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?
- Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted, by Malcom Gladwell (The New Yorker: Oct 4, 2010)
- Tunisia Teaching Gladwell, by Geoff Livingston (Jan 24, 2011)
- What if Tunisia had a revolution, but nobody watched?, by Ethan Zuckerman (My Heart's in Accra: Jan 12, 2011)
- Egypt Cuts Off Most Internet and Cell Services, by Matt Richtel (NYT: Jan 28, 2011)