The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects – The Mobile Phone

The mobile phone: A tool for sousveillance?

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects is an innovative project that provides a social science perspective to everyday objects. It is inspired by the popular BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project, initiated by Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology, provides a social science angle to everyday objects through short articles written by University of Leicester academics. Drawing on their specialist research, academics from the College of Social Sciences deliver interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on objects in and out of the home, which might just change your perceptions on the things around us.

The mobile phone has become one of the most ubiquitous communication devices in history. It enables multiple forms of interpersonal communication, ranging from voice calls to the sharing of pictures and videos on social media sites.

The Arab Spring, the series of popular uprisings in the Middle East, that began with the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, and spread later to countries such as Egypt, Bahrain and Syria, has demonstrated the extent to which social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have transformed the relationship between political elites and their citizens. The dominant narrative on the ‘Arab Spring’ emphasises the vital role that the internet played in the coordination of the protests, but acknowledges that increasingly sophisticated modes of internet control, such as the surveillance tools designed to track and identify citizens on Twitter, might lead to the arrest of these online activists. The empirical evidence that has emerged from Egypt and Tunisia suggests that social media allowed activists to share stories, such as Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the circumstances surrounding the death of Khaled Saeed, which inspired dissidents in the region to organise ‘pro-democracy’ protests.

Social media also allowed protesters to bypass mainstream media censorship and share first hand experiences of police oppression in these countries with a global audience in real-time. This demonstrates how sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be used for ‘inverse surveillance’ (or ‘sousveillance’), raising questions about the conduct of authority figures during periods of civil unrest. However, it should be noted that the use of communication technologies to ‘watch the watchers’ predates the Web 2.0 era. Probably the most well-known example of ‘sousveillance’ occurred over two decades ago when video footage of the police assault on Los Angeles resident Rodney King was picked up by television news networks such as CNN. Yet, it must be acknowledged that social media has made it even easier for eyewitnesses to share acts of sousveillance. Whereas George Holliday had to send his video footage to his local news network in order for action to be taken against the four police officers responsible for the assault on Rodney King, the contemporary observer may share their acts of sousveillance directly with a potential global audience via YouTube.

However, it should be remembered that the use of social media for sousveillance was not critical to the success of the popular revolutions in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. Rather, it was storytelling about martyrs such as Khaled Saeed and the perception that these governments were about to lose their grip on power, that inspired people to join the pro-democracy protests in public spaces such as Tahrir Square. Despite discourses about ‘Twitter Revolutions’ being increasingly prevalent in the media coverage of the Arab Spring, the evidence so far suggests that people were more likely to hear about the protests through face-to-face communication or mobile phones than on sites such as YouTube, which were often blocked by governments in the region or unavailable to those protestors who did not have access to the Web. While social media may lower the costs for the coordination of collective action and help bring people onto the streets, the focus should be on the socio-political context and the motivation of the protestors if we are to fully understand the events that became known as the Arab Spring.

By Dr Paul Reilly, Department of Media & Communications, University of Leicester.

Find out more about the Campaign for Social Science.

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