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Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas

May 2, 2014

The text below is a pre-publication version of the now published article Postill, J. 2014. Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence 20 (3), 402-418. [PDF]. See final published version (free until the end of November 2014).

See also Global directory of freedom technologists: projects, networks, organisations


In this article I draw from anthropological fieldwork in Spain and secondary research on Tunisia and Iceland to explore the connection between internet freedom activism and post-2008 protest movements. I introduce two new concepts: ‘freedom technologists’ and ‘protest formulas’. I use the term freedom technologists to refer to those individuals who combine technological and political skills to pursue greater internet and democratic freedoms, which they regard as being inextricably entwined. Far from being techno-utopians or deluded ‘slacktivists’ (Morozov, 2013, Skoric, 2012), I argue that most freedom technologists are in fact techno-pragmatists; that is, people who take a very practical view of the limits and possibilities of new technologies for political change. I also differentiate among freedom technologists, singling out three main specialists for their strong contribution to the new movements, namely hackers/geeks, tech lawyers and online journalists. The second new coinage I develop is protest formulas. This term refers to the unique compound of societal forces and outcomes that characterises each protest movement – as well as each phase or initiative within a movement. In the article I track the influence of freedom technologists on emerging protest movements as they interact with other agents within these political compounds.


Social movements, protests, protest formula, internet activism, freedom technologists, free culture, techno-pragmatism, Anonymous, WikiLeaks, Arab Spring, indignados, Spain, Tunisia, Iceland


In recent years an emergent literature has begun to theorise the rise of internet-based activism and protest through studies of the free software movement (Kelty, 2008), the information freedom movement (Beyer, 2014) or networks such as Anonymous (Coleman, 2013a) and WikiLeaks (Cammaerts, 2013). However, we still know little about the part played by net activists and other techno-political actors in the new protest movements that arose in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Tunisian uprising in late 2010 which led to a protracted period of upheaval in the Arab world, southern Europe and many other regions.

Existing accounts of the new protest movements have merely touched on this connection, the focus to date being on the networked technologies used by protesters rather than on the technologists themselves. A great deal of energy has been expended on debating the role of social media in the protests. On one side of the debate, a number of scholars and journalists have highlighted the positive contribution of social and online media to the various revolts. For instance, Tufekci and Wilson (2012) have argued that new digital media were ‘game-changers’ in that they allowed Arab citizens to circumvent mainstream media censorship and mobilise at great speed. Similarly, for Castells (2012) the protests were the result of post-2008 ‘networks of outrage’ that morphed into ‘networks of hope’ in a globalised self-communication order based on the Internet. On the other side of the debate, authors such as Morozov (2012, 2013) and Gerbaudo (2013) have criticised ‘techno-utopian’ authors and activists for seeking simple technical fixes or ‘solutions’ to complex societal problems. Steering clear of technological determinism, Gerbaudo (2012) suggests that the 2011 protest networks in the Arab world and elsewhere resulted from activists’ conscious orchestration of digital and physical forms of collective action anchored to the occupied squares. Meanwhile, Tejerina et al (2013) place the new technologies within a political economy perspective in which the protests are but the latest manifestation of a protracted crisis of global capitalism.

Amidst the polemics, not enough attention has been devoted to examining the links between an emergent global freedom technology movement and the recent uprisings, with Beyer (2014) and Hintz (2012) among the rare exceptions. In this article I draw from anthropological fieldwork in Spain and secondary research on Tunisia and Iceland to explore these links. To this end I introduce two new concepts, namely ‘freedom technologists’ and ‘protest formulas’. I use the term freedom technologists[2] to refer to those geeks, hackers, online journalists, tech lawyers and other social agents who combine technological skills with political acumen to pursue greater Internet and democratic freedoms, both globally and domestically. Indeed, freedom technologists regard the fate of the Internet and of human freedom as being inextricably entwined. Far from being techno-utopian dreamers or deluded ‘slacktivists’ (Morozov, 2012, Skoric, 2012), I argue that most freedom technologists are in fact techno-pragmatists; that is, people who take a very practical view of the limits and possibilities of new technologies for political change, as we shall see in the empirical examples below. I also differentiate among freedom technologists, singling out three main specialists for their strong contribution to the new movements, namely hackers/geeks, tech lawyers and online journalists. This tripartite distinction arose inductively both from the empirical materials gathered in Spain as well as from secondary research on the global Internet freedom movement. In the present article I put it to the test in three very different national contexts: Spain, Tunisia and Iceland.

The second new coinage I develop below is protest formulas. This term refers to the unique compound of societal forces and outcomes that characterises each protest movement – as well as each phase or initiative within a movement. I am particularly interested in the influence of freedom technologists on emerging protest movements as they interact with other agents within these political compounds. Below I do this by means of a new notation system (e.g. F3M, PN1r). The article ends with a recapitulation of the main findings and with suggestions for further empirical and conceptual work.

Freedom technologists 

Before we can broach the country case studies, some historical background on the rise of the three main types of freedom technologists that I have just identified (geeks/hackers, tech lawyers and online journalists) is required, starting with the geeks and hackers. According to Coleman (2011: 512):

Computer hackers tend to be skilled programmers, security researchers, hardware builders, and system administrators, and they often self-identify as such. They are generally motivated by some version of information freedom and participate in ‘hacker’ events and institutions like the Computer Chaos Club, ShmooCon, and free software projects.

By contrast, computer geeks are generally not ‘as technically skilled’ as hackers, but ‘they are literate in digital media and have skills, for example, in video editing and design and enough technical know-how to be able to use the tools, like Internet Relay Chat, where many geeks and hackers congregate’ (Coleman 2011: 512-513). Despite their differences, geeks and hackers share a ‘closeness to the machine’ and an undying faith in individual freedom in the face of authoritarian governments and corporations (Coleman 2011). Brooke (2011) has noted the centrality of ‘hackerspaces’ to the endeavours of Internet freedom activists. These are horizontal, democratic physical spaces devoted to ‘playfully creative problem solving’ (i.e. hacking) shaped by their users’ pragmatism and anti-authoritarianism (2011: 23). Kelty (2008) suggests that geeks/hackers argue both about and through technology. Mixing in their politics operating systems and social systems, free software developers view the Internet not as something static but as a flexible ‘standardised infrastructure’ that sustains ‘geekdom’ (2008: 34). For these specialists, the distinction between ‘free beer’ and ‘free speech’ is crucial. Freedom signifies ‘expression, learning, and modification, not the mere absence of a price tag’ (Coleman 2013b: 36).

When in November 2010 WikiLeaks, together with partner media organisations such as the Guardian, the New York Times, and El Pais, released the first batch of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables this marked a global watershed for geeks and hackers. US government retaliation against WikiLeaks contributed to the politicisation of the Anonymous network which sided with the whistleblowing organisation and went on to intervene directly in the 2011 protests across the Arab world, Spain, the US and elsewhere (Coleman and Ralph, 2011; Fell Brown, 2013).

My second category of freedom technologist, tech lawyers, are those legal professionals who are heavily invested in technological and/or copyright issues. The legal scholar and free culture guru Yohai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, is a case in point. In The Wealth of Networks (2006), Benkler explores the potential for voluntary collaboration and wealth creation offered by networked technologies such as Wikipedia or Creative Commons (Fuster, 2010: 5). Another leading figure in the free culture movement is Lawrence Lessig (2004), who like Benkler is a law professor at Harvard. If the politicisation watershed for hacktivists was the US diplomatic cables aftermath and subsequent online interventions in Tunisia (see below), for free culture proponents one key moment was Lessig’s announcement in 2007 that he would refocus his attention from copyright issues to political corruption. That year Lessig launched the Internet project Change Congress, aimed at developing technological tools that US voters would use ‘to reduce the influence of money on politics’ (Wikipedia, 2013; Fuster, 2012).

The third key class of freedom activists are online journalists (both professionals and amateurs), particularly those with an abiding interest in technology. A case in point is the investigative journalist and information freedom campaigner Heather Brooke, for whom the present era pits individualism against authoritarianism in a global ‘Information War’ (2011: 235). Brooke notes that the US diplomatic cables showed ‘how poorly most political systems are built, allowing the ruling classes to raid public resources for public gain’ (2011: 234-235). Like Lessig – who calls himself a constitutionalist – she does not believe that DDoS attacks are the answer to this predicament, favouring instead a reformist strand of hacktivism that can change the existing political systems from within (Brooke, 2011; Wolf, 2012).

Having sketched a heuristic – or working typology – of our freedom technologists, we are now in a position to assess their involvement in three national protest movements: those of Spain, Tunisia and Iceland.

From internautas to indignados

Both Spanish and foreign commentators concur that the indignados protests of 2011 were long overdue. Spain’s housing market ‘bubble’ had burst in 2008, leaving almost half of the country’s young people unemployed and millions more citizens in a precarious situation. Meanwhile a series of high-profile corruption scandals had discredited its political class, along with an electoral law seen as perpetuating a two-party system (Corsin and Estalella, 2011; López and Rodríguez, 2011).The vast pool of qualified young (and not so young) middle-class Spaniards unable to find a job or further their careers enjoyed a surplus of free time whilst still living ‘at home’. Many were therefore in an ideal position to join the fledgling movement. This was also a period of rapid growth in the uptake of social and mobile media in Spain, with a dramatic increase (65%) in mobile Internet between 2010 and 2011 (Monterde and Postill 2014). With the precedent of popular revolts in nearby Tunisia and Egypt fresh in people’s minds, the scene was set for a Spring of discontent. Lastly, Spain had a proud history of Internet activism whose personnel, ideals and practices were not dissimilar to those that had been used in North Africa to great effect.

The connections and overlaps between Spain’s digital freedom scene and its indignados (or 15M) movement are numerous. Indeed, free culture activists played a crucial role in the movement’s conception, gestation, birth and growth (Fuster, 2012; Toret, 2012). In this section I concentrate on the first stages of this process, leaving the latter stages for the next section.

Spain has boasted an active netizen (in Spanish, internauta) scene since the 1990s[3]. In December 2009, a manifesto in defence of fundamental digital rights was published in opposition to the so-called ‘Ley Sinde’, a proposed bill aimed at curtailing ‘Internet piracy’. Other protest methods included DDoS attacks, Twitter trending topics and offline actions (Fuster and Subirats, 2012; Sanchez Almeida, 2012). In December 2010, a group of tech lawyers and other freedom technologists launched a successful online mobilisation against the bill, now renamed ‘Ley Biden-Sinde’ in honour of the US Vice President Joe Biden. This renaming came after WikiLeaks confirmed that the bill was drafted under pressure from the US government and its culture industry lobby (Sutton, 2012). The mobilisation was supported by Anonymous, and other hacker formations (Sanchez Almeida, 2012). It was widely covered by both mainstream media and by alternative news media. For hacktivists like Margarita Padilla, the Ley Sinde struggle brought together networked ‘swarms’ such as Anonymous and traditional movements, forging ‘monstrous alliances’ that presaged the indignados movement (quoted in Moreno-Caballud, 2013).

Disregarding the netizen outcry, on 15 February 2011 Spain’s ruling socialist (PSOE) government, backed by Spain’s other major parties, passed the bill. Very shortly thereafter, Sanchez Almeida and fellow freedom technologists created No Les Votes, an online formation that called on Spaniards to respond to this betrayal by not voting for any of the major parties in the coming municipal and regional elections. No Les Votes marked a radical break, a schism, between Spain’s netizens and its political class that would shape subsequent events (Postill 2014a).

No Les Votes soon joined forces with Anonymous, Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), Democracia Real Ya (DRY) and other online and grassroots platforms to call for mass demonstrations across Spain on 15 May 2011 under the slogan ‘Real democracy now! We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers’. The marches were well attended but they did not achieve the mainstream media visibility protesters had hoped for. However, a small group of protesters in Madrid decided to spend the night at Puerta del Sol, the city’s main square. Freedom technologists were well represented amongst these ‘first 40’ campers, including the ‘Anon’ who had broken into the Goya award-winning ceremony, a copyleft lawyer formerly employed by a leading law firm, and a member of the hacktivist collective Isaac Hacksimov who described the occupation as ‘a gesture that broke the collective mental block’ (Sanchez, 2011). By 17 May the number of occupiers had grown to 200 and by 20 May nearly 30,000 people had taken the square in full view of the national and international media, with dozens of squares across Spain following suit in rapid succession.

The documentary filmmaker and novice activist Stefan Grueso describes 15M as a ‘copyleft revolution’. A firm advocate of creative commons, on visiting encampments around Spain he ‘ran into everybody I know from the free culture scene –and I mean everybody’ (quoted in Romanos, 2012). Fuster and Subirats (2012) contend that Spain’s free culture movement made two main contributions to the indignados uprising. First, it configured an‘issue network’ around access to information and ICT regulation. Second, the No Les Votes platform signalled a ‘change of frame from free culture to meta-politics’. This change echoes Lessig’s aforesaid decision in 2007 to shift his focus from the world of free culture to ‘changing Congress’.

Although the role played by hackers and other computer experts in lending the indignados movement its strong free culture character is crucial, it is important not to overlook the part played by both amateur and professional journalists. As I have shown elsewhere, in the 15M discourse we often find a crude portrayal of the mainstream news media as an integral part of a monolithic ‘system’ hostile to the protesters – along with a celebration of ‘citizen journalism’ and other form of ‘horizontal’ and ‘networked’ communication (Postill 2014a). In fact, without the support of sympathetic journalists and editors from major news organisations, it is unlikely that the campers would have reached such wide publics during the month-long occupation of Spain’s squares and their aftermath. For instance, Joseba Elola (2011), a journalist with the centre-left daily El Pais, could barely contain his emotion when reporting from the Sol encampments, portraying the occupiers as ‘young people conscious of their civil liberties who have risen to head a protest in search of a great change’. It is telling that it was precisely Elola[4] who secured the participation of El Pais in the global release of WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic cables in November 2010, following a secret meeting with Julian Assange in London. This experience changed Elola’s professional outlook:

I really think the media for years have been a little bit asleep and didn’t do their job properly, and I think WikiLeaks brought something really good for journalism and for society[5].

Free culture heartlands

Even more striking that the month-long occupation of Spain’s main squares in May and June 2011, yet far less well known, is the proliferation of free culture and digital commons experiments (or ‘prototypes’, see below) within the 15M movement following the end of the occupations.

Spain has a thriving free culture scene. In a recent survey of Catalonia’s free culture scene, Fuster and Subirats (2012) analysed 145 initiatives, most of them based in Barcelona, finding widely uneven levels of development and institutionalisation among them. These authors included law firms specialised in digital commons, the world’s largest WiFi network (, free software communities, journalistic and blogging initiatives, and publishing houses. Although, to my knowledge, no similar survey has yet been conducted in Madrid, this city sustains an even more vibrant free culture field than Barcelona, partly a product of the greater institutional support it enjoys (Fuster and Subirats, 2012). Madrid’s hackerspaces lend its free culture scene a more contemporary aesthetic, argues Gutierrez (2013a), than that of other European cities such as Berlin with its ‘punk aesthetic and […] classic anti-Fascism’. For Corsin and Estalella (2011) the Puerta del Sol encampments

 formed part of a long and still-vibrant national tradition of okupaciones (squatter occupations). Indeed, in the case of Madrid, Sol is [within] walking distance from some of the city’s most famous ‘squatter labs’ and ‘urban hack spaces’, such as El Patio Maravillas and La Tabacalera.

Prototypical Spain

Out of this entanglement of free culture and indignado praxis emerges the ubiquitous notion of prototype (prototipo). The tech journalist Bernardo Gutierrez (2013b) defines a prototype as ‘An early sample or model built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from’. Transposing this idea to the 15M movement, he argues that

 [d]igital culture, copyleft processes and the hacker ethic, so pervasive in the lead-up to 15M, all imbued their spirit in this new revolution of the connected crowd. The working prototype, within this new, open, process-based world, replaces any fixed model. And 15M is still churning out prototypes. It has built them collectively, as an open network.

15M prototypes can be categorised under three overlapping labels, namely (1) political prototypes (concerned with individual freedoms), (2) legal/economic prototypes (free culture), and (3) journalistic prototypes (freedom of information). This scheme has the double advantage of being parsimonious (cf. Gutierrez’s 2013b more elaborate typology) as well as matching the tripartite character of my model (geeks/hackers, tech lawyers, and online journalists) but without doing violence to the empirical data. Let us examine each species of prototype in turn.

First, 15M political prototypes are numerous and include the encampments and assemblies as well as subsequent social media initiatives such as Toma Los Barrios (Take The Hoods), Toma La Playa (Take The Beach) or Graba Tu Pleno (Record Your Council Meeting) (Gutierrez, 2013b; Oliden et al, 2013). These initiatives lack gatekeepers and are designed to be freely modified and replicated (Fuster and Subirats, 2012). For example, the free software website was designed to mobilise citizens based on the idea of ‘massive support for shared causes’. In principle, any user is entitled to modify the text or arguments of a campaign as they see fit, e.g. the petition to free Herve Falciani, an IT specialist working for the global bank HSBC arrested for leaking data about tax evaders and fraudsters (Oliden et al, 2013).

Another example is the #15MPaRato campaign. In May 2012 this political prototype raised 15,000 euros though a crowdfunding appeal aimed at initiating legal proceedings against Rodrigo Rato, the former chief executive of Bankia (15MPaRato, 2013; Oliden et al, 2013). Consequently, in December 2012 Rato appeared in court to face a string of charges, including fraud and embezzlement (BBC, 2012). Peña Lopez (2012) highlights the innovative manner in which this new platform raised public awareness about the issue, set the public agenda, filled a void left by political parties and MPs, and used crowdfunding to pay for the court fees and crowdsourcing to gather evidence against Rato. This author singles out the five main contributing factors of its success (which I would suggest capture 15M’s free culture strengths generally):

  1. 15M’s ‘powerful, versatile brand’ functioning as an umbrella
  2. A timely, short-term goal
  3. A highly flexible, agile networked organisation, in which numerous actors define themselves around their actions, not their identities or offices
  4. The project was broken down into micro-tasks, in the ‘hacker ethic’ style of free software (Benkler 2006, see above, Raymond 1999)
  5. Intensive use of cheap, user-friendly, decentralised technological infrastructures.

A closely related initiative is the new political party Partido X, described by its proponents as a ‘methodology’. This prototype, steeped in Spain’s free/digital culture tradition, ‘forked’ out of 15M to challenge the nation’s two-party system through a ‘citizens’ network’ (red ciudadana).

The Party is a ‘doocracy’, an ‘hacercracia’. Matters are often settled by doing them. Yes, there is debate, there are agreements, and there is a distribution of tasks. But one is the master of one’s own tasks. These are proposed, commented on, approved…and normally whoever proposed them will lead and take them forward with help from those who find them interesting[6].

Second, the legal/economic prototypes include the infrastructure initiative Hacksol (later 15hack) – made up of a WordPress multisite for blogs, the N-1cc. platform for internal organisation, over 100 mailing lists, and Mumble chat server –, the collaborative digital library, the documentary, the, and many others experiments in ‘beta’. 15hack projects are self-managed and run on free software via the project’s own servers. This prototype was conceived during the Sol encampment and soon had to manage a huge number of blogs with millions of visits, as well as commercial social media. From its humble beginnings as a small technical team in Madrid, it soon expanded to include both techies and non-techies from around the country. Gonzalez de Requena (2012: 248), regards 15hack as ‘a recursive public [Kelty 2008] that emerged naturally in an environment preoccupied with ‘free culture’’. For its part, is a digital library set up by the free culture author and remixer Silvia Nanclares and a programmer friend. Crowdfunded via the site, Nanclares describes it as ‘a publishing research nucleus as well as a free culture political tool’ (quoted in Oliden et al, 2013).

Finally, the 15M movement has also spawned a constellation of journalistic prototypes such as live streaming from the occupied squares (by People Witness, SolTV or Toma La Tele), the radio station Radio Agora Sol, the newspaper Madrid 15M, activist video projects such as Indigrafias and Audiovisol, the photographic site Foto Movimiento, Anonymous videos on YouTube, Twitter trending topics and many other productions (Alabao, 2012; Gutierrez, 2013b; Monterde and Postill 2014, Sanchez, 2012). The P2P software developer Pablo Soto defines 15M as ‘a copyleft-generating machine […] resulting from the collectivisation of the means of information’ (Conversaciones, 2011). Similarly, Alabao (2012) describes the collaborative photographic project Indigrafias, based on the work of 79 photographers with a musical score blended with the protesters’ chants, as an example of how free licenses can bolster activist audiovisual production.

Formulating the protests

As we can see, Spain’s freedom technologists have played a crucial role in the gestation, birth and growth of the indignados/15M movement. But how can we compare the contribution of freedom technologists to new social movements elsewhere? To confront this challenge, I wish to propose a new notation system inspired by that of chemistry. This system is designed as a way of thinking about the techno-political dimension of the social protests – as well as their constituent phases, events and initiatives – in more specific ways than has been the case to date. As explained earlier, too much effort has been expended on polemics around the technologies employed in the protests, but we still lack the conceptual vocabulary to analyse the role of freedom technologists leading these struggles in different national contexts.

The main symbols I shall be using are ‘F3’, ‘N1’, ‘M’, ‘P’, ‘E’, ‘G’, ‘R’ and variations of them, including alphanumeric and lowercase variants. Thus I will use ‘F3’ to represent a protest, protest phase or protest initiative to which the three main types of freedom technologist made a substantial contribution. It follows that ‘F2’ indicates one in which only two types of freedom technologist made their mark, e.g. journalists and lawyers but not geeks/hackers. In contrast, the symbol N1 indicates a category of non-freedom technologist of special importance in a given protest movement, e.g. trade unionists in the Tunisian case, or politicians in Iceland. N2 therefore indicates two major categories of non-freedom technologist, and so on. The letter ‘M’ signifies an intermediate sector of the movement made up of a motley of other specialists (e.g. artists, intellectuals, designers, anthropologists, teachers, students) who often perform important functions as translators or brokers between the tech-savvy activists and the wider population. Of course, this mixed sector will vary greatly in its precise composition and internal dynamics from one national struggle to the next. The uppercase ‘P’ is reserved for those protest movements – or phases/initiatives within a movement – in which the vast majority of the population rose up against a regime, whilst the lowercase ‘p’ means that only a section of the population took to the streets and squares. Precisely how these various societal forces cooperated and collided during the protests is something that only detailed empirical reconstruction can reveal.

Towards the right-hand end of the formula we find symbols representing the outcomes of the protests. Thus the letter ‘E’ indicates a protest movement that has generated numerous civic experiments (or prototypes) outside a country’s political institutions, whilst ‘G’ stands for a movement that has attained or ‘scored’ many institutional goals but without changing the existing system. Finally, the uppercase ‘R’ signifies revolution or regime change, whilst the lowercase ‘r’ stands for reform.

As of early April 2014, the formula that best sums up Spain’s indignados/15M movement is F3MpEg. In other words, the movement was led by all three main types of freedom technologist (F3) who formed a fluid, dynamic coalition with a mixed sector of tech and non-tech specialists (M), including intellectuals, scientists, and teachers, but with the conspicuous absence – when compared with movements elsewhere – of trade unionists, politicians and other non-freedom technologists (N) taking up leadership roles against the regime. The formula also contains the lowercase ‘p’ (i.e. the protesters failed to mobilise the entire Spanish population), but lacking to date the crucial ingredient of reform (r) or regime change (R). Instead what we find is a richly experimental (E) period for Spain’s freedom technologists and their allies – as described above under the rubric ‘prototypical Spain’ – which have scored a number of institutional goals (g), such as prosecuting the banker Rodrigo Rato or preventing the eviction of thousands of families unable to repay their mortgages (Romanos, 2013). To be sure, these experiments and goals signal a reinvigorated civil society but they must be analytically distinguished from systemic reforms (r) and revolutions (R).

The model I am proposing allows, therefore, for a great deal of variation in the protest formulas of countries where freedom technologists are active, from very simple compounds such as F3 at one end of the spectrum (e.g. countries where freedom technologists are active on domestic issues but not linked to other political forces) to far more complex scenarios where freedom technologists and other specialists have managed to galvanise the population and bring about regime change (F3N1MPR) at the other end. We turn now precisely to an instance of the latter political compound: Tunisia.

Tunisia’s protest formulas

Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution was counterintuitive, for it took place in a seemingly highly stable country governed by lifelong presidents. The dictator of the day, Ben Ali, stood out amongst fellow autocrats elsewhere for not tolerating any form of dissent (Khosrokhavar, 2012: 32-35). The Tunisian uprising can be divided into two main phases: before and after the Kasserine massacre of 8-12 January 2011. As will become apparent, each phase exhibits its own protest formula, with freedom technologists playing a particularly important role during the first phase.

Let us start, then, with the pre-Kasserine events. The December 2010 uprising resulted from two separate histories of struggle converging for the first time, namely the labour struggles of impoverished ‘inland Tunisians’ (Nuzuh) and the Internet activism of the urban middle classes living in the capital, Tunis, and other affluent areas in Tunisia and abroad (Khosrokhavar, 2012; Lim, 2013). Online bloggers and activists had long contended with one the world’s harshest Internet censorship regimes and felt closer to global outfits such as WikiLeaks, Reporters without Borders or Global Voices than to the plight of Tunisia’s working classes (Lim, 2013).

As in the Spanish protests just reviewed, WikiLeaks’ release of US diplomatic cables helped to prepare the protest ground. On 28 November 2010, within hours of the original WikiLeaks release, a first batch of 17 cables undermining the Tunisian government was published as TuniLeaks by, a site set up in 2004 by the constitutional lawyer and blogger Riadh Guerfali (Breuer, 2012: 15; Lim, 2013: 924). The leaks, amplified by the pan-Arab TV network Al Jazeera, gave many Tunisian activists the false – yet consequential – impression that the international community, and particularly America, now supported their struggle (Khosrokhavar, 2012: 37).

The trigger for the protests was doubtless the self-immolation of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, on 17 December 2010 in the town of Sidi Bouzid after being reportedly humiliated by a female government official. Unlike previous self-immolations, this one was filmed. A distant cousin of the victim, the veteran activist Ali Bouazizi, recorded it on his Samsung mobile, edited it with technical help from a friend, and shared it via Facebook where it was discovered by journalists from Al Jazeera, a news organisation banned from Tunisia, and broadcast to the nation (Lim, 2013: 933). Al Jazeera journalists relied on information shared on social media by Tunisian activists and other citizens to bypass the official restrictions and report on the fast-moving events on the ground (Breuer, 2012; Lim, 2013). When the government censored Facebook, the online group Anonymous launched Operation Tunisia, carrying attacks against government websites via dial-up connections provided by Tunisian citizens (Murphy, 2012).

Much has been made of how the video of Mohamad Bouazizi’s death ‘went viral’, triggering numerous ‘multi-channel’ protests across the country that the Tunisian government was unable to stifle (Tufekci, 2011). Far less well known, however, is the fact that his cousin Ali Bouazizi added two ‘white lies’ to the story that accompanied the video, namely the notion that Mohamed was a university graduate (in fact, he never completed high school) and the scene in which a woman slapped him in the face (we now know that this humiliating event never took place).

By adding these two ingredients – a university graduate and a slap – to the story, Ali rendered Mohamed’s burning body political, affixing to it the political body of a citizen whose rights were denied. Mohamed Bouazizi no longer represented the uneducated poor who struggle to provide food on the table, but represented all young people of Tunisia whose rights and freedom were denied (Lim, 2013: 927).

This compelling story functioned as a ‘bridging frame’ that appealed to all Tunisians, becoming the endlessly rehearsed ‘master frame’ of the uprising both domestically and internationally (Lim, 2013: 936). Also important in this connection were the framing activities of our third category of freedom technologist: lawyers. Thus the Association of Tunisian Lawyers backed the protests from an early stage (Khosrokhavar, 2012), as did many lawyers on a personal capacity. For instance, the ‘lawyer-turned-activist’ Leila Den Debba portrayed the events as ‘a revolution where the young people did not rally for food but for a dignified life’ (quoted in Lim, 2013: 928). Similarly, Dhafer Salhi, a local lawyer who witnessed Bouazizi’s death was ‘[f]rustrated by the lack of accountability by officials’. As reported by Al Jazeera,

Salhi became an active participant in the protests. The lawyer used Facebook to organise protests, sending out invites to his friends. He was one of the web activists targeted by the Tunisian authorities in the phishing operation. They managed to hijack his Facebook account, but Salhi simply created a new account (Ryan, 2011a).

The turning point of the Tunisian uprising came on 8-12 January 2011 with the massacring of protesters in Kassarine, in central Tunisia. This slaughter led to mass protests in the capital, with the national workers’ union (UGTT) and the urban middle classes now conspicuously present, and the military exerting pressure on Ben Ali to resign (Khosrokhavar, 2012: 39). In his final speech of 13 January, the dictator declared an end to the firing of ‘real bullets’ but it was too late to save his regime and he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia the following day (Ryan, 2011b).

Standard journalistic accounts of the Tunisian uprising have it that the country’s youth forced a regime change (e.g. Symington, 2011). In fact, as the above sketch suggests, the reality is far more complex, and it involves journalists themselves. While young street protesters were indeed a powerful force, we should not neglect the contribution of less visible protest agents (see Postill 2013). Thus the first, pre-Kasserine phase of the uprising can be formulated as an F3Mp phase in which all three types of freedom technologist (F3) (especially WikiLeaks hackers, citizen bloggers and journalists, Al Jazeera journalists, Anonymous geeks and hackers, and tech-savvy lawyers) played a leading part in framing the issue, along with a broad band of other specialists (M) and a sizeable portion of the population led by impoverished youths (p). The formula expanded quite dramatically to F3MN2PR after the Kasserine massacre when two powerful non-freedom technologist forces, namely the trade unionists and the military, joined the fray (N2) along with the vast majority of the Tunisian population (P), which precipitated the end of the Ben Ali regime (R).

Iceland’s protest formulas

The story of Iceland’s protest formulas starts with the global financial crisis of 2008. Having lived through a boom economy for several years, one October morning in 2008 Icelanders awoke to the shocking realisation that their country was now bankrupt. It soon emerged that Icelandic banks had been making massive loans to their own shareholders. As a result of this ‘huge scam’[7], over 50,000 people – or one sixth of a population of 320,000 – lost their savings (Brooke, 2011: 38). It also transpired that a financial clique of about 30 people controlled the country’s economy through a ‘revolving door between finance, politics and the media’ (Brooke 2011: 37). Unsurprisingly, a deep crisis of legitimacy ensued after long decades of citizen faith in a political system customarily hailed as the most ‘transparent’ in the world (Åström et al, 2013: 31). Iceland was ‘ripe for reform’ (Brooke, 2011: 37):

The legitimacy crisis led to drastic measures by the Icelandic institutions and, almost overnight, the system opened up for both traditional democratic solutions (such as referendums) and democratic innovations (such as participation via the internet in drafting the constitution) (Åström et al, 2013: 31).

A key moment for the more innovative form of intervention came on 1 August 2009. The then unknown organisation WikiLeaks had obtained documentation that exposed the tight grip of cronyism on the country’s financial system. When the bankers realised that this documentation had been posted online, they forced the Icelandic judiciary to impose a historically unprecedented gag order on the news media. Undeterred, the state TV news anchor, Bogi Ágússton, circumvented this order by simply directing viewers to the WikiLeaks website[8]. This incident made WikiLeaks an instant phenomenon in Iceland, and shortly afterwards its spokespersons, Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, were welcomed to Iceland as heroes. Interviewed on the nation’s most popular TV chat show, a cheerful Assange proposed that Iceland become an information freedom haven: ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste and Iceland has a lot of opportunity to redefine its standards and its legislation’ (quoted in Brooke, 2011: 42). The message from WikiLeaks was that

Iceland needed to change, and it would only take a few committed activists, particularly when they had technological skill and political currency, to change society in a profound way (Brooke, 2011: 49).

Inspired by this message, a team of Icelandic and foreign freedom technologists – including hackers, geeks, lawyers, journalists and politicians – launched the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). Extending our previous Spanish analysis, we could call this initiative a legal/journalistic prototype. The ambitious aim of IMMI was to strengthen information freedom, first in Iceland and later globally, particularly ‘the rights of journalists, publishers and bloggers’ (Karhula, 2013). For Hintz (2012: 96),

WikiLeaks was instrumental in starting the initiative: WikiLeaks activists raised the idea of a transparency haven, provided knowledge on relevant laws in other countries, and developed some of the thematic corner-stones together with local and international experts.

Far from the negative stereotype of Internet activists as naïve ‘techno-utopians’ (Gerbaudo, 2013; Morozov, 2012), the team’s techno-pragmatism was in evidence from the start. Thus one of its leaders, the self-defined computer ‘nerd’, poet, and MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir explained howwe went on a scouting mission looking for the best [information freedom] laws, not just laws that looked good on paper, but that actually worked in reality’[9]. To their delight, on 16 June 2010 the Icelandic parliament unanimously passed IMMI as a resolution (Brooke, 2011: 122). However, the process of translating the resolution into legislation is proving to be long and tortuous. Whilst some provisions are now law (e.g. source protection), others are currently pending, and still others are on hold[10]. An added hurdle is IMMI’s realisation since Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations that legal innovations may not be sufficient to protect whistleblowers and other sources from the digital prying of powerful states and corporations (Hern, 2013). This has led to recent calls for greater support for privacy technologies in view of the fact that ‘legalistic schemes are never going to work’ given that powerful governments can always ‘flaunt [sic] international law’[11].

Another example of a protest-related prototype, in this case a political prototype, is Icelanders’ celebrated efforts to draft a new constitution by partly crowdsourcing it online. This was an initiative of the ‘post-crash government’ that came to power in early 2009. A constitutional committee of seven was appointed by parliament to set up a national assembly composed of 950 citizens randomly drawn from the national registry (Gylfason, 2013). Although often portrayed as a mass endeavour involving ‘the entire nation’, the process was in fact government-led and many citizens did not take part (Dessi, 2012). For freedom technologists like Birgitta Jónsdóttir MP, the proposed constitution was nonetheless a ‘beautiful’ initiative blocked by the new coalition government of April 2013. Jónsdóttir concedes, however, that it had a number of weaknesses. For instance, the human rights section ‘wasn’t written properly – the people who wrote it weren’t lawyers’ (quoted in Knight, 2013). So if IMMI was arguably ‘too legalistic’, Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution suffered from the exact opposite problem: insufficient legal input.

We can therefore sum up Iceland’s post-2008 developments by means of the formula PF4N1Mr. The letter ‘P’ deserves to come first, for unlike the Tunisian and Spanish protests, this was a process of change initiated not by freedom technologists but by the general population, who were first inspired by the one-man protests of the activist and musician Hördur Torfason outside the national parliament. Another intriguing difference with regard to the other two cases is the presence in Iceland of a fourth type of freedom technologist (F4), namely the ‘nerd’ politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir who played a leading part not only within IMMI but throughout the entire uprising. Iceland’s freedom technologists (together with their WikiLeaks partners and other foreign allies) carried out a series of initiatives, along with non-tech politicians (N1) and a miscellany of other specialists (M). The outcome was not so much ‘the Icelandic Revolution’ as the start of a long and convoluted process of democratic reform (r) that is still under way.

If in the Tunisian uprising we can clearly discern two distinct phases, in the Icelandic case it makes more analytical sense to distinguish among the various prototypes arising from the protests. Thus the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) can be described as an F4N1r compound, with the ‘F4’symbolising all four freedom technologists, the ‘N1’ standing for non-tech politicians who joined the initiative, and the lowercase ‘r’ signifying the reform process that started with the passing of the first piece of new legislation, namely source protection. Absent from the IMMI formula are the people (P) of Iceland, as this was not a process open to the general public but rather a small-scale, specialist project. In contrast, the endeavour of drafting a new constitution was in principle open to all Icelanders via the Internet, although in practice participation was highly uneven (p). Led by politicians (N1) with input from other experts, tech lawyers were not strongly represented within the freedom technology camp (F2) and no tangible reform outcomes were achieved, the resulting formula being N1F2Mp.


Freedom technologists have performed crucial functions in the post-2008 protest movements covered in this article. In Tunisia and Spain, their framing activities around a shocking video and the passing of a new internet law respectively, triggered a chain of events with very different outcomes: regime change in Tunisia, an era of techno-political innovation in Spain. By contrast, the Icelandic framing came not at the outset but once the protest movement was under way, when Julian Assange floated on public TV the idea that Iceland become the world’s first freedom of information haven. In all three national contexts, transnational techie networks like WikiLeaks and Anonymous cooperated with local freedom technologists and other societal forces to pursue a variety of goals. Local journalists like Iceland’s TV anchor Bogi Ágússton or the Spanish reporter Joseba Elola are as central to this story as global celebrity hackers like Assange, as are indeed tech-minded lawyers such as Tunisia’s Leila Den Debba or Dhafer Salhi. All these historical agents contributed to what we might call (pace Doctorow, 2012) the mainstreaming of nerd politics, that is, to the ongoing convergence of Internet freedom activism and broader popular struggles over freedom and social justice, to the point that the two are becoming virtually indistinguishable.

By following the technologists rather than the technologies, I was able to shed light on the frames, practices and actions of historical agents striving for political change (see Tenhunen, 2008) in three very different protest contexts. This approach allowed me to avoid the endless debates over the significance – or otherwise – of digital media to the new protest movements and focus instead on asking about those specific individuals and groups that made a significant difference to the protests. It also made it possible to analyse the existing empirical evidence in more nuanced ways than if I had adopted a more homogeneous ‘network society’ model of the new protests (Castells, 2012). Instead of networked horizontality, the protest formula method revealed a rugged, shifting techno-political terrain subject to contingent forces and circumstances.

Further research is needed to extend the comparative reach of these working concepts. For example, preliminary evidence from Malaysia suggests that hacktivists may not have played as significant a role as other freedom technologists in that country’s protracted reformasi struggle, a struggle that was born not of the 2008 global financial crisis but rather of the 1997 Asian financial crisis (Postill 2014b). The Malaysian case suggests the need for comparative work not only cross-nationally but also reaching back to earlier regional or global crises, i.e. for studies that can add greater historical depth to our current understanding. Moreover, we still know little about the relationship between freedom technologists and less tech-savvy citizens. For reasons of space, I had to leave this relationship largely implicit, but my own and others’ research in Spain (e.g. Estalella, 2013) suggests that freedom technologists’ efforts at ‘linking up’ with issues of concern to other citizens can sometimes be met with resistance, bafflement, even hostility. This is another area of great potential for further research.

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Author biography

John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne (2013-2016), and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book provisionally titled Hacker, Lawyer, Journalist, Spy: Freedom Technologists and Political Change in an Age of Global Protest and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen)


[1] An earlier incarnation of this article titled “The uneven convergence of digital freedom activism and popular protest: a global theory of the new protest movements” can be found here:

[2] In an earlier draft I used the term ‘techno-libertarians’ rather than ‘freedom technologists’. I am grateful to Gabriella Coleman for querying (via Twitter) my use of this notion, presumably on account of the considerable baggage of the term ‘libertarian’, especially in an American context. After exploring various alternatives (e.g. liberation technologists, liberation techies), I finally settled for freedom technologists as a more neutral term that captures the shared concern with freedom (free culture, information freedom, individual freedom, etc.) of an otherwise culturally and ideologically highly diverse universe of political agents, ranging from radical leftist communitarians to free-market libertarians.

[3] See

[4] Other tech-savvy journalists who not only reported the Spanish protests but also actively support 15M and related movements include Leila Nachawati (Global Voices, Al Jazeera), Juanlu Sanchez (Periodismo Humano), Lali Sandiumenge (La Vanguardia, El Periodico, RTVE), and Kathy Aunger (Guardian). For all their differences in career trajectories, all these journalists share a sophisticated understanding of the new media environment and a commitment to technological and democratic freedoms, starting with the freedom of information.

[5] Source:

[6] Ismael Peña Lopez, email interview with Victor Lasa, 9 August 2013 (used with permission).

[7] Birgitta Jónsdóttir, quoted by Knight (2013).

[8] Source: The Wikileaks Documentary, SVT (2011: 18:30-19:10),

[9] Source: Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, by Paula Lázaro (2014: 16:50-17:15),

[10] Personal communication from Alix Johnson, published with permission in media/anthropology, 25 February 2014 (see also Knight 2013).

[11]Comment by the Guardian website visitor Drewv, 19 November 2013,


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