As much as social media has become an addictive habit that has led our generation to be constantly glued to our phone screens; it has also been a force for change. Social media platforms are seen as the meeting rooms of demonstrators across the world. The Iraq protests are no exception.
In case you have been living under a rock, a revolution is happening in Iraq. Thousands of people have been protesting against their government since early October. Despite Iraq’s oil wealth, many live in poverty with limited access to electricity, clean water, healthcare, or education. Seen as a youth-led uprising, protesters are asking for an end to the corruption, lack of infrastructure, and unemployment.
Iraq’s Relationship with the Internet
Internet usage in Iraq is an interesting subject. During Saddam’s regime, internet access was restricted. It is estimated that only 25,000 Iraqis were using the internet in 2002.
Since 2003, internet usage has significantly grown. Now, 49% of the (40 million) population are internet users. Compared to the population size in 2002, which was just under 25 million, the growth trajectory is set to increase annually by 3.6%.
The Revolution Will Be Instagrammed
Social media has played a key role in this youth-led movement, especially given that 19 million Iraqis are active social media users and the median age is 20. Online communication has helped to organise protests and share safety information on violence, tear gas, and other hazards.
There are many glimmering reminders of the 2010 Arab Spring as events unfold. Social media is not only mobilising people but it is also communicating what is happening on the ground to the rest of the world. Activists have made viral hashtags such as نريد_وطن# (we want our homeland), نازل_اخذ_حقي# (I protest to get my right), and احفظ_العراقيي# (save the Iraqi people) which share live pictures and news.
Iraqi youth have made clear that the protests are not about political parties, tribalism, or sectarian differences. In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, one of the main symbols of the uprising, people are cleaning streets, offering food and water, and providing electricity and health services for free.
In response, the government of Iraq has either blocked social media websites or imposed a complete internet shutdown. This has been intermittent since October with no clear pattern of when online accessibility will be limited. The government has claimed that the blocks were to stop hate speech. NetBlocks, a cybersecurity organization, declared that the almost complete cut-off imposed by the state in most regions severely limits “media coverage and transparency about the ongoing crisis.”
But internet shutdowns are nothing new in Iraq. During exam season, the government blocks the internet for a few hours every morning to prevent students from cheating. If the internet can be cut off at the flick of a switch for such trivial matters, then it is no surprise that the response to the protests caused such a long-term impediment.
Regardless, there have been attempts to share updates through the use of VPNs, dial-up modems, data roaming, and international sim cards. These options have been expensive or slow for the few that have access to them. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq was unaffected during the blocks, so people in the North would post updates on behalf of friends in the South.
When The Internet (Kind Of) Returned
As of 21 November, internet access has been reinstated but with notable limitations. Internet speeds are much slower with the example of YouTube videos taking up to 15 minutes to load.
The country’s private sector has suffered immensely as a result. Businesses across all sectors including travel and tourism, oil and gas, banking, medical, and e-commerce have lost employees, customers, and income. Tech startups that are already operating in a challenging environment have been completely out of business. Just in the month of October, the Iraqi economy lost over 1.3 billion dollars.
The fact that internet blocks did little to suppress the spirit of the protests shows that although an assembling force, social media and communication apps have played a larger role in gaining international attention than just uniting protesters. It has filled the gap that was created by the lack of reporting from both international and national news. In addition to solidarity campaigns with protesters in other countries, such as Lebanon. Through strong imagery, live updates, and statistics, on-the-ground reports have been both shocking and admiring for followers.
What do you think about the protests in Iraq and the use of social media? Comment below!