It’s rare that you go to an event these days where a person doesn’t take out their smartphone. In the 10 years since the iPhone was first released, smartphone images posted to social media have sparked protests and provided crucial evidence to the authorities, as well as allowed citizens unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to public figures. There are now over two billion smartphones in use worldwide, including 700 million iPhones. Their influence in undeniable, and perhaps best illustrated by those images snapped in the spur of the moment that ended up making history.
1. Arab Spring: How Phones Helped Create a Movement
Mohamed Bouazizi was a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor who supported his mother and six siblings with his job. Bouazizi didn’t have a permit to sell his fruit. When he refused to turn over his wooden cart to a policewoman, she slapped him. In response to the harassment and public humiliation he felt, Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in front of a government building. His act of desperation launched three years of anti-government uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
The protests were captured on smartphones and uploaded to social media, helping to motivate and organize the movement in more than 20 countries. On January 25, thousands of citizens gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the corruption that was occurring within their government. After 18 days of protests, President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by the military, ending his nearly 30-year rule.
2. Texts from Hillary: The Photo that Caused a Frenzy
Aboard a flight to Tripoli, Libya, a photo of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was taken. She was wearing sunglasses and looking at her Blackberry. Five months later, the photo went viral when it became the central image in the “Texts from Hillary” Internet meme that imagined text messages between Clinton and other cultural and political leaders like President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Meryl Streep. That just-for-fun meme inspired a government official, Clarence Finney, to inquire about the status of Clinton’s State Department email account.
While his question at the time was largely ignored, the status of her email account became a major talking point in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Batches of Hillary’s emails were released starting in 2015 when inquiries into her handling of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, began. Among the emails released is an exchange between Clinton and one of her aides, Cheryl Mills, where she expresses surprise over her sunglass photo going viral so long after it was taken.
3. Boston Marathon Bombing: Shaky Smartphone Videos Provide Footage
An eye-witness, Ryan Hoyme, captured the second explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 on his smartphone. The two bombs were detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and injuring hundreds. While shaky smartphone video provided hard-to-watch images to the public, they were also reviewed by authorities to try and piece together the events of this tragedy. In fact, the Boston police actively sought out amateur, eye-witness videos. YouTube and Vine were two main platforms the public used to upload their videos.
After releasing two surveillance video images of the suspects, the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified the culprits, brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Tamerlan died after sustaining several gunshot wounds from a shoot-out with authorities and ultimately being run over by his brother who was fleeing the scene in a stolen car. What followed was an unprecedented manhunt for the younger brother, Dzhokhar. He was eventually found hiding in a boat that was parked in the backyard of a local Boston home. Dzhokhar was tried in Massachusetts, where the death penalty has been outlawed since 1984. Federal prosecutors, however, can still seek a death sentence. On May 15, 2015, a federal court sentenced Dzhokhar to death.
4. Out of this World: The First Instagram From Space
Astronaut Steven “Swanny” Swanson took a selfie from the International Space Station’s seven-window observatory module and posted it to social media. With the caption “Back on ISS, life is good. – Swanny,” he became the first person to ever Instagram from outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The post garnered over 10,000 likes. To date, Instagram has over 700 million monthly active users, 1 million advertisers and 8 million businesses with profiles.
5. The Rallying Cry of a Movement: Eric Garner
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner died on Staten Island after an officer of the New York City Police Department put him into a chokehold—a tactic prohibited by the NYPD. His death, and previous confrontation with authorities, was captured on video with a phone. Plain clothes officer approached Garner, who can be heard telling the police to leave him alone, explaining that he wasn’t doing anything. After about a minute, the officers decide to arrest Garner, putting him in a chokehold. In the video Garner can he heard saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times. After emergency services arrive, no one attempts to resuscitate him or provide him with oxygen for minutes.
The medical examiner was able to use the footage to help determine the cause of death—cardiac arrest due to the chokehold and compression to his chest as the handcuffs were put on his body. Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe” became a national rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement. The 29-year-old police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted by a Grand Jury for Garner’s death. But New York City settled with Garner’s family for $5.9 million.
6. @POTUS Joins Twitter: Obama Becomes the First President to Use Social Media
“Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack. Really! Six years in, they’re finally giving me my own account.” With this 48-character tweet sent out sent out on May 18, 2015, the 44th president of the United States became the first sitting U.S. president to use social media. Obama was not only the first president to tweet from @POTUS on Twitter, but also the first to go live on Facebook and to use a filter on Snapchat.
While the president joining social media was a sign of the times, Facebook has been around since 2004, Twitter since 2006 and Snapchat since 2011—his predecessor George W. Bush could have been the first. In today’s world it’s hard to imagine a president not on social media, but less than three years ago that was the case.
7. Pokémon Go: Catch ‘em all
First launched on July 6, 2016, in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, this location-based smartphone game swept the world. Created by Niantic, a software development company based in San Francisco, it’s estimated that the game, at its height, had 9.5 million daily active users locating, capturing, battling and training virtual Pokémon. It wasn’t just fun and games though—Pokémon Go led to a few unwelcome surprises. Three women were out hunting for virtual characters when they stumbled upon a dead body in the bushes near a creek bed in a San Diego park. In a case of reality spoiling virtual reality, the game has also distracted some players from real-life dangers in their path. To date, there have been 14 deaths and 54 injuries reported in relation to Pokémon Go.
8. Facebook Live: The Murder of an 11-Month-Old
Jiranuch Trirat, a 22-year-old mother from Phuket, Thailand, was with her brother on the evening of April 24, 2017 when he logged into his Facebook account. They were scrolling through his page, when Trirat saw her boyfriend streaming a live video. She saw Wuttisan Wongtalay hang their 11-month-old daughter Natalie from the side of an abandoned building before killing himself. Completely distraught, she alerted the police. Facebook kept the video up for 24 hours despite a huge outcry. The Thai media came under fire for publishing the gruesome images. It sparked worldwide outrage and fear of copycat killings.