Can Viral Stories Really Create Social Change?

Three weeks ago we all learned of Ahmed Mohammed, the MacArthur High School freshman arrested after he brought what school officials and police described as a “hoax bomb” on campus. #IStandWithAhmed went viral and many politicians like President Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton wasted little time to comment. @acoulombe13 noted “Ahmed Mohamed’s hashtag effect was taken as a singular, isolated incident rather than what it is: one more example of a flawed, racial profiling society that is systematically imposed on every student each day.” We can speculate that the only change that would come about as a result of this incident is other principals and administrators thinking twice before taking any action. The real issue of racial profiling remains unaddressed and consequently there isn’t any social change created.

Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Violation

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Saudi Arabia employer chops off Indian maid’s hand” is currently trending on Twitter. It involves a 58-year old Indian maid named Kasthuri working in Riyadh for three months. Ms. Kasthuri, who supports her family in India, was not being paid, faced abuse and was denied meals by her Saudi Arabian employers. It is alleged that she complained to the Saudi police and upon learning of this her female employer chopped off her arm.  India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, did lodge a formal complaint with authorities in Riyah. Furthermore, the Indian government intends to bring back Ms. Kasthuri to India. Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 6.56.09 PM

Kasthuri’s story is not an isolated incident. She is one of the 10.1 million expatriates (often referred to expats) living in Saudi Arabia. According to the economics reporting unit of the Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper, expats account for 33% of the Saudi Arabia’s population. Expats are generally separated into two categories: high-level and low-level. High-level expats mainly include skilled Westerners who move to Saudi Arabia to be professors, architects, financial analysts, etc. Low-level expats include waiters/waitresses, hotel staff, maids, nannies, drivers, housekeepers, and street cleaners, among others. Most of the low-level expats in Saudi Arabia seek employment in order to escape poverty in their home country. They come from many Asian, Southeast Asian, and African countries.  Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 6.57.09 PM

There are numerous reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA that documents the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of expats, in addition to the non-payment of wages, unlawful deportations, and beheadings by Saudi Arabian officials. The abuses are numerous! Another recent incident that comes to mind is that of “Saudi woman posts video of husband sexually abusing maid – and now faces jail.”  However, Saudi abuse has no borders and as seen in India where a Saudi diplomat and family were accused of raping, torturing 2 Nepali ‘slaves’. I should mention that the human rights violations taking place in Saudi Arabia also happens in many oil rich middle east countries including Kuwait.

One would expect with increasing publicity of human rights abuses taking place in Saudi Arabia will result in some sort of U.N. intervention. The opposite actually happened in September 2015. Saudi Arabia, one of the worst human rights abusers, is now heading an important United Nations panel on human rights. U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer told Newsweek in a statement it is “scandalous that the U.N. chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS to be head of a key human rights panel … petro-dollars and politics have trumped human rights.”

Back to the question – Can viral stories really create social change?

It seems like stories about human rights violations are short-lived until another story gains some traction until the next. In this cyclical process, each story becomes part of the digital noise on social media. Only through awareness, action and advocacy can viral stories create social change. By the nature of virality, people become aware of issues. Action requires people to voice their opinions of the issue while advocacy involves organizational and governmental action in addressing those issues. To this end, advocacy involves governments and organizations calling others to act. In regard to Saudi Arabian human rights violation social change can come about once organizations such as the U.N. and governments of developed nations hold the Saudi Arabian government responsible for these abuses. Can this be achieved through sanctions? Can governments forego Saudi Arabian oil and pursue aggressive sanctions? Time will tell.


  1. Interesting topic. As far as I know, Saudi Arabia is the only country whose government actively practices beheading, although decapitation is fairly commonplace in many parts of Africa and the Middle East in general. In reality none of the dozen or so countries that strictly follow Sharia Law are known for their humility, kindness, human rights, or justice.

  2. acoulombe13 · ·

    Really enjoyed your take on this issue. I learned a lot about it last week when I wrote my post and I think it takes some critical thinking to solve the problem that arises after the social media craze wears off. “Action requires people to voice their opinions of the issue while advocacy involves organizational and governmental action in addressing those issues.” You’re exactly right! Great post.

  3. There’s an interesting followup story to the Ahmed Mohammed story, in that some have argued that he didn’t actually make a clock, but deconstructed a typical store-bought alarm clock and designed it to look like a bomb. Not saying he should have been arrested, but it does make me rethink the prevailing narrative.

  4. Very interesting post. I especially like how you state the difference between awareness and advocacy. Stories come out everyday about human right abuses all over the world, but only a few become viral, and almost none turn into an actual movement calling for advocacy.

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