Egyptian protests, Twitter, and Facebook: How do social media tools enable revolutions?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 2 2011 12:56 PM

Did Twitter Make Them Do It?

The battle over social-media revolutions.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Egyptian protests.

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Whether he means it to or not, here Morozov's cyberskepticism renders a critique of Gladwell's cyber-indifference. If hard-line regimes are watching what their citizens do online, then by reaching out to an online community, even the most passive "slacktivist" is crossing a risk threshold and enrolling in a jointly risk-accepting community. The jailed bloggers of Egypt and Tunisia were well aware of this, and to me their blogging pales little in comparison with the courage of the Greensboro students who staged sit-ins.

"Networks," Gladwell says, "are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?" Gladwell poses the questions rhetorically, but people are asking it in earnest today in Tunisia and Egypt. "Scholars aren't the only ones who want to know whether social media played a role in the end of Ben Ali's reign," Ethan Zuckerman wrote in Foreign Policy on the day the Tunisian dictator fled. "It's likely to be a hot topic of conversation in Amman, Algiers, and Cairo, as other autocratic leaders wonder whether the bubbling cauldron of unemployment, street protests, and digital media could burn them next." Eleven days later, it did.

So, do social media and unfettered access to the Internet enable revolutions? (No serious commentator seems to claim that they cause them.) Each of our theorists is acting from a data deficit. The sample size is still small. In the wake of the Green Revolution's failure, Morozov's critique resonates. In the wake of Tunisia and Egypt, any insistence that social media played no role seems ridiculous, so we are reduced to arguing howbig a role it played. Or to posing counterfactuals. As Morozov recently put it, "had the events in Tunisia turned otherwise—with Mr. Ben Ali staying in office after a bloody crackdown—it is likely that his secret police would now be acting very much like Iran's, turning to social-networking sites to identify his opponents." That might be true, but it's little more than a reminder that it's bad for your health to attempt a revolution and fail. Gladwell also seems to want access to an alternate, experimentally controlled universe when he challenges Shirky: "[F]or his argument to be anything close to persuasive, he has to convince readers that in the absence of social media, those uprisings would not have been possible." Shirky essentially echoes Gladwell's Greensboro sit-in anecdote when he suggests that we ask the protesters themselves:

[T]he best practical reason to think that social media can help bring political change is that both dissidents and governments think they can. All over the world, activists believe in the utility of these tools and take steps to use them accordingly. And the governments they contend with think social media tools are powerful, too, and are willing to harass, arrest, exile, or kill users in response.

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As for the 21st-century statecrafters, Alec Ross, Clinton's senior advisor for innovation, admitted Monday that there has been some a sense of vindication in seeing

some of our theses ratified—everything from the rise of leaderless movements that don't have a Che Guevara figure in the background leading them, to how technology was distributing power in new and fascinating ways, to how movement-building would go from something that took six months, 12 months, 18 months into a matter of weeks. Connection technologies act as accelerants. They help compress time cycles.

Jared Cohen, no longer with the State Department and now working for Google, happened to be in Egypt when the protests broke out. During the Internet blackout he phoned his tweets out of the country by landline, among them: "I heard from Egyptians: tech makes weak ties stronger, links people in/out country, allows organizing in advance of total shutdown." And: "Every Egyptian I talked to on ground this week laughed when I told them some think tech was not a vital tool for organizing."

Ross would not be drawn into conclusions about Egypt, which is still in play, but he told me he thought the State Department had taken several lessons from Tunisia. It wasn't a "Twitter revolution," he said, but Twitter and Facebook played a role. More broadly, "Any movement involving youth or younger people has technology as a key component. There are no longer youth movements or tech movements as distinct efforts. That's a false distinction." Another lesson: "Younger people view the freedom to connect as a human right." If that is what the youth believe, it's important. A recent study on the so-called "youth bulge" showed that for 86 percent of countries experiencing new outbreaks of civil conflict in the previous five years, more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30.

The Egypt uprising could still end in bloodshed and disappointment for the protesters. Or the next uprising, somewhere else, could be put down as ruthlessly as Iran's Green Revolution. The debate about whether these technologies are a net bonus for democracy is not likely to end soon—quick freedom dividends may be as illusory as quick authoritarian victories, and one can imagine a serious escalation in the arms race of detection and circumvention software, as activists try both to protect their identities and organize meaningfully, and as regimes try to control information and disrupt the virtual assembly of their citizens without shutting off the whole pipe. A lot of people in positions of power are watching. The current crisis in Egypt does suggest that in a networked society, the price for holding on to power can become very steep very quickly. Who will pay it for the next uprising?

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Jesse Lichtenstein lives in Oregon. He wrote about digital diplomacy for the New York Times Magazine in July 2010.

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