In January of this year, Egyptian activist turned to Facebook to increase awareness and invite participation in public protests held in the streets of major cities there. People from around the world watched with both horror and curiosity and the events in Egypt unfolded. It was the first time (as far as I know) that social media had been used on such a large scale to promote political and social protests. But it was not the last.
Here is just one example of a news article about how Egyptian activists used Facebook to inform, educate and invite support. Social media has become a force for social change… And not just in Egypt.
Over 3600 Air Canada flight attendants are reportedly participating in a Facebook page (limited to Air Canada employees) to vent their anger at the company, as well as union leaders who are representing them in current negotiations. That’s over half of all the flight attendants who work for the company, who are spread out across the country. Sixty percent (60%) of the company’s pilots have joined a private website, limited only to pilots, to dialogue on related issues. (Check out the news story here).
Management and the union at Air Canada are in the middle of talks to negotiate a new contract. It is reported that a six-page letter written by Susan Welscheid, Air Canada’s senior vice-president of customer service, sparked a wave of rage among the company’s workers, causing them to join the Facebook group and vent their frustrations.
The employees voted last month on a new contract. Eighty eight per cent (88%) of unionized flight attendants members who cast ballots rejected the contract, one that had been endorsed by their negotiating team. By way of a comparison, less than 60% of Canadians voted in the 2008 federal election. Canadians tend to be a bit of an apathetic lot when it comes to voting in anything, really. Getting 88% of a Canadian group out to vote on something is startling in and of itself, really.
Union leaders and management say they are floored by the Facebook outburst, saying that it is making negotiations difficult.
So what do the cases in Egypt and Canada have in common? We can see some commonalities, as both groups
- chose Facebook pages as their medium
- united people who are spread out across a nation
- gave voice to a group who felt that those who were supposed to represent and protect them were not fulfilling their responsibilities
- created a space for people to express anger and talk about what actions to take
- sparked interest by the media by the very fact that they used (and continue to use) social media as a catalyst for change, driven by the people themselves
The use of social media as a social force to rally ordinary citizens joined by a common cause, ready and willing to fight for something they believe in — seems to be a growing phenomenon. My guess is that we’ll continue to see social media used by people for causes, concerns and as a catalyst for change.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.