on from a plethora of user-generated context (Ali and Fahmy 2013:56). During Iran’s 2009 ‘Green Revolution’, heralded as a ‘Twitter Revolution’ (Karagiannopoulos 2012: 151), activists used Twitter to disperse textual and visual information documenting the protestor’s struggles to the international press (Ali and Fahmy 2013:59). However, it was still traditional Western media that picked the content that it was to broadcast widely, playing a traditional gate-keeping role. Social media then, served as a conduit and organisational tool more than an evolutionary medium (2013:60). This is reinforced by social media’s use of algorithms, which also serve a gatekeeping role.

    Social media algorithms serve an enormous role in establishing what users see and what becomes popularised, which in turn effects social movements. These computational processes decide and assign content they deem to be relevant to users, suppressing content that is less popular perceived to be irrelevant (Latzer 2014:2). The opaque nature of these algorithmic processes not only contradicts social media corporation’s rhetoric of open-ness and transparency (Djick 2013:10) but directly manipulates the information received by users and thus their behaviour (Djick 2013:12). This form of computational and corporate control goes unmentioned in Louw’s articles, yet is another important aspect of why social media is not the great facilitator of revolutions it is often championed to be.
    Social media is a new medium with societal consequences that are as yet unclear. However it is fast becoming obvious that the revolutionary capacity of social media to serve as the great facilitator of social movements has been greatly overestimated. This is the argument Louw highlights within his article, drawing readers attention to the co-option of social media by state actors, undermining its supposed revolutionary potential. Louw makes his point convincingly in reference to examples such as the AYM and use of social media by NGO’s. Though it would have been helpful and relevant to point to issues such as traditional and algorithmic gatekeeping which have a significant impact on the revolutionary potential of social media. Louw’s article is helpful in highlighting why we should be careful in taking the impact social media has on grass-roots movements at face- value.


    Ali, Sadaf and Shahira Fahmy. 2013. ‘Gatekeeping and citizen journalism: The use of social media during the recent uprisings in Iran, Egypt, and Libya’. Media War & Conflict 6(1):55-69.

    Bratich, Jack. 2009. The Fog Machine. Counterpunch. Accessed 27th September. Available at

    Bratich, Jack. 2011. ‘User-Generated Discontent’. Cultural Studies 25(4-5): 621-640

    Dijck, Jose van. 2013. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York, Oxford University Press.

    Gladwell, Malcolm. 2010. ‘Small Change’. The New Yorker 86(30):42.

    Hammer, Michael. 2013. ‘21st Century Statecraft in Action’. The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs (37)1: 135-141.

    Latzer, et al. 2014. ‘The Economics of Algorithmic Selection on the Internet’, in Handbook on the Economics of the Internet, ed. Edward Elgar. Zurich: University of Zurich.

    Lindsey, Richard. 2013. What the Arab Spring Tells Us About the Future of Social Media in Revolutionary Movements. Small Wars Journal. Accessed 25 September 2016. Available at

    Louw, Eric. 2013. Social Media=Revolution?. The Vision Machine, April 9. Accessed 27 September 2016. Available at

    Morozov, Evgeny. 2012. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. New York: Public Affairs Books.
    Singh, J.P. 2013. ‘Information Technologies, Meta-Power, and Transformations in Global Politics’. International Studies Review 15(1):5-29.

    Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here comes everybody: the power of organising without organisations. New York: Penguin Press.

    Shirky, Clay. 2011. ‘The Political Power of Social Media: technology, the public sphere, and political change’. Foreign Affairs 90(1): 28-41.

    Welch, David. 2014. Propaganda, Power and Persuasion: From World War I to Wikileaks, eds. David Welch. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.

    United States Department of State (USDOS). 2009. 21st Century Statecraft. U.S Department of State. Accessed 4th October 2016. Available at .

  11. Name: Nur Amalina Ahmad
    ID: 44026666

    The robust development of technologies in this modern era allows us to communicate interactively with other people around the globe. The emergence of social media makes it easier for individual, government or organizations to share and express their notion in term of text or video publicly. Twitter, Facebook and Youtube are some of the major media platforms that play very crucial roles in conveying the messages until now. According to Oxford dictionary, the word ‘social’ itself means an informal activity which involves the gathering of members of particular club while the word ‘media’ means a channel of mass communication. Thus, the term social media carries the meaning of “combination of virtual services and platforms whose function is to build social networks and social relationships between the users” (Demidov 2012: 23). Based on the article, Louw agrees that social media platforms are a tool for positive social change and can be linked with spontaneous grassroots activism (Louw 2013). In the first part of this essay, it will be discussed about Louw’s central main point. The second part of the essay is about the significant role of social media in political event, especially during the Arab Spring revolution. Finally, in the last part, Louw’s statement will be refuted by other scholars by stating that social media platforms only enhance the communication to the revolution.

    Louw’s Argument
    In this article Louw’s trying to deliver his notion that social media act as an agent of positive social change across the globe. Ordinary individual or organizations can easily gather a number of people to form a protest group demonstration towards the government without getting involved in any physical action. He believes that revolutionary wave through social media can change the world to a much better place without any barriers. Also, powerful political actors use interactive digital media networking as weapons to start a surrogate war.

    Alliance of Youth Movements
    Other than social media, mobile phone technologies and mainstream media act as weapons too in the surrogate warfare. The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook and blog offer opportunities to the users to create online communities to stay connected. The rise of Web 2.0 formed some changes in term of “methods of interaction, styles of development and sources of content” (Lewis 2006: 1). Thus, activists take these advantages to use Web 2.0 as a medium to start a surrogate war. Louw discusses the event of Obama’s style as an example to show the use of social media in political warfare. Obama’s State Department supports this kind of revolutionary, thus announcing the launching of Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) in November 2008. Sponsor and partnership with Google, Facebook, MTV, Howcast and others bring together 17 delegates and organizations from around the world to seek positive political social change and share common practices within them (U.S. Department of State 2009). The function of AYM is to discuss and engage with various topics such as “politics, resisting violence and technology; sustainability and long term planning: and the use of viral video in social media movements” (U.S. Department of State 2009). Based on the video posted on the blog, they are trying to transform the internet into a powerful instrument of change by using social media platforms to promote a grassroots movements. AYM also teaches the activist on how to produce video material that can be used by worldwide news media like Cable News Network (CNN) and British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC) to promote action against parties that seem to be tyrants to the US (Louw 2013). However, the function of “social media is not as innocent as it looks”. (Louw 2013).

    Arab Spring
    The Arab Spring which began on January 2011 across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has created a global phenomenon through social media regarding their anti-government protests and revolution (Choudhary et al 2012: 74). The influence of social media during the Arab Spring played a crucial role in demonstrating both violent and non-violent protests. According to Louw, Syrian Free Press is an example of NGO that manages to distribute its content of media releases via Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. They use videos as weapons and expect their news will be selected by Western journalist to be used in the global media main stream (Louw 2013). Next, I will use the event of resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt as an example to show the power of social media as a medium to organize a national protest. The protest took only 18 days to end the role of President Mubarak as President for almost 30 years (Iskander 2011: 13). Based on Tufekci and Wilson, most of the protesters that attended the mass protest on the first day in Tahrir Square were mostly from Twitter users than non-users (Markham 2011: 90).
    Besides, Markham (2014: 90) said Twitter was a well-established culture of blogging for the Egyptians to express their opinions. The significant role of Twitter can be seen when there was an approximately 45 tweets every minute originally from Egypt during the Arab Spring (Alhindi, Talha and Sulong 2012: 103). The role of social media in spreading awareness and “support among anti-government protesters has resulted in the resignation of President Mubarak” (Mainwaring 2011). Louw’s argument is further supported by Simon Mainwaring (2011) that said “ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social media”. The protests were organised with the help of social media which allowed them to share their views as well as to spread the news of the revolution (Alhindi, Talha and Sulong 2012: 102). The protest and demonstration was unachievable without the aid of social media. According to Gladwell and Shirky (2011: 154), the action of protests and revolution relied “on the power of social media to synchronize the behaviour of groups quickly, cheaply, and publicly”. Those uprising would be impossible with the absence of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to convey the message.

    Counter arguments
    Nevertheless, only few strong points found in supporting the role of social media in mobilization the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Consequently, there are some criticism from other scholars that seem to disagree with Louw’s central message. Elizabeth Iskander (2011: 8) strongly criticises about the uneven connection of internet in Middle East because of “the economic and social gap between urban centers” that clearly shows the social media is “severely limited”. Thus, the mobilizing result of social media platforms as tool of revolutionary protest during Arab Spring will vary significantly from one place to another due to different Internet penetration (Stepnova 2011: 3). Stepnova (2011: 4) also argues in her article that there is no such thing as “Twitter revolutions” as it is identifiable the number of Twitter user in Egypt is just a few thousands. Moreover, Gladwell argues that social media platforms like Twitter is “built around weak ties” because we never met the people we followed (Gladwell 2010). The social media influences were not the causal of Arab Spring although “it told people to go here, to do this, but the reason was social influence, not social networking” (Reardon 2012).
    Furthermore, I disagree with Louw’s notion that social media acts as catalyst during the Arab Spring because the revolution would still have taken place even without the interference of social media just like the old days. This is supported by Ahy (2014: 100) that saying the interaction between broadcast media and social media network allowed the news to travel instantly to other, it was not influenced by only one particular medium. Television and radio are also other important mediums to spread the protest especially for countries with lowest internet penetration. Next, mosques were also used to promote awareness and to coordinate protests against the government, especially in Egypt and Cairo (Demidov 2012: 23-36). According to Ehrenberg, “social media sites told people where to find information, not to revolt” (Ehrenberg 2012: 9). Wolfsfeld, Segev and Sheafer have assert that “Social media should be seen as facilitators of protest rather than causes” (2013: 120). Therefore, it is evident that social media networks do not initiate or spur the Arab Spring political protest.

    In conclusion, Louw’s argument regarding the social media as tool of political revolution is debatable by others. To sum up everything, social media networks were an instrument of communication during Arab Spring but it is important to know that they are not the only major cause of the uprisings in the long run.


    Alhindi, Wahid Ahmed, Muhammad Talha, and Ghazali Sulong. 2012. ‘Archives Des Sciences’. The Role of Modern Technology in Arab Spring 65(8): 101-112.
    Choudhary, Alok, William Hendrix, Kathy Lee, Diana Palsetia, and Wei-Kang Liao. 2012. ‘Social Media Evolution of the Egyptian Revolution’. Communication of the ACM 55(5): 74-80.
    Demidov, Oleg. 2012. ‘Social Networks in International and National Security.’ Security Index 18(1): 23-36.
    Gladwell, Malcolm. 2010. ‘Small Change’. The New Yorker 86(30): 42-49.
    Gladwell, Malcolm, and Clay Shirky. 2011. ‘From Innovation to Revolution: Do Social Media Make Protests Possible?’ Foreign Affairs 90(2): 152-154.
    Iskander, Elizabeth. 2011. ‘Connecting the National and the Virtual: Can Facebook Activism Remain Relevant After Egypt’s January 25 Uprising?’ International Journal of Communication 5: 13-15.
    Lewis, Daniel. 2006. ‘What is Web 2.0’. Crossroads 13(1): 1-3.
    Louw, Eric. 2013. Social Media = Revolution. Accessed 9 October 2016. Available at
    Mainwaring, Simon. 2011. Exactly What Role Did Social Media Play in the Egyptian Revolution? Accessed 14 October 2016. Available at
    Markham, Tim. 2014. ‘Social media, protest cultures and political subjectivities of the Arab spring’. Media, Culture & Society 36(1): 89-104.
    Reardon, Sara. 2012. ‘Social revolution? It’s a myth’. New Scientist 214(2859): 24.
    Stepnova, Ekaterina. 2011. ‘The Role of Information Communication Technologies in the “Arab Spring”‘. PONARS Eurasia 159: 1-6.
    Tufekci, Zeynep, and Christopher Wilson. 2012. ‘Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square’. Journal of Communication 62(2): 363-379.
    U.S. Department of State. 2009. Alliance of Youth Movements Summit. Accessed 12 October 2016. Available at
    Wolfsfeld, Gadi, Elad Segev, and Tamir Sheafer. 2013. ‘Social Media and the Arab Spring: Politics Comes First’. The International Journal of Press/Politics 18(2): 115-137.

  12. It’s the grand age of social media. In recent years it has become more than just a tool to stay in touch with friends and family. This essay will look at the ideas put forth in a post titled Social Media = Revolution published on The Vision Machine. Author Eric Louw opened his article with the statement that the idea that “digital media and the internet are facilitating a praiseworthy grassroots-driven activism across the globe” is one that is heavily endorsed by Western journalists and academics alike (2013). The article explores how social media can be adopted as tools for activism and political gain and uses a part of the Syrian conflict as an example of this correlation. While the claim that digital media, the internet and social media is empowering the global youth to create a positive change, Louw notes that these supposed method of bottom-up grassroots communication can be used “as weapons by large political actors who mobilize surrogate warfare as tools of their foreign policy” (2013).

    Louw puts forth 3 main points in his article. The first would be is the role digital media, the internet and social media is given in regards to combating global unjusts. The second he highlights the role and possible hidden agendas political actors have in mobilizing these digital tools. Finally he muses on the repercussions these new age tools have when it comes to news reporting and information dissemination.

    When it comes to digital media, the internet and social media, Louw writes that they are lauded by journalists and academics as facilitators of positive social change. It gives ordinary citizens the power to change the world for the better. This idea can be capitalised by political actors for their own agenda. Using the Alliance of Youth Movements partnership that was rolled out during Obama’s presidency as an example, Louw demonstrates how not only political actors can aid the development of digital and social media as a political tool but also embed their own agendas in these efforts. The Alliance of Youth Movements is an initiative by the US State Department, in partnership with major media and digital media players. The aim was to gather global youths and teach them how to use media as political tools in hopes to “promote freedom and justice, [and] counter violence, extremism and oppression” (US Department of State, 2008).

    This fits in with what the author calls Obama-style surrogate warfare, which seeks out political actors that will be of value to US foreign policy and train them with these tools. The author further elaborates how these tools would culminate in content that would generate public displeasure, creating a mood for action against tyrants and regimes condemned by the US. He uses the NGO, Syrian Free Press, as an example to demonstrate this. They successfully mastered the art of creating high quality content that Western journalists would find newsworthy. Coupled with the well executed Public Relations, their successful distribution of anti-regime messages by social media shows how easy it is for political activists to get their message out to global news media. This makes it easy for global media sites to pick up well produced content. It is this easy ability to gain pre-produced content that is changing the nature of news reporting and how actors conceptualised the struggles in conflict are to overthrow regimes that they disapprove.

    I find that Louw has given some valid points in his article. He titled his article as a question whether social media is equivalent to a revolution. Social media as a revolution would imply that it has served a major change. I believe Louw has illustrated this point in how social media has impacted individuals and organisations, the nature of news and political actors. Social media has “empowered individuals” (Li) and allowed individuals to post any ideas (Joel Comm). With this it has allowed, according to Louw, what Western journalists and academics call grassroots-driven activism. Since the rise of web 2.0, individuals now have their own space to explore their thoughts and ideas and become political actors.

    Political actors are not only confined to the government and activists. Wolfsfeld expands that political actors can include “political leaders, political parties, political movements, commercial companies, interest groups, lobbies, trade unions, neighborhood groups, terrorist groups, and sometimes just a few individuals who get together because they’re angry about something” (2011, 7). He further explains that these actors vie with each other for media coverage as they depend on the media to get their message across. Louw pushes this idea further in his article by explaining how social media has become a tool to create better content that will ensure their message is being picked by global media. Political actors are tailoring their communication process and raising issues that would garner the most air time with input from public relations strategist (Axford and Huggins 2001, 35).

    The demand for immediate news and the ease of information sharing through social media is making journalists clamour for information in order to stay relevant. There’s an issue of making sure a news outlet is able to break the story first and not if the reporting is factual. When it comes to reporting on non state armed actors, the lack of access to these sites also mean that media sites would use any information that is being provided by these actors (Gartenstein-Ross, Barr and Moreng 2016, 16). These facts are often not fact check. In the race to deliver breaking news, the credibility of the news story or source is often compromised. It is this compromise that has caused readers and the general public to turn to social media for alternate news.

    Social media is changing the way news is being reported and also how journalists do their job. Louw ended his article with how journalists are changing their reporting ways and also how struggles are conceptualized by political actors. Visuals have always been an important part of the media. The need for fast and accessible news is also now seeing the rise of short news feeds such as AJ+. However, there is only so much information that can be crammed into a two minute video. There is still much more information regarding a certain event in the conflict that needs to be explained.

    With social media, anyone can now be a political actor. AYM’s intention of grooming political actors for positive change may be undermined by other non state actors, especially in time of asymmetric war. The same tools could be used to spread ideologies of hate. This can be seen in the media campaigns undertaken by organisations such as the Islamic State (Koerner, 2016).

    Social media is a revolution in the sense that it allows political ideas to flourish and be seen. Political actors can now bypass media gatekeepers to spread their message. However, this is a double edged sword whereby political ideas, both negative and positive, can be pushed and shared without any semblance of control. This also changes the nature of reporting. Their role as gatekeepers are diminishing (Nacos, 2006) as information is available easily online. However, they still need to be selective in choosing which of the information online should be republished to the public based on its newsworthiness.

    To understand more on social media revolution click on the article here:

    See below for the example of one issue that can be spun in different ways by different political actors:


    Axford, B. and Huggins, R., 2001. New media and politics. London: SAGE, p35.

    Louw, E., 2013. Social Media = Revolution? | The Vision Machine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2016].

    Nacos, Brigitte L., “Terrorism and Media in the Age of Global Communication”, in Hamilton, Daniel S. (ed.), Terrorism and International Relations, Washington DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations, 2006.

    Gartenstein-Ross, D., Barr, N. and Moreng, B., 2016. The Islamic State’s Global Propaganda Strategy. Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Studies, p.16-18.

    US Dept. of State: Press Release on Alliance of Youth Movements Summit, December 3-5. 2011. [online] AnarchitexT. Available at: [Accessed 21 Oct. 2016].

    Wolfsfeld, G., 2011. Making sense of media and politics. New York: Routledge, p7.

  13. Critical Blog on Social Media = Revolution?
    Madina Mohmood (43548871)

    The emergence of new digital media technologies has transformed the role of non-state actors within the global media landscape, empowering them to contest state-controlled narratives of war and equipping them with the strategic tools to disseminate information, create content and self-organise.1 In particular, Web 2.0 technologies have enabled non-state actors to drive grassroots activism.2 Digital media has therefore been widely heralded a revolutionary tool for political mobilisation, democratisation and the “expansion of the public sphere”.3 In 2010, Hilary Clinton made a public statement announcing that the US State Department had made the “promotion of Internet freedom” a specific policy aim and was committing $20 million to support digital activist groups abroad.4 The policy has been criticised for disguising a strategy of “surrogate warfare” intended to help particular opposition groups “overthrow regimes of which [the United States] disapproves”.5 Louw explores this possibility in his article Social Media = Revolution?, warning that newly empowered non-state actors could become the pawns of global powers. This essay will argue that Louw’s assertions are convincing but the strategy employed by external actors is not entirely successful. Firstly, the article’s key points will be summarised. Secondly, Louw’s example of the Alliance of Youth Movement (AYM) constituting surrogate warfare will be addressed. Finally, this essay will briefly consider the use of social media by the Syrian Free Press (SFP) and whether it “builds a mood for action” in the US against particular regimes.6

    In this article, Louw opines that social media is commonly championed as an ideal mechanism for spontaneous democratic activism and positive social change. Indeed, social media technologies of Web 2.0 have created the conditions for unprecedented interactivity and connectivity, hence eroding the structural separation between sender and receiver which prevailed in the bygone era of “old media”.7 This empowers non-state actors to easily produce their own media, engage in public discourse and mobilise demonstrations in the face of oppressive regimes. Louw considers the 2011 Arab Spring as a demonstration of this entrenched viewpoint. The “revolutionary wave” that swept Arab countries evinced social media’s political power and showcased the ability of digital activists to become agents of democratic change.8 In particular, social media provided ordinary citizens a mechanism to communicate “shared grievances” and grow decentralised networks that were difficult for their state to suppress.9

    However, whilst acknowledging the utility of social media, Louw is also sceptical of this dominant discourse. He argues that despite the appearance of “bottom-up grassroots communication”, digital activism may encode the covert agendas of large political actors.10 Louw posits that political institutions use Web 2.0 communications to wage a new form of digital “surrogate warfare” by enlisting activists to fulfil their foreign policy agendas.11 Firstly, the AYM project is used as an example of this political tactic. The project aimed to connect global youth activists with tech experts to find the best ways to use social media in countering “violence, extremism and oppression”.12 Louw capsulises the projects’ “putative goal” as essentially cultivating young partners to launch “insurgent movements”.13 Secondly, Louw uses the “spin doctoring” of the Syrian Free Press to further illustrate how easily political activists can distribute anti-regime messages and reach global audiences through news media. Therefore, while most discussion of the use of social media by non-state actors focuses on their grassroots origins, this article explores the possibility that activists and NGOs may be directed by powerful external actors to propagate a media narrative in line with their interests.14

    Firstly, Louw argues that the US government deploys a “new variety of surrogate warfare” by seeking out activists in problem areas to carry out their foreign policy goals.15 The article contends that the US State Department’s sponsorship of the AYM project cultivates youth-led movements as political instruments, hence demonstrating the ability of states to employ social movement media to their own advantage. The AYM conference aimed not only to teach young protesters social media skills and build their political capacity, but it also gave instructions on how to produce media that would “[stir] Western publics into a state of indignation”.16 Accordingly, Louw considers the project a facade serving to help the US garner support for action against certain regimes. This allegedly succeeded in Egypt’s Arab Spring where a group of activists who attended the AYM convention in 2008 went on to organise the revolutionary “April 6” Facebook campaign in 2010.17 Therefore, the AYM can be purportedly linked to a campaign seeking to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak and put Mohamed ElBaradei, a US International Crisis Group trustee, in his place.18 Organisations such as the AYM that employ a bottom-up tactic of converging “technology and government” have been described as “Genetically Modified Grassroots Organisations” (GMGOs). GMGOs are neither authentically populist nor entirely created by external actors, instead they are “seeded” by powerful external actors who gain control and manipulate the movement.19 However, this theory is challenged by counter-evidence which creates doubt about whether states have been successful in their information warfare strategies.

    The proposition that US support for social movement media and “offshore cyber-activism” exploits young activists for a political agenda is unsurprising, especially in the context of Hilary Clinton’s 2010 public statement on internet freedom. Clinton made it clear that the US State Department would work with their partners to “harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to [US] diplomatic goals”.20 However, Louw does not consider the deficiencies of this plan. As Kaemph opines, new media technologies are more difficult for states to control in comparison to the old multipolar media landscape because the emerging heteropolarity has enabled “different types of actors at different hierarchical levels to mediatise conflict”.21 Therefore, the very structure and character of social media networks undermines state control. This explains the widespread “disdain for and suspicion of [the US’] agenda” in Arab countries as newly-empowered actors refuse to serve a foreign agenda.22 Anti-US attitudes have created such a mood of suspicion in the Arab world, that “even peaceful opponents [are accused of] being directed by foreign elements”.23 Clinton’s speech is therefore said to have “backfired”, as it “alarmed rival regimes” by revealing that social media was not just a “forum for free speech” but a US foreign policy instrument.24 In response, Russia further clamped down on internet freedoms and Iran decided to create its “extensively censored” Halal Internet.25 Therefore, while Louw makes a convincing argument about the existence of a surrogate warfare tactic, it is also important to consider how this policy has been ineffectual, even counterproductive, as states have responded by enforcing even more stringent control over their media technologies.

    Secondly, Louw briefly considers the public relations and “spin doctoring” techniques of the SFP as weaponising social media. The article argues that just as political activists can be employed by large global powers for their foreign policy agenda, so too can media releases from NGOs be utilised to “build a mood for action” against particular regimes.26 The SFP is used an example of an NGO that takes advantage of this by spreading propaganda to Western audiences in order to influence their perception of Syrian conflict and garner international support from large external powers. As such, the SFP distributes anti-regime messages through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in English to target the Western publics in the hopes of evoking a political response by the US against the Syrian government.27 However, insurgents in opposition to Western countries are more advanced in their media strategy and are able to counter rival narratives. In particular, IS’ information operations are capable of “provok[ing] misguided or disproportionate responses” from its enemies; this strategy of “baiting” Western audiences severely undermines the public relations techniques of the SFP.28 Indeed, IS is considered to have “revolutionised jihadist messaging” by targeting Western audiences with newsworthy videos that feature “slick production design and graphic violence”.29 Therefore, although Louw’s argument is compelling, it does not consider that US enemies are often more successful than NGOs and political activists in “stir[ring] Western publics into a state of indignation”.30

    Louw makes a persuasive case for the “surrogate warfare” tactics of the US and other large external actors. The US State Department’s announcements make no effort to conceal the US’ intention to enlist activists and NGOs as weapons of their foreign policy agenda. However, the Arab world has become suspicious of foreign elements and states have countered with stricter control of their information networks. Furthermore, the SFP’s media narrative is effectively countered by IS’ sophisticated information operations. Therefore, it is clear that these media strategies exist but neither have been entirely successful.


    1 Sebastian Kaempf,”The Mediatisation of War in a Transforming Global Media Landscape” Australian Journal of international Affairs 586 (2013) 586; Petrios Iosifidis and Mark Wheeler, “Public Spheres and Mediated Social Networks in the Western Context and Beyond” Palgrave Global Media Policy and Business (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) 27.

    2 Petrios Iosifidis and Mark Wheeler, “Public Spheres and Mediated Social Networks in the Western Context and Beyond” Palgrave Global Media Policy and Business (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) 27; Eric Louw, “The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?” 2013. Available at:

    3 Ibid.

    4 US State Department, “Remarks on Internet Freedom” 2010. Available at

    5 Eric Louw, “The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?” 2013. Available at:; Clay Shirky, “The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change” Foreign Affairs (2011) 30.

    6 Ibid.

    7 Sebastian Kaempf,”The Mediatisation of War in a Transforming Global Media Landscape” Australian Journal of international Affairs 586 (2013) 586.

    8 Mohammed El-Nawawy and Sahar Khamis, Egyptian Revolution 2.0. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) 1.

    9 Ibid.

    10 Eric Louw, “The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?” 2013. Available at:

    11 Ibid.

    12 US State Department, “Remarks on Internet Freedom” 2010. Available at

    13 Jack Bratich, “User Generated Discontent” Cultural Studies (2011) 621; Eric Louw, “The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?” 2013. Available at:

    14 Giuseppe Anzera and Francesca Comunello. “Will the revolution be tweeted? A conceptual framework for understanding the social media and the Arab Spring” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (2012) 470; Jack Bratich, “User Generated Discontent” Cultural Studies (2011) 621.

    15 Eric Louw, “The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?” 2013. Available at:

    16 Ibid.

    17 Miriyam Aouragh and Anne Alexander, “The Egyptian Experience: Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution” International Journal of Communication 1344 (2011) 1349.

    18 Ibid; Tony Cartalucci “Google’s Revolution Factory – Alliance of Youth Movements: Color Revolution 2.0” The Centre for Research on Globalisation (2011). Available at

    19 Jack Bratich, “User Generated Discontent” Cultural Studies (2011) 621.

    20 US State Department, “Remarks on Internet Freedom” 2010. Available at

    21 Sebastian Kaempf,”The Mediatisation of War in a Transforming Global Media Landscape” Australian Journal of international Affairs 586 (2013) 599.

    22 Sarah Joseph, “Social Media, Political Change and Human Rights” International and Comparative Law Review (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2012) 145.

    23 Ibid.

    24 Ibid.

    25 Ibid.

    26 Eric Louw, “The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?” 2013. Available at:

    27 Ariana Marnicio, “From Progressive to Repressive: The Role of Social Media in the Syrian Conflict” Trajectories of Change (Houston: Baker Institute for Public Policy, 2014) 44.

    28 Haroro Ingram, “The strategic logic of Islamic State information operations” Australian Journal of International Affairs (2015) 744.

    29 Charlie Winter, “The Virtual ‘Caliphate’: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy”, Quilliam (London: Quilliam, 2015); Haroro Ingram, “The strategic logic of Islamic State information operations” Australian Journal of International Affairs (2015) 730.

    30 Eric Louw, “The Vision Machine: Social Media = Revolution?” 2013. Available at:

  14. POLS3512 Critical Blog Post – Felicity Sleeman

    In ‘Social Media = Revolution?’ Eric Louw addresses the Obama administration’s encouragement of social media innovation and its use in grass-roots activism and mobilising western publics. However, he wonders if this has been more damaging in the ways that the Syrian Free Press and other political activists can now harness the same technology to serve their own agenda. In analysing the nature of the State Department’s partnership with the Alliance of Youth Movements and providing insight into how this directly influenced the reporting of conflict in Syria, Louw makes a convincing argument to support his case. However, it should also be noted that as a democratic nation invested in promoting democracy in countries like Syria the spreading of digital-grass roots activism in these nations, whilst potentially dangerous, is inherently democratic and therefore serving the interests of the US. Louw could have improved on his argument by showing how the digital political activism promoted by the US has been used by terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS, showing a definitive danger in the spreading of these tactics.

    In the video capturing interviews at the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit those involved suggest that this partnership with the US State Department and different digital media platforms will promote positive social and political change. Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder of social media giant Facebook, argues that this will allow for a more connected public and that being connected is “diametrically opposed to isolation and extremism” (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2011). He is ultimately referring to the place of social media and digital media as tools of democracy here. Whilst Louw is critical of the United States’ intention to use digital media as a weapon in this sense, it is clear that digital media has ultimately been successful in creating a more democratic public, at least in the US. The 2016 Women’s March on Washington offers an example of this as Facebook user Teresa Shook created a hypothetical event in response to the election of Donald Trump and was soon joined by political activists in spawning an event that would attract thousands (Lapowsky, 2017). In terms of promoting democracy this protest was, in essence, a demonstration of people’s democratic rights and, as Hillary Clinton suggested in her 2009 address, the Alliance of Youth Movements was created in an effort to enhance citizen activism (U.S. Department of State, 2009). The positive influence in digital technology in promoting activism cannot be underestimated as nearly every protest or movement is today constructed through social media. Clinton also references an example of college students in Columbia organizing anti-terrorist demonstrations through Facebook that garnered crowds of fourteen-million people (U.S. Department of State, 2009). This further suggests that in America’s commitment to digital media as a tool of democracy it has been successful in spreading these ideals internationally. However, Louw’s exploration into Howcast’s inclusion in the Alliance of Youth Movements provides an interesting and valid insight into the dangers of spreading these digital activist tactics that the US State Department has facilitated.

    Louw makes a convincing case to support his argument in identifying how Howcast, an online digital platform that has created “how to” videos on topics like “How to create Grassroots Movements Using Social Networking Sites” and “How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy” (Louw, 2013). As a direct outcome of the Alliance of Youth Movements the intention behind these videos can understood to be one of democratic ideals. However, Louw identifies that the ideas and tactics promoted in these videos have also become important features of the conflict in Syria (Louw, 2013). Louw ultimately suggests that the way in which the Syrian Free Press has come to utilise social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is demonstrative of the ease with which political activists can now promote their messages to the global news media (Louw, 2013). Louw does not go into explicit detail about the dangers associated with this, and as an NGO promoting democratic ideals the use of these techniques by the Syrian Free Press does initially seem like a positive outcome in association with partnerships like the Alliance of Youth Movements. However, as a Syrian-based organization the Syrian Free Press are far more likely than western media organizations to show violence and atrocities committed by western countries in Syria. In considering this Louw’s argument is further supported by academics like Sebastian Kaempf, who suggests that the US are more likely to censor violence that they have inflicted in the media (Kaempf, 2017). This can be understood to stem from the idea of “Vietnam Syndrome”, an idea that Carruthers suggests many senior members of western militaries continue to abide by (Carruthers, 2011, 9). In believing that an “unleashed” media was the reason that the US lost the Vietnam War it can be seen how organizations like the Syrian Free Press might be threatening in its coverage of the US’s violence in Syria and the belief that this might lead to a lack of support amongst the people of the United States and their allies (Carruthers, 2011, 9).

    Louw’s finale sentence, that activism through digital media is changing how struggles can be conceptualized by “political activists and the large global powers who are seeking ways to overthrow regimes of which they disapprove” alludes to a larger context which is not explored in article. Whilst Louw explores how the US’s support of digital activism is problematic in organizations like the Syrian Free Press he fails to explore the danger in terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS having the same access to these tactics. Tim Aistrope identifies how Al Qaeda has utilised media as a tool with which to provoke western nations and recruit potential members (Aistrope, 2016, 121). The intention to provoke western countries draws on the same strategies used by the Syrian Free Press who have ultimately borrowed strategies from the US State Department in the mentorship of organizations in the Alliance of Youth Movements. In creating events of spectacle sure to capture the attention of the western media, terrorist organizations have been able broadcast their intentions and messages to a global audience (Rid and Hecker, 2009, 188). Furthermore, Kilkullen cites how the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, whilst symbolically victorious, was ultimately ineffective in diminishing the influence terrorism due to the digital networks that had already been created (Kilcullen, 2015, 39). He references how through online newsletters and other platforms of communication isolated individuals could act on behalf of organizations like ISIS to commit acts of war, suggesting that social media and digital media have been significant in recruiting members for terrorist organizations and in provoking the kind of conflict that they seek from western nations (Kilcullen, 2015, 39). Louw’s exploration of the danger of digital and social media in creating grassroots activism would have benefited from an analysis of the use of social media by terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

    Louw provides and insightful analysis of modern day social media and its relation to conflict by suggesting that the United States’ support of digital grassroots activism has subsequently acted as a catalyst for international organizations like the Syrian Free Press to use similar techniques, and that people should question the danger of this. However, the inherently democratic nature of digital media and social media suggests that the use of US strategies by democratic organizations like the Syrian Free Press should be seen as a positive attribute in spreading democratic ideals. Whilst he does allude to it, Louw’s argument would have benefited from looking at the way these same strategies have been used media by extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda who are in direct opposition democracy.


    Aistrope, T. (2016). Social media and counterterrorism strategy. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 70(2), pp.121-138.

    Carruthers, S. (2011). The Media at War. 1st ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Kaempf, S. (2017). Pols3512 Lecture 9.

    Kilcullen, D. (2015). Blood year. 1st ed. Milton Keynes: Quarterly Essay.

    Lapowsky, I. (2017). The Women’s March Defines Protest in the Facebook Age. [online] WIRED. Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].

    Louw, E. (2013). Social Media = Revolution? | The Vision Machine. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].

    Rid, T. and Hecker, M. (2009). War 2.0. 1st ed. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security international.

    U.S. Department of State (2009). Secretary Clinton Addresses Youth Movement Summit. [video] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].

    U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (2011). GAO: Alliance of Youth Movements Summit: State Department-Sponsored Public Diplomacy 2.0 Activity. [video] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2017].

  15. Critical Blog Review
    By Thomas Morgan (43525694)

    The rise of interactive technologies and the transformation of the global media landscape from multi- to heteropolar has been accompanied by keen interest from actors, both state and non-state, who look to leverage new age technology to spread their influence and communicate. Louw (2013), in ‘Social Media = Revolution’, asks whether the unprecedented change occurring in social media requires greater scrutiny of the people behind such information, using so-called surrogate warfare in the Obama Administration and the Syrian Free Press as two case studies. He furthermore states that these practices play an increasingly important role in revolutions in the 21st century, particularly regarding the Arab Spring. While it is evident that Louw’s observations on surrogate warfare are insightful, there are some important counterclaims which must be considered. Nevertheless, Louw touches upon the important fact that social media is indeed being utilised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), whose ulterior motives are not being properly explored when picked up through mainstream media.

    Louw argues that surrogacy under the Obama administration took historical lessons from previous American efforts during the Cold War, retooling such processes to suit the modern social media age. He highlights the interesting example of the Alliance of Youth Movements’ (AYM) partnership with the US Department of State. An explicit goal of this partnership in 2008 was to ensure effective use of social media to promote activist causes. A subsidiary goal was to produce content which would then be picked up mainstream sources such as the BBC and CNN. Louw also dedicates a significant portion of his essay to outlining the Syrian conflict, and the slick management of social media platforms by non-governmental organisations such as the Syrian Free Press (SFP). That the mainstream press picks up on SFP’s videos to “help build a mood for action against those the USA deems to be tyrants” is concerning, since it is obvious that the SFP and similar organisations are not producing straight-forward content, but rather content which is spin-doctored and/or framed to suit a narrative. Louw is correct in stating that NGOs can distribute content which is picked up by mainstream media, as evidenced by numerous examples of reporting about the Syrian conflict.

    A more important aspect to this point however, is to determine whether social media does have the pulling power to foster revolution. Louw’s portrayal of social media movements as more sinister than one might initially surmise is situated amidst several academic arguments casting doubt over its efficacy. In the eyes of some, social media is a proven form of instigating political change. Velasquez and LaRose (2015: 456) surveyed three activist groups with over 200 members between them, concluding that the majority of members felt that social media helped motivate and rally others around their cause, or otherwise achieve a desired goal. Christensen (2011) and Shirky (2011: 28-30) both argue that offline mobilisation is helped, not hindered, by online organisation and awareness.

    On the other hand, a number of scholars argue that social media’s impacts are overstated. Rather than revolution being instigated by social media, a number of scholars posit that sites such as Facebook and YouTube can only amplify existing resistance who are already disgruntled by existing conditions. Along these lines, Coldeway (2011) argues that human beings cause revolution, rather than social media. This line of reasoning is further supported by Bimber (2001: 64), who argues that the availability and cost of information which the internet affords has little baring on political participation. This study does however qualify that there is more research needed to fully gauge how online spheres of activism dictate offline results. Shirky (2011: 33-34) argues that, while social media plays a secondary role to governmental weakness in determining when and if a revolution happens, it is transformational in an organisational sense. Tools on sites such as Twitter and Facebook allow protestors and dissenters to coordinate protests, which can help effectively bring down regimes, such as in the Arab Spring of the early 2010s.

    There are also a number of scholars who argue that social media hinders, rather than helps, social change. Glenn (2015: 82) uses the case study of “Kony 2012” to argue that, while online activism has the potential to generate discussion, citizens do not necessarily act. As such, the low barriers to engaging with campaigns has led to allegations that social media has given rise to so-called “slacktivism” (Glenn, 2015: 82; Rintel, 2013). Lim (2013: 636) states that social media has the ability to influence, but only when “its narratives are simple, associated with low-risk actions and conguent with dominant meta-narratives”. A revolutionary campaign, it stands to reason, cannot succeed if there is no drive by those subjected to the regime for change.

    Against this backdrop, Louw’s argument is that social media is impactful, but those who use it are not always well-intentioned nor transparent with their motivations. Further, the targets of social media surrogacy are not only disgruntled people in Middle Eastern countries, but also those living in Western societies whose governments, when pressured, can unleash overwhelming force against regimes seen to be oppressive and undemocratic. While Louw’s critics would wager that social media as a medium behaves as a ‘pacifier’ for ‘slacktivists’ (Glenn, 2015: 82), this line of reasoning is misplaced. The targets of well produced pieces such as those put out by the Syria Free Press are not necessarily Syrians or even Western citizens, but Western news outlets who can then process and display this footage.

    The Syrian conflict, and moreover the West’s perception of this conflict, provide a strong case study for this. Louw provides one example in footage shown on The Telegraph’s website (Telegraph Media Group Limited, 2012), which is footage sourced from the Syria Free Press. Another organisation, the Allepo Media Center (AMC), was responsible for sharing of footage of Omran Daqneesh, a five year old boy who had just survived a bombing in the Syrian conflict (Barnard, 2016). The story became highly prominent and viral on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, owing to its symbolic nature (Katz, 2016). The footage, taken in the aftermath of a bombing either by the Russian or Syrian governments, was published by “a longstanding group of antigovernment activists and citizen journalists” (Barnard, 2016). The viral nature of the footage, and its airplay on networks such as CNN (Cable News Network, 2016), demonstrates the ability for content from NGOs such as the Allepo Media Center to be picked up by mainstream outlets. Notably, throughout the widespread coverage of the Omran Daqneesh story, little was mentioned regarding the anti-Assad stance of the AMC, who distributed the vision, even within a TIME Magazine interview with the journalists who captured the footage (Katz, 2016). It is therefore evidence that little has been done in mainstream outlets to properly explain the landscape and potential framing which amateur footage may be subject to. The greater prominence placed on footage such as that of Omran Daqneesh, over footage of the conflict from pro-Assad outlets, may have had an affect on Western attitudes toward the Syrian conflict. Indeed, Western public sentiment would have us believe that the oppositional forces to Assad are “champions of democracy” fighting against an unpopular regime, when the truth is to the contrary on both counts (Steele, 2012; Shanahan, 2013). Support for Assad is strong among Syrians, which begs the question as to how the West’s perceptions of the conflict became so misguided. Louw therefore raises a valid point that social media may be being used to affect narratives in Western media outfits.

    While there is still signficant debate as to social media’s efficacy in revolutionary wars, Louw’s point that there needs to be greater scrutiny of the ulterior motives of sources in social media is appreciated. There is significant evidence to suggest that social media has played a role in altering Western public perception of the Syrian conflict. Further observation of social media’s role within revolutions is needed, to determine whether its impacts are galvanising consumers on an appreciable level.


    Barnard, A. (2016, August 18). How Omran Daqneesh, 5, Became a Symbol of Aleppo’s Suffering. Retrieved from The New York Times:
    Bimber, B. (2001). Information and Political Engagement in America: The Search for Effects of Information Technology at the Individual Level. Political Research Quarterly, 53-67.
    Cable News Network. (2016, August 18). Story of Syrian boy moves CNN Anchor to tears. Retrieved from YouTube:
    Christensen, H. S. (2011, February 7). Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means? Retrieved from FirstMonday:
    Coldeway, D. (2011, February 13). The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article . Retrieved from Pressthink:
    Glenn, C. L. (2015). Activism or “Slacktivism?”: Digital Media and Organising for Social Change. Communication Teacher, 81-85.
    Katz, A. (2016, August 26). The Night Omran was Saved. Retrieved from
    Lim, M. (2013). Many Clicks but Little Sticks: Social Media Activism in Indonesia. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 4(43), 636-657.
    Rintel, S. (2013, April 10). ‘Slacktivism’ vs ‘snarktivism’: how do you take your online activism? Retrieved from The Conversation:
    Shanahan, R. (2013, June 12). Three reasons why you can’t trust the Western media on Syria. Retrieved from ABC Radio National:
    Shirky, C. (2011). The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, 1(90), 28-41.
    Steele, J. (2012, January 18). Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media . Retrieved from The Guardian:
    Telegraph Media Group Limited. (2012, July 25). Amateur footage emerges of Syrian jets deployed against rebels. Retrieved from The Telegraph:
    Velasquez, A., & LaRose, R. (2015). Social Media for Social Change: Social Media Political Efficacy and Activism in Student Activist Groups. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 3(59), 456-474.

  16. “What We Call 21st Century Statecraft”

    America and other Western strategic actors have tried to tie the ontological foundation of rapidly developing social technologies as in-principle with liberal values and democratic participation – in essence something that is an organic assistant to liberal democracy and its worldwide spread (Pelletreau, R 2011). As many socio-political commentators and actors, including co-founders of AYM like Jared Cohen and Dustin Moskovtiz, have shown, it is an historically prevalent assumption that oversight, scrutiny and transparency all naturally increase with the proliferation of social media technologies and access to Web 2.0 (US Department of State, 2008). These assumptions are challenged by the Arab Spring, a watershed event that signalled an unprecedented shift in the realpolitik of the Middle-East whilst also leaving a tragic legacy of bitter disappoint and civil war (Goldstone, J 2011). In its wake lie flimsy and suspect democratic institutions in some countries, and horrific civil war and fledgling autocracies in others (Pelletreau, R 2011). In evaluating this, this blog seeks to more clearly understand the apparent virtues of social media and whether it is inherently a cause for liberal democratic proliferation, or whether it is just as likely to shift a nation to a state of anarchy or authoritarianism.

    It is important firstly to establish that AYM was not a product of the Obama administration. It was begun in the final year of the Bush administration, with the Pentagon having already been actively exploring online media-connecting strategies in a similar model since 2004 (US Department of State 2008). This idea of actively cultivating political activism in foreign countries through social media was not a novelty of the Obama administration, but rather a logical continuation of a far more entrenched culture of trying to control or at least direct information in war (Hoskins, A & O’Loughlin, B 2010: 186) – AYM was an experimental response to what was at the time still a largely experimental platform. The unwillingness of the Bush administration to use the power of a fledgling social media environment until the very end of his second term underscores the shift in thinking that came not from the Obama administration, but from broader globalising forces in communication throughout the 2000s (Tausch, A 2015: 2). It also demonstrates how ambivalent the military was initially to using such new media platforms to passively influence populations into attitudes conducive to mitigating threats or assisting US interests. The impact of AYM on the Arab Spring should not be overstated, and the Department of State overhauled the program in 2011 to become a marketplace-style website for connecting activists; renamed ‘Movements’ (Movements, 2017). The idea for the initiative was to create an environment conducive to activists creating sustainable movements, not directly interfering in the activism of particular groups (Movements 2017). In fact, in the special briefing announcing AYM in 2008, Jared Cohen said, ‘What these organizations [referring to constituent members of AYM] are there to do is explain how social networks can be used to start new movements” (US Department of State 2011). The simplicity of this objective underlies the newness of social media at that point, and how the US government was trying to seize on an opportune moment for a unique tool of collaboration.

    However, the seeding of such a system did have a transformative effect on organising activism into the 2010s (Tausch, A 2015: 12). Social media did not create conditions where irresponsible governments were suddenly opposed; rather it acted as a catalyst for organising in response to extreme problems that already existed (Tausch, A 2015: 14). It is important to note that social media served just as effectively for those who were aligned with the establishment in many Arab countries that saw uprisings (Smith, M 2011). In Syria’s case, pro- and anti-government protesters were both mobilised over social media, and violent responses from the government began a civil war that continues today (Tausch, A 2015: 2).

    In his above post Eric Louw has highlighted how easy it has become to disseminate information to international media and news outlets, and points to how the Free Syrian Press spreads anti-government messages within their content effectively by curating it for Western audiences so it is picked up throughout their societies and has the greatest chance of landing in the societal discourse. Louw touches on how much of this content is re-aired or re-posted by media outlets with very little editing or scrutinising by the publishers, yet this is quite novel for outside media forces to accomplish this. Historically, a largely oligopolised media in the US and other Western countries have had control of media information through a rigid sender/receiver relationship (Kaempf, S 2013: 587). Without delving too much into this, media were essentially able to curate their content to present a message they wanted the receiver to hear, and this message was usually heard to the exclusion of all other perspectives (Kaempf, S 2013: 590). With this new media, old media oligopolies are relying on them more and more for new content, due to resources for investigative journalism being at historic lows (Goldstone, J 2011), yet this means that a rudimentary sender/receiver relationship has erupted between non-state actors such as the Free Syrian Press and traditional media platforms. Ingesting content from new media outlets and re-reporting it with such little scrutiny mirrors the old relationship between the media and consumer. It is curious that old media platforms have allowed themselves to become so easily manipulated by these new media actors, as it is old media that prized its ability to control and curate information, and set the wider agenda (Kaempf, S 2013: 602). This sets an interesting framework for the future of media; if we develop into a society where all citizens are potential reporters and content-creators, then old media organisations may opt to outsource all their content production to the public, and just serve as an aggregate of that content – much in the way social media does with its own user-generated content. If this does eventuate, which I think is the all-but-certain trajectory of media today, then it would likely still be presented in a skewed fashion, as there is still only a finite amount of time to present content. Stories would still have to be prioritised, and audiences would still be influenced by what is seen and what is not seen (Hoskins, A & O’Loughlin, B 2010: 17).

    This brings me back to the significance of social media in the Arab Spring. It is a potent organiser for any group of people with a singular set of interests – not just groups harbouring democratic values. ISIS, for example, make heavy use of social media both as a recruitment tool and as a propaganda weapon (Farwell, J P 2014: 49). It seems that the freedom of information that the internet unleashed has meant the premium on truth has dropped. Our appetite for information has grown drastically, yet the old model of being presented one perspective seems to have entrenched itself in our culture and manifested as a preponderance by people to only consider one perspective in the first place and take it as base truth.


    Farwell, J P 2014 ‘The Media Strategy of ISIS’, in Survival (56)6: 49-55

    Goldstone, J A 2011 ‘Understanding the Revolutions of 2011’ in Foreign Policy. Accessed 2nd May 2017. Available at

    Hoskins, A & O’Loughlin, B 2010 War and Media, pp. 1-18 & pp. 185-191. Cambridge: Polity.

    Kaempf, S 2013 ‘The Mediatisation of War in a Transforming Global Media Landscape’, in Australian Journal of International Affairs (67)5: 586-604

    McLuhan, M ‘Medium is the Message’, in McLuhan, M 2001 Understanding Media: The Extension of Man New York: Routledge

    Movements, 2017. Accessed 15th May 2017. Available at

    Pelletreau, R H 2011 ‘Transformation in the Middle East’ in Foreign Policy. Accessed 2nd May 2017. Available at

    Smith, M 2011 ‘Who Lost Egypt?’ in Foreign Policy. Accessed 3rd May 2017. Available at

    Stahl, Roger 2010 Militainment, Inc. pp. 91-112 London: Routledge

    Tausch, A 2015 ‘Globalization, the Environment and the Future “Greening” of Arab Politics’ in Global Journal, Ludwig: University Library of Munich

    Tulloch, J & Blood, R W 2012 Icons of War and Terror: Media Images in an Age of International Risk Hoboken: Taylor and Francis

    US Department of State 2008, Special Briefing To Announce The Alliance Of Youth Movement. Accessed 19th May. Available at

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