The Revolution will be tweeted. Or will it?

by Alan Zisman 2011

So-called social media have become increasingly popular in the past few years – web services including Facebook (with over 600 million users) and Twitter (with over 200 million users) where anyone, at least anyone with Internet access, can set up an account and share what they’re thinking with ‘friends’ and ‘followers’.

Also increasingly popular – suggestions in the mainstream media that these sorts of services play a critical role in mass protest movements.

Arab SpringWhen mass protests swept Iran in following 2009 elections, the US State
Department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled system updates to make sure that Twitter remained available to the protesters. US security analysis Mark Pfeifl suggested, “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” There was talk of nominating Twitter for a Nobel peace prize.

Early in 2011, in the midst of its own series of mass protests, the Egyptian government cut off nearly all Internet access within the country for five days, hoping to remove the protesters from these organizing tools.

It’s not just limited to the third world. In 2008, the Obama campaign made social media one of their tools to mobilize voters and raise funds. Locally, Facebook was used by organizers of the anti-HST movement, who gathered over a quarter of a million members of two anti-HST Facebook protest groups. (It’s not limited to left-wing protest movements, of course. Right wing and racist movements can also use social media as organizing tools).

Of course, there have been mass protests and revolutions prior to social media. During 1991’s attempted coup in the (then) Soviet Union, mass opposition to the coup was reportedly organized using a de facto network of fax machines, for instance.

Not everyone agrees that social movements are inevitably empowered by social media, however. In “The Net Delusion”, Evgeny Morozov critiques what he refers to as ‘cyber-utopianism’, suggesting that technology can be used to enslave as readily as to liberate. He notes that during the 2009 protests, few Iranians were actually Twitter users. Instead, he points out, Iranian exiles were far more active on Twitter than Iranians within the country, accounting for the bulk of the Twitter messages about the elections and ensuing protests.

Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell) gives his views on ‘why the revolution will not be tweeted’. He suggests that while social networks make it relatively easy to build large groups, they are connected with what he considers ‘weak ties’; it’s perhaps too easy to click ‘Like’ on a Facebook page promoting a cause. Gladwell contrasts that to the small groups of activists whose civil disobedience shook segregation in the US South in the 1950s and 60s. In his opinion, Facebook groups can easily get thousands to join up because they don’t ask too much of them – in stark contrast to being asked to risk imprisonment or beating by sitting in at a segregated lunch counter.

He points out that “the Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece”, implying that Facebook activism is like Facebook friendship – broad but shallow.

On April 9th, Adel Iskandar of Georgetown University’s Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies was interviewed on Coop Radio’s Redeye show. (You can hear or download the interview at http://www.coopradio.org/station/archives/62 - select April 9, 2011, 9 am).
He reported that a Facebook page ‘We're all Khaled Said’ played a key role at the start of this year’s protests in Egypt. The page, attacking corruption and abuse of power by Egypt’s police’ had garnered 430,000 followers and was the first to call for protests for January 25. He noted, however, that while 60% of Egypt’s population is under 30, only a minority has access to the Internet or social media.

As Iskandar describes it, the January 25th protest became successful because organizing for it spread beyond Facebook – first through satellite TV and opposition and human rights groups, and finally through direct appeals to residents of Cairo’s poorer neighbourhoods. When the Egyptian government was successful in turning off the Internet for five days, this became more apparent – social media played a role, but organizing had to go beyond it to succeed.

After Net access was restored, as with the 2009 Iranian events, social media played an important role in informing people outside the country about what was happening with the protests. Iskandar’s perspective: social media can be used to create portals for communication that otherwise would not exist. This can be an important component for a modern social movement, but isn’t going to determine whether a revolution will succeed or fail.




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