February 16, 2011

Armed with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube



The same day Egypt's former president, stepped down, the disputeted president of the University of Puerto Rico, José Ramón de la Torre, submitted his resignation.

There was a world of difference between the two, but in their fall, one impinging similarity. The disputed administrations of Mubarak and de la Torre succumbed to grassroots movements that, however different in scale were organized by young people who used social media as a weapon.

Hours before de la Torre's resignation became official and prior to officials' denials to the contrary the news hit the Facebook fan page page of Estudiantes de la UPR Informan.


"Thank God," one of the comments read in Spanish, "a new dawn for our University!"

“You saw this with the disputed Iranian election, with Egypt,” said Wasim Ahmad online journalism professor at Stony Brook University. “It’s a way for other points of view to get out there in a more instantaneous fashion.”

UPR students, who for months have protested the university's imposition of an $800 special fee tacked on to tuition and a heavy police presence on campus, have circumvented a lack of U.S. media attention by getting the word out through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Though difficult to quantify the tangible effects of social media on grassroots demonstrations, UPR students have tried to leverage social media tools to disseminate images, video and messages without filters.

Students, alumni and professors, for instance, launched the Estudiantes de la UPR Informan Facebook page in April to counter "UPR Informa," the University of Puerto Rico's official page.

The protestors' version, a page by students for students, has been a destination for news favorable to the social movement. With more than 32,000 Facebook fans, the page has easily outpaced its official counterpart – which launched first – by 8,000 fans.

On Twitter, students and a community of followers of developments on campus have used three hashtags to relay news stories, pictures of rallies and protests, and a home for the discourse to flow freely. #UPR, #HuelgaUPR and #LuchaUPR are three conversations on Twitter that are all University of Puerto Rico, all the time.

Postings have ranged from a flier for a vigil for UPR ("Bring a black shirt," it reads in part), to sharing an image of a police officer yelling in the face of a female student, to just giving opinions about the latest developments.

Enrique Oropeza, a student reached through Twitter, shared photos he took at a protest last month.

Even celebrities like "Residente," the lead singer and social activist of international band Calle 13 whose real name is René Pérez Joglar, tweeted in Spanish about the struggles of the protestors.

"Video of what happened today at the University of Puerto Rico, treating the students like they are criminals," he wrote.

Activists have also used YouTube to post some videos from demonstrations and news segments where police have appeared to use excessive force.

That wide range of social networking, which includes texting, sympathetic blogs and live streaming Internet radio like Radio Huelga, has helped mobilize demonstrators to rallies.

And those mobilizations – with their increasingly defiant clashes between student and police – directly preceded, if not were responsible for, de la Torre's resignation and the partial withdrawal of police presence on campus.

The importance of the new media tools to the student protest movement has been immeasurable, however.

"These new tools allow grassroots organizations to find each other, and makes it easier to get people to the streets or hallways," said Susannah Vila, director of content and outreach for Movements.org. "It brings people together, generates excitement, but then comes the question: what's next? It's hard to answer that question.

"In Egypt and Tunisia, it's amazing that you these two dictators have been ousted, but what's going to follow," she continued. "Technology helps to aid revolution, but it's hard to help with governance afterward. It poses new challenges."

Ahmad, too, cautioned that social media is only a tool. In large movements, he warned, traditional leadership must emerge after new communication platforms have served their purpose.

"You can’t have a Twitter hashtag running a country,” he said. "It will be interesting to see how these things plays out."

In Puerto Rico, things are beginning to play out, for better or worse. The university has named an interim president, Miguel A. Muñoz, and the online community will be watching.

The Estudiantes de la UPR Informan Facebook fan page, for one, was abuzz with a mix of optimism and wariness.

"Time will tell," one student commented. "We'll see what happens...crossing my fingers."

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