As we watch the web-assisted protests unfold in the Middle East, and marvel at the omnipresence of social media in today’s world, it reminds me that we have seen viral movements in other, perhaps less dramatic, contexts. The internet and mobile devices make possible spontaneous movements and dramatic reactions of citizens, in ways that would have been difficult to imagine only a few years ago. Here is one example that demonstrates the modern methods by which the people of a nation can put pressure on their government.
On 20 August 2010, the government of Argentina announced its intention to close the state-owned internet service Fibertel. Within hours, angry customers had opened a Facebook page called “Say No to the Closing of Fibertel”. In its first 24-hours of operation, the page amassed some 23,000 fans. Many members of the nascent “community” expressed their discontent at losing their email addresses. Others raised concerns for internet users in remote areas of this third-world nation, consumers in places where there was thought to be no alternative service provider.
Within two days the Facebook page had gained significant momentum, with more than 60,000 fans. Participants were using both Facebook and Twitter to organize massive protest marches in cities throughout the country. Meanwhile, the government began receiving complaints on Twitter at the rate of more than one per minute.
The popular daily newspaper Clarín credited the “viral nature of social networks”, where messages can be sent instantaneously to hundreds of friends, with creating a stir so huge that government ministers were pushed into making public statements in response to the uproar, less than 48 hours after the original announcement. By 24 August, high government officials were calling for a public investigation.
What do we learn from this Argentine anecdote? On the one hand, we should not be terribly surprised by events such as this one. We read of the impact of social media every day, and we see the impressive statistics about people’s participation on social sites. For example, the Financial Times announced in a headline on 21 June 2010 that Facebook was “on course to reach 1 billion users”.
On the other hand, what happened so swiftly in Argentina might give us cause to consider how the reach, the power, and the impact of social media are changing our entire planet. People everywhere now have a voice, in the developed world, certainly, but also in far-flung places such as Argentina.