One year ago, a revolution began in Egypt that still reverberates there — as well as among other repressive rulers and regimes in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and beyond, including thousands of miles away in New York City, where “Occupy Wall Street” protests in turn took root and then flowered into literally hundreds of similar protests all around the nation and the world. From Tunis to Tahrir Square — but also from London, Madrid and Rome to Athens, Tel Aviv and Tokyo — millions were on the march, demanding more respect, hope, dignity and democracy.
What, if anything, did it all have to do with the rise of social media?
Many observers, including, most prominently, U.S. President Barack Obama,proclaimed that social media had in fact played a key role in events, particularly in Egypt, where strongman Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled. Writing for the Reuters news agency, for example, Philip N. Howard, author of The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, noted, “It was social media that spread both the discontent and inspiring stories of success… into the Middle East.”
Months later, after analyzing more than 3 million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content and thousands of blog posts, Howard and other scholars at the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam published a study claiming “social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring.” Howard, an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington, said the evidence,
“suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”
During the week before Mubarak’s resignation, for example, the rate of tweets about political change in Egypt increased ten-fold and videos featuring protest and political commentary went viral, with the top two dozen receiving nearly five and a half million views. The amount of content produced in Facebook and political blogs by opposition groups also increased dramatically. “Among the lessons for the West,” Howardconcluded, were the facts that “a larger network of citizens now has political clout, largely because of social media,” and that “democratization has become more about social networks than political change driven by elites.”
Other researchers and scholars, however, are not so sure of the actual role social media played in facilitating the protests. Writing on nextgov.com, a web site devoted to “technology and the business of government,” Joseph Marks reported that although experts were in agreement that, “Something extraordinary happened at the nexus of social media and political action during the Arab spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa… [but] just what happened is less clear.” While Twitter and other social media had become a megaphone disseminating information about the uprisings to the outside world, Marks said, “a comprehensive study of Tweets about the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings” found that more than 75 percent of people who clicked on embedded Twitter links related to the uprisings were from outside the Arab world.
As one researcher, GWU associate professor John Sides, noted, “This obviously suggests that new media presents a tremendous opportunity to inform an international audience, but it also raises the question: ‘Will they be there tomorrow?'” Sides said public attention spans in the Western world are limited and cited Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution as an example. Although the Iranian events attracted a surge of international activity on Twitter, attention dwindled shortly after the death of pop icon Michael Jackson.
Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation at the U.S. State Department, supported the idea that social media had played a determinant role in the Arab Spring. Ross said the use of social media during the uprisings signaled the beginning of a “massive transfer of power from nation states and large institutions to individual and small institutions.” Other observers warned, however, that, “data on the role of social media during the Arab spring is so disparate and confusing it is nearly impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from it.”
Cyber-Realists Vs. Cyber-Utopians
The ongoing controversy over whether and to what extent social media helped create the democratic surge of the Arab Spring brought to the fore earlier disagreements between “cyber-utopians” and more skeptical “cyber-realists” such as Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Gladwell’s New Yorker article, headlined “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” created a storm of reaction — most of it negative — when it was published three months before the Egyptian uprising.
“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution,” Gladwell had written. “The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” Gladwell was convinced that those he derided as “digital evangelists” had, at the very least, vastly overstated the impact of social media on the new wave of political activism.
As evidence he cited reaction to the protests in both Iran and Moldova in 2009. When thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Moldova against their country’s government, Gladwell noted, “The action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together.” And when protests later erupted in Tehran, the U.S. State Department asked Twitter executives to suspend previously scheduled maintenance of the service so it could still be used as an organizing tool during the demonstrations.
Gladwell remembered derisively that former U.S. national-security adviser Mark Pfeifle had called for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and had said, “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy.” Gladwell also recalled former U.S. State Department official James K. Glassman telling a crowd of activists that sites like Facebook “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.”
These were “strong, and puzzling, claims,” Gladwell said. After all, “Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet?” Like Morozov, he believed “Moldova’s so-called Twitter Revolution” was impossible since very few Twitter accounts exist there. As for Iran, the people “tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West.”
Writing in Foreign Policy, Radio Free Europe correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari supported Gladwell’s conclusion. “Simply put: there was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran,” Esfandiari stated forthrightly. Twitter’s impact inside Iran was nil, she believed, as did the manager of one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, Mehdi Yahyanejad, whom Esfandiari quoted as saying, “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz. But once you look, you see most of it is Americans tweeting among themselves.” Those who disagreed, Esfandiari continued, were lazy and uninformed. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach — or didn’t bother reaching? — people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
Grandiose claims for new media forms were only to be expected, Gladwell concluded. “Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model.” But there was something else at work, as well: “in the outsized enthusiasm for social media… we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”
In reaction to the spate of claims that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were also Twitter or alternately, Facebook-inspired, Evgeny Morozov decried “cyber-utopians” who believe “the Arab spring has been driven by social networks.” In a post for the UK Guardian, Morozov argued that they “ignore the real-world activism underpinning them.”
Like Gladwell, Morozov is convinced, “The current fascination with technology-driven accounts of political change in the Middle East is likely to subside, for a number of reasons.” Accounts of the revolutions that emphasize the liberating role of social media tools function mostly to “make Americans feel proud of their own contribution to events in the Middle East. After all, the argument goes, such a spontaneous uprising wouldn’t have succeeded before Facebook was around — so Silicon Valley deserves a lion’s share of the credit.” He then added,
“Perhaps the outsize revolutionary claims for social media now circulating throughout the west are only a manifestation of western guilt for wasting so much time on social media: after all, if it helps to spread democracy in the Middle East, it can’t be all that bad to while away the hours ‘poking’ your friends and playing FarmVille.”
Social networks, these naysayers claim, are ill-suited to real-world activism and high-risk strategies such as those employed during Arab Spring — “boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations” — because they are messy, non-hierarchical, and cannot provide the necessary discipline and strategy. When taking on a powerful and organized establishment, Gladwell declared, “You have to be a hierarchy.”
The explanation for the fury of change, however, is more nuanced than either of the dueling cyber-camps is willing to admit, as a closer examination of the protests seems to suggest. In the North Africa/Middle East region, a pan-Arab collaboration of young activists skilled in the use of technology did, in fact, give birth to a new movement dedicated to spreading democracy. They were strategic and disciplined, even as they shied from hierarchy. They relied not only on tactics of nonviolent resistance but also those of marketing borrowed from Silicon Valley. Tunisians and Egyptians did share expertise and experiences with similar youth movements in Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Iran. “Tunis is the force that pushed Egypt, but what Egypt did will be the force that will push the world,” Walid Rachid, one of the members of the April 6 Youth Movement, which helped organize the protests that set off the Arab Spring, explainedto the New York Times.
That being said, it is also true that both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts were literally decades in the making. Speaking in June 2011 at the eighth annual Personal Democracy Forum, a procession of young Arab activists who had all been intimately involved in the spring revolts explained the process of how they and millions of supporters were “weaving a network for change” in their countries, and what role the emerging media played in making that happen. From Riadh Guerfali to Dr. Rasha Abdulla to Mona Eltahawy to Alaa Abdel Fattah, they noted the Arab Spring actions were emphatically not “Twitter” or “Facebook” revolutions that had coalesced online, but were instead the outcome of decades of networked resistance offline.
At the same time, they said, the revolts were clearly facilitated, and to some extent accelerated, by the decentralized organizing power of the new social media. The results of this offline/online action mashup were surprisingly successful revolutions that overthrew long-entrenched political forces. As Alaa Abdel Fattah pointed out, the roots of the revolution in Egypt went back as far as 1972 and efforts made by his parents’ generation. Ultimately, he explained, they had been stymied by a clever power structure that painstakingly divided and thus conquered the protesters, marginalizing some and buying others off with favor and access. Decades later, Fattah pointed out, the emerging social media suddenly made it possible “to make noises louder online, to build local movements with one narrative and then build them online to a mass movement.” As another speaker at the forum, Omoyele Sowore, explained, “The Internet has helped revolution; but the Internet is not revolution.”