Sunday, January 30, 2011

Political Turmoil and the Internet in Africa

On December 17, a young Tunisian college grad, frustrated by his inability to find a job and the harassment he received from the police, publicly set himself on fire and, in effect, set off an explosive chain of events that would change the political landscape of his country forever. In just the last few months, there has been an unprecedented surge in the continent's political instability. The dictator of Tunisia has been ousted; the former president of Cote d'Ivoire hanging onto his post despite calls from a united international community to step down, and the most recent anti-government riots in Egypt calling for the resignation of the country's leader. Technology has played an pivotal role in each of these situations, whether by its innovative use, as a tool for governmental oppression, or by its notable absence. 

The phrase "Twitter Revolution" has been used more than once in the recent past, and there has been a great deal of debate over whether the designation is indeed accurate. The anticommunist protests in Moldova and the Iranian post-election riots in 2009 were both dubbed Twitter revolutions, but how big a role Twitter, or social media more broadly, played has been a hotly contested topic. Popular science writer, Malcolm Gladwell, went on record in October 2010 saying that social media was not a suitable tool for real, high-risk social movements, that social media was great for maintaining a broad network of weak ties, but that strong ties were the prerequisite for high-risk behavior. Many Internet pundits were quick to jump on Gladwell after the debacle in Tunisia, where social media has played a clear and substantial role.

One of the major points against Gladwell was that he seemed to conflate social media's use as a tool with social media as a cause for social change. Yes, social media allows you to maintain lots of weak-tie relationships, but it also acts as a powerful, distributed communication platform that has been transforming the very model of mass media. Before Twitter, Facebook, et al., there were relatively few channels for communicating information to the masses. Now there are multitudes. Before, only a very few people controlled the message that reached the public; now anyone in an Internet society with a Twitter account can command millions of followers. As one of his main points, Gladwell talks about the civil rights movement in the US. He states that there was no need for this brand of social media for people to engage in collective action because 98% of the black population could be reached at church on Sunday mornings. It doesn't take a scientist though to see that his point is purely anecdotal. Not all societies have a physical venue where social leaders can reach masses of people. In some societies, the only option is virtual, a situation that is even more true in the case of particularly repressive governments.

All of this is exactly what we're seeing happen in Tunisia and now Egypt. Twitter is being used to coordinate logistics. Facebook and YouTube are being used to broadcast pictures and videos of the protests. Social media is being used to incite people toward action whereas before they might have felt isolated, alone, and afraid to act. Clearly some people in Egypt's leadership viewed social media as such a powerful platform that the government took the unprecedented step to cut off almost the entire nation's access to the Internet. What sort of effect this will have on the riots will be interesting to see. While it may disrupt coordination, I've also heard that people who might have otherwise turned to the Internet to vent their frustration are now taking it to the streets instead. The point of no return may already be past for the Egyptian government. 

The most fascinating piece of the puzzle to me is the stark contrast in what we've seen happen in Cote d'Ivoire. November of 2010 saw the first elections in Cote d'Ivoire in many, many years. The elections were supposed to have taken place in 2005, but were ultimately put off year after year. The race pitted two men against each other: then president Laurent Gbagbo and former prime minister Alassane Ouattara. When all was said and done, the Independent Electoral Commission announced Ouattara as the victor, a result that was confirmed by a number of international observers including the United Nations. However, the Gbagbo government was quick to call the results invalid, and ever since the country has been caught in a standstill with neither man willing to back down.

The interesting part of all of this to me is the stark contrast it provides to the other two African states: there has been neither any comparable popular uprising or any such widespread use of social media to organize. (As a point of reference, Internet penetration in Cote d'Ivoire stands at less than 5% whereas Egypt and Tunisia stand at 21% and 34%, respectively.) Without these means of mass-to-mass communication, Gbagbo has been able to retain control of the media within the country and frame the situation in a way that purely suits his needs. While I wouldn't go so far as to conjecture that the lack of Internet usage in Cote d'Ivoire is the root reason for the lack of an uprising, it seems clear that it has played a role.

What do you think? Does social media have the potential to play a substantial part in social change?

Further Reading:


Randy said...

Another superb post in a series. Thanks, Ben! I get more out of reading your Blog from Africa than reading a typical article in the civil media like, say, "The Economist" magazine. Randy

Benjamin Cole said...

Wow, thank you!

jashap said...

Hi Ben --

A few points:

First of all, the company I work for wrote on the use of social media in situations like these. The link is here:
While we definitely see the things that social media can do in situations of social change, it also has some disadvantages to consider.

On a separate but related note -- why should Gladwell's anecdotal example be any less legitimate because anecdotal? It's true, after all, and if you want to be strictly empirical about it, plenty of revolutions happened before social media -- obviously there were (and are) other mechanisms used to get messages out.

Second of all, you compared Ivory Coast with Tunisia and Egypt on the basis of internet connectivity. The problem with your comparison is that Ivory Coast is a fundamentally different situation. Ivory Coast fought a civil war in the last 10 years between the north and south because pretty much all of its agricultural and economic production is located in the south (that region produces a huge amount of the world's yearly supply of cocoa). Consequently, the north has never controlled the government. Ouatarra is a northerner, Gbagbo a southerner, so while Ouatarra does have the support of a significant chunk of the population (the election results were not that clear cut -- one council ruled Ouatarra lost), the south backs the current president -- so that means all the people who run the economy and the people who are paid form that profit -- the army. I'd also point out that many in the Ivory Coast feel as if the outside world (i.e. the West) is trying to supplant Gbagbo and install their own leader in Ouatarra -- all these countries are very sensitive to being influenced like that from the outside, and it puts Ouatarra at a disadvantage that perhaps his strongest supports are in the international community. And the last Ivory Coast election wasn't that long ago -- Gbagbo was elected in 2000.

Aside from that, Tunisia and Egypt are both Arab countries, and there is something to be said for looking at the longer historical narrative of Arab political history over the past 100 years as differently than what's been going on in Ivory Coast. Though I would grant that all live in the shadow of their encounter of colonialism, I would argue there's a bit of a difference between an Arab state and an African state, though I am in danger of essentializing a little with that argument.

Speaking of colonies, while I've been reading, I've always wondered how you came to choose on a title like "Google's Man in Africa." Doesn't it feel a tad...imperialistic?

All that being said, I've been enjoying following your blog! Keep it up! Hope all's well.



Benjamin Cole said...

Hey Jacob,

Thanks so much for the thoughtful response! My greatest goal writing a piece like this is to be thought provoking. I'm the first to admit that these posts with hypotheses are just that and nothing more. The article you linked to does an excellent job examining the the argument from all sides of the issue, though it also has a bit of the scent of hypocrisy that bothers me from both ends of this debate. It's nearly impossible to find an article that really has a balanced examination, that discusses both the pros and cons of social media as a tool for social change and also puts it in the context of media and social change more generally. In this case, and in many of the other articles I've read, the author talks about the disadvantages of social media as a tool for social change without comparing it to any other tool for social change. Many of the claims about how social media can be used to track or oppress citizens are totally valid, but the same goes for just about any other organizational tool. Just as revolutions happened before social media, so did oppression and governments using citizens' tactics against them. I'm certainly not a cyber-utopianist, but I do think these tools play a powerful role, and it irks me a little bit when people talk about them without giving the background and context in which they exist. No, social media does not cause revolutions. No, social media is not and will never be a panacea for revolutionaries looking to organize. But it is a shift in the way that organization happens.

To your second point, my gripe with Gladwell runs much deeper than this instance. He has an excellent way of communicating ideas in a way that's accessible, but he also often seems to make grand assumptions based on anecdotal evidence. That just bothers me generally.

I'm fully aware that Ivory Coast is a fundamentally different case from Egypt and Tunisia, but I still think the comparison is warranted, if not for any other reason than temporal proximity. To your point that the citizens of Ivory Coast think that the west is trying to supplant its leadership, I would actually posit that this fact actually supports my hypothesis. As I mentioned, the old model of mass communication (one-to-many) allows a ruler to control/distort the message that gets to the people. The new model of mass communication (many-to-many) makes this much more difficult. And I'd say 11 years is a pretty long time for an election, especially when one was supposed to happen in the interim. ;-)

As for the title of my blog, I do confess I had a bit of trouble with it. It's actually inaccurate on a number of levels: I'm not the only person working for Google here, and I certainly don't spend all my time in Africa, but hey, it's what I've got. I've thought about changing it to "The Roving Technologist", but that doesn't have quite the same flare. Whether or not it's imperialistic is up for interpretation, I suppose. After consulting my resident Nigerian friends, they didn't seem to consider it so. The origin of the name is actually from the expression So-and-so's Man in Washington, which I just happen to think sounds cool, though, granted, doesn't have the greatest connotations.

Anyway, thanks again for your insights on the subject. You certainly know more about the backgrounds of the countries involved than I do, so I'm definitely happy to learn more there. Glad you're enjoying the blog; I hope to see more comments/responses from you in the future.

All the best!