Fazmina Imamudeen is enthused by the power of social media

In 2011, the world witnessed the rise of hundreds of thousands of protesters congregating in Tahrir Square in Egypt to dethrone their executive president Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat of some 30 years.

A series of protests and uprisings spread like forest fire in the Arab regions in the early 2010s, paradoxically but precisely called the ‘Arab Spring.’

Egypt was one of the nations that rose against its corrupt government, forcing global attention towards the integral role of social media and its impact on protests. Social media played a weighty role in augmenting communication and involvement among political protest participants.

Eleven years later, Sri Lanka – a country that’s been relatively passive over the decades – has risen against the government and representatives of parliament, demanding a system change, following a crippling economic crisis.

Many Sri Lankans have been expressing their pain and discomfort from the economic crisis that slowly but steadily deprived people of essentials like food and fuel, not to mention lengthy power cuts that threatened the livelihoods of millions.

On 31 March, many Sri Lankans gathered in their thousands near the private residence of the nation’s Executive President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, asking him to ‘Go Home.’

This demonstration led to an uprising of nationwide protests spearheaded by many young Sri Lankans who use social media as a tool to create awareness and formulate protests across the country. They were supported by prominent cricketers, artistes, academics, writers and the media.

Sri Lanka has always been inert and compliant to political power. Many display undying loyalty to the rulers, revering them and overlooking the fact that power lies with the people. However, the nation’s battered economy united the voice of Sri Lanka; and together, they chanted ‘Go Home’ to the corrupt.

Social media can converge and diverge people. None can deny its power to muster people into action. The Gezi Park protest of 2013 in Turkey is an excellent example of how social media became a symbolic part of protests.

Information and misinformation are shared rapidly, and awareness of what is true and false educates and mobilises. Relentlessly, many urged the people via social media to protest peacefully, underscoring the magnitude of nonviolent and peaceful protests. Many people prefer to watch content on YouTube for unbiased news.

For young Sri Lankans, social media became a platform to connect and create awareness, while voicing their opinions about the government and politicians.

Much like the Arab Spring, which is also known as the Facebook Revolution and Twitter Uprising, there’s been intense stress on hashtags (#) in the peaceful protests here in Sri Lanka. Through hashtag activism, protesters communicate, mobilise, campaign and shared protest slogans like #GoHomeGota #GiveUsOurStolenMoneyBack #AnonymousSaveSriLanka #SayNoTo225. These have trended on Twitter and Facebook.

Most of the placards seen at the protests displayed hashtags with their messages. This suggests how social media has become an essential element of activism. Moreover, it highlights the entwining of the digital and real worlds.

While protests rose on the streets of Sri Lanka, they spread across social media to foreign lands, bonding many voices of Sri Lankans together.

Memes are a powerful communication tool. They can conceal divisive political views that if stated openly, the impact could be powerful. Memes were used creatively and effectively in Sri Lanka’s peaceful protests to condemn the existing political system and its drivers, with sarcasm and witty humour.

News is transmitted through social media by anyone with a smart digital device to publish raw information without editing or altering it. The protests across the country and world were streamed live, uniting people across Sri Lanka and strengthening their collective voice. They repetitively intoned the same phrases and slogans to drive the message across, and accentuate their anger and discontentment.

Live streaming and hashtag activism have captured global attention – and the government and the nation’s parliamentarians were subjected to intense scrutiny and calls to act soon.

Times have changed. Every generation brings with it a new experience, new expectations and demands. The people of Sri Lanka have risen together with a phoenix power demanding a complete change in a system that has been revered for decades.

Is this the beginning of a new political era in Sri Lanka?

Time will tell…