Political Power of Diasporas in the Digital Era and their Role in the Arab Spring

By Belén Sánchez

When we think about the role of diaspora in their countries of origin, we normally refer to the impact of their economic remittances or their role of bringing attention to political issues in their home countries through lobbying efforts.   However, the role of the diaspora contributions to economics and politics in their countries of origin are changing and digital technologies and social media are among the factors enabling these different relations.

Just last week I attended a presentation of Friendly Transfer, a Start Up incubated by a group of Ecuadorians at the Harvard Innovation Lab, that allows friends around the world to connect and agree to exchange money locally instead of making expensive international transfers. This solution was developed as a mechanism to save on money transfer fees and also build trust amongst community members – especially within a diaspora community, whose family or friends may know each other back home.

The changing role of technology for diaspora communities is visible in politics and social activism. One of the most important references of this decade is the Arab Spring, a wave of revolutionary protests and demonstrations that started in December 2010 in Tunisia and expanded throughout the Arab world.  Wael Ghonim (author of the book “Revolution 2.0: The power of people is greater than the people in power) was born in Cairo Egypt and was living in Dubai when he was shocked by an image of the disfigured and bloodied body of Khaled Mohamed Said who apparently was beaten to death by Egyptian secret police officers.  The indignation he felt drove him to create a Facebook page titled “We Are All Khaled Said”.  From this page, he was able to organize silent stands and a communication campaign that contributed to the mobilization of people in Egypt demanding the return of democracy. This story clearly reflects how social media facilitated the active participation of a member of the diaspora community in the political events of his home country.

However, we have to avoid romanticizing the role of technologies. As Fathy Basem states “The internet was one factor among many that sparked the eruption of the revolution in Egypt¨.  So let´s briefly review some of the other factors that positively contributed to the development of this iconic series of revolutions in order to draw some lessons for those diaspora interested in promoting social activism back home.

  • Connection with real events in home countries. Each of the digital campaigns launched during the Arab spring were related to real events.  The campaign #freemona was activated when the Egyptian-American writer Mona El Tahawy reported through Twitter that she been arrested.  In Tunisia, a campaign started after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in order to protest against the police who had confiscated his vegetable cart.  In addition, to the moments themselves, the administrators of the campaigns used public narrative in order to highlight values among the stories they were telling and in order to enable action.
  • Collaboration along a global ecosystem of participatory media. Ethan Zuckerman highlights how easy it is to generate content at a very low cost through new digital technologies and social media. However, in order to amplify those messages to reach enough people it is crucial to map, generate links and cooperate with the different actors that interact in the participatory media ecosystem.  As he explained in the Bouazizi case in Tunisia, the diasporas enabled the expansion of the scope of the national ecosystem towards a global one.  After videos of the Bouazizi protests were released on Facebook, they were picked by Tunisians living abroad who managed news aggregators like Nawaat.  Through these news aggregators, Aljazeera was able to find the story and bring it to the international community.
  • Use shared platforms. In Tunisia, the Government shut down the Internet and any type of communication among mobile phones.  The digital campaigns promoted during those days had more possibilities of surviving these restrictions because they were grounded on platforms that are shared by multiple users for multiple purposes like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.  The common restriction to the use of these platforms due to political reasons ended up increasing awareness of affected users at the national level but also it drove attention internationally where the digital campaigns remained active.
  • Bringing activism to the streets.  Social media is allowing the emergence of new forms of political and social activism, but in order to avoid clicktivism, any initiative needs to be connected to real moments and actions.  In Egypt, the silent stands and the demonstrations at Cairo´s Tahrir Square promoted through Facebook are a clear example.




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