This year, revolutionary fervor has swept the Arab world. The role of social media in those uprisings has been lauded, with the term “Twitter Revolution” becoming commonplace. But does social media deserve those plaudits? After all, there have been unarmed revolutions before, long before Web 2.0, such as the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989. One prominent sceptic is the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. He argues that social change is brought about by high risk meaningful activism, like the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s. Such movements are characterized by strong group cohesion, what he calls “strong ties”. In contrast, he says that social media promotes weak ties and low risk activism, so-called “slacktivism”. In Gladwell’s words, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things people do when they’re not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice”.
Gladwell also argues that social media networks are too disorganized to be an effective activist tool. Social media creates loose networks rather than strategic hierarchies. Finally, he argues that social media distracts people from “real” activism. In his words, “it makes it easier for activists to express themselves but harder for that expression to have any impact”.
Contrasted with Gladwell is the view of NYU academic Clay Shirky, who argues that social media is an unusually effective organizing tool. Shirky argues that the formation of a vibrant civil society and public sphere is a two-step process. Access to information and the media is the first step. The second step is active debate and conversation about that information. It is at that second step that one forms political opinions. As Shirky puts it, “access to information is less important than access to conversation”.
We need both to develop strong civil societies and spheres of public debate, which are essential to a healthy democratic culture and revolutionary change in an autocratic state. Also, it’s easier to want change and to do something when you know that others do too. Social media is a great facilitator of mass conversation, facilitating “many to many” communication, which facilitates synchronized actions by those many.
Furthermore, shutting down social media outlets, such as the internet and mobile phones, can entail great economic costs for a government. It can also upset those who are apathetic or even pro-government. For example, the “cute cat” theory of digital activism holds that it might be easy to shut down a single activist proxy server, but it’s harder to shut down popular sites where people share photos of cute cats.
How has social media played out in the Arab uprisings? The general cause of these uprisings is mass dissatisfaction with terrible rule, and, more recently, very high food prices and a dire economy. In Tunisia, the first domino, in early December, Wikileaks poured fuel on that fire by highlighting the luxury and corruption of the Ben Ali regime. In mid December came the desperate self immolation of the fruit seller Mohammed Bouazize in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. Bouazize’s protest spread all over the net, sparking, in Shirky’s language, conversations. And those outraged conversations grew into the mass demonstrations which overthrew Ben Ali a few weeks later on 14 January.
Investigating the tweets of the time, one can see a wellspring growing from the tag #sidibouzid, adopted in honour of Bouazize. On 30 December, a Tunisian calls out to the prolific tweeter, Stephen Fry, asking why the West was ignoring Tunisia. By 14 January everybody was paying attention, and on that day came a prescient tweet from Al Jazeera journalist Dima Khatib: “no Arab leader is sleeping tonight, #sidibouzid has invaded their bedrooms”. Almost immediately, Twitter was abuzz with a new tag, #jan25, signaling major upcoming protests in Egypt, along with an attitude of “we can do it too”. And they did, overthrowing Mubarak on 11 February.
Many “leaders” of the Egyptian protests had in fact been planning to use social media to organize an ongoing nonviolent struggle to overthrow the Egyptian government, as detailed in a New York Timespiece of 13 February. After Tunisia, they chose 25 January, a public holiday, as the day of protest. That one day of protest turned into many which forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak only 17 days later.
Bearing in mind Gladwell’s critique about social media building networks rather than hierarchies, it is interesting to note that the Arab protests have lacked a hierarchy. Traditional opposition bodies, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, had nothing to do with the organization of the protests. Instead, the “organizers” were people like Wael Ghonim, the administrator of the website, “We are all Khaled Said”, established in honour of a young man beaten to death by Egyptian police in 2010. Ghonim helped the protests to come about, but he didn’t lead them. Indeed, he disappeared early on in the protests at the hands of the police for 12 days. Despite Gladwell’s arguments, this loose, “weak” network overthrew a man so powerful he was known as “the Pharaoh”.
Where Gladwell’s theory may be more relevant is in the aftermath. There is much fear now that the revolution will be co-opted by more conservative but better organized groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s old political party. Having said that, I don’t underestimate the capacity of the youth to get back out on the streets to maintain the pressure and reclaim their revolution.
Another criticism of social media and revolutions, exemplified by people like Evgeny Morozov, is that it can be an authoritarian as well as a pro-democracy tool. For example, Iran, Belarus, and China have used the internet to identify, locate and target dissidents. This shows that revolution is always a dangerous business, and social media can be high-risk, contrary to the assertions of Gladwell. Clearly, a Twitter Revolution will find it hard to succeed if a regime responds with serious brutal force as did Iran in 2009 or Libya in 2011.
Just as social media conveys information, it can convey misinformation. And pro-human rights forces might be matched by authoritarian or other unsavoury messages. For example, text messages were a key in organising the Cronulla riots. After all, the platforms are neutral and can be used for good and bad causes. In response, there is the traditional pro-speech argument that hopefully “good speech” counters and drowns out “bad speech”.
A final point to note is that social media platforms are run by private businesses. Is it appropriate to place faith in such bodies as facilitators of a revolution? What if they are against a revolution? After all, the status quo often suits big business.
The US recently subpoenaed Twitter to hand over information on certain users associated with Wikileaks. Twitter informed those users, who are challenging the subpoena in court. However, Twitter didn’t have to tell those users. It could have just handed over the information without the users’ knowledge. In one famous instance a few years ago, Yahoo allegedly helped China identify a dissident, with grave consequences for that person. Subsequent concerns over the social responsibilities of internet companies prompted the creation of a global initiative to protect online privacy and free expression. The original participants were Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. Three years later, they remain the only participants. No one else, not Facebook or Twitter or anybody, has joined.
In the Arab revolutions, the behavior of Google has largely been praised. With Twitter it set up a “speak to tweet” service to get around Egyptian restrictions on the internet in the early days of the protests. Twitter has been openly proud of its role in the revolutions and in promoting freedom of expression generally. In contrast, Facebook has not publicly embraced the revolutions. For example, it has refused to change its policy against anonymity, despite requests from US legislators, even though anonymity is essential for activists in some countries. Facebook is currently ambivalent and perhaps even confused about its role regarding human rights and revolution.
In conclusion, social media played a major role in galvanizing and organizing protesters in the Arab world. It helped to break down the tight controls that certain States had over information and communication. Its “weak activism” led to serious risk-taking by thousands under some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. One cannot say whether the revolutions would have or could have happened without social media. I suggest it would have been slower, and probably a lot harder.
Sarah Joseph is the Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law