A Sudanese protester holds a national flag as he stands on a barricade along a street, demanding that the country's Transitional Military Council hand over power to civilians, in Khartoum, Sudan. Picture: REUTERS
A Sudanese protester holds a national flag as he stands on a barricade along a street, demanding that the country's Transitional Military Council hand over power to civilians, in Khartoum, Sudan. Picture: REUTERS

In June, a sea of blue washed across Twitter and Instagram in the wake of a deadly military crackdown in Sudan. It was a tribute to Mohamed Mattar, 26, an activist killed by security forces, whose Instagram profile picture was a solid blue block. The message was simple: #BlueForSudan; #WeStandWithSudan.

Tapping into social media to make political events go viral is not new: back in 2007/2008, Kenyan website Ushahidi was used to track post-election violence in that country; social media — Facebook in particular — was central to the 2010 Arab Spring; and SA’s #FeesMustFall movement gained traction on Twitter and Facebook.

"Social media has changed the landscape of protest and activism significantly in recent years," says Herman Wasserman, a professor of media studies and director of the centre for film & media studies at the University of Cape Town. "It is used to mobilise activists through platforms like WhatsApp, report live from the scenes of protest through platforms like Twitter or Facebook Live, and to provide alternative narratives to those found in mainstream news media."

In Sudan, platforms such as Facebook, Reddit and Twitter were used earlier this year by protesters mobilising against the rule of Omar al-Bashir, who’d ruled the country since 1993. After he was ousted, civilians kept up their protest — this time against the military council that had supplanted the autocrat.

Then, on June 3, security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators calling for a transition to civilian rule. In the week that followed, the military cut internet access almost entirely, leaving demonstrators with little connection to the rest of the world.

"As the case of Sudan shows, governments can use internet shutdowns to clamp down on the use of social media for the purposes of protests. This shows that governments fear the power of social media," Wasserman says.

But much like the image of activist Alaa Salah standing atop a car gripped the public imagination in the first round of protests, raising awareness of the plight of Sudanese, so the creeping wave of blue social media profiles captured attention around the world.

The stats rattled off about Sudan in social media posts were startling: thousands killed, more tortured, and bodies floating down the Nile. With retweets, likes and shares in the tens of thousands, social media took a leading role in spreading news of the unfolding drama.

Social media ... can amplify existing political and social dynamics and provide tools for mobilisation
Herman Wasserman

Earlier this month, a tentative agreement was reached to form a joint civilian-military ruling body, which will install a transitional government and parliament for three years. And, last week, telecoms providers began restoring internet access to mobile users.

"With a lot of these protests, a Facebook filter doesn’t necessarily change the outcome, but it’s often a powerful first step," says NKC African Economics political and economic analyst Pieter Scribante. "We saw countries condemn the violence, the AU kick Sudan out and a deal being reached.

"These are tangible effects, in part due to social media."

Social media, of course, does not exist in a silo. Take, for example, the Arab Spring protests across North Africa and the Middle East from 2010. The series of protests against oppressive rule and low living standards began in Tunisia. While social media aided the swift spread of revolution across the region, it could not have found traction without grassroots activism already in place.

"Though there has been much hype about the so-called ‘social media revolution’ during events such as the Arab Spring, it is important not to think about this in a technologically determinist way," says Wasserman.

"This means understanding social media within social and political contexts — social media does not cause revolutions, but it can amplify existing political and social dynamics and provide tools for mobilisation."

Despite the positive spinoffs of social media — awareness raising and information sharing, for example — there is also a darker side. In the wake of the Sudan crackdown, for example, humanitarian accounts changed their profile pictures blue to raise both awareness and funds for relief efforts. But while some of these were legitimate, others were fake accounts designed to mislead.

As sinister as this is that social media has also been a vehicle for mis-and disinformation. Earlier this year, the BBC reported that Sudan’s security services had rounded up students and tortured them until they admitted to violent intent — then spread videos of these false confessions on Facebook and state TV.

Says technology analyst Arthur Goldstuck: "The challenge [for social media users] is filtering reality from deception — this can be fairly dangerous for the legitimacy of movements."

At the same time, he says, it’s clear from events such as Sudan’s demonstrations "that social media is the one platform that can reach an audience of this magnitude".

So, just like that, a new type of protester has been created — one who, from an armchair and with the press of a button, can play a part in making a movement, and its mission, go viral.