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.

Egyptian protest. Click image to expand.
Is there a final answer yet on social-media revolutions?

At some point, cable talking heads will cease to ask the question every time an autocratic regime gets caught off guard by its angry and apparently youthful citizenry: Did Twitter make them do it? Was this the Facebook revolution? But we're not there yet, and so those questions have been playing in heavy rotation over the last week.

The subject isn't merely academic, not since Hillary Clinton gave a speech last year elevating Internet freedom to a major plank in the U.S. foreign-policy platform. "New technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress," she said, "but the United States does. We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas." She described "the freedom to connect—the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the Internet, to websites, or to each other"—as a fundamental value (on par with FDR's Four Freedoms). Consequently, whether or not these connections can lead to viable movements for social change in hardened regimes has become a question not just for tech pundits but also for foreign-policy wonks.

I spent some time last year shadowing a few of the architects of the State Department's shift into the world of social media, shapers of and evangelizers for what they called 21st-century statecraft. At the time, much of the focus was on China and Iran. But several people told me that the really tough tests were yet to come—not with our adversaries, but with our allies. Sure enough, last Friday, Egypt went and turned off the Internet. Publicly and privately since then, senior U.S. officials have been leaning heavily on their Egyptian counterparts to turn it back on. (As of Wednesday morning, at least some Internet access has been restored.)

Why does Washington treat this as a major issue? Even if, for argument's sake, pressuring the Mubarak government to restore the Internet might go against our immediate national interest in the stability of an allied country in a volatile, oil-rich region? The State Department charges itself with advocating both for "universal" values and for the national interest, and while the confluence of these two was somewhat undefined during, say, the Iranian postelection protests a year and a half ago (when, of his own volition, Jared Cohen, then a junior diplomat, asked Twitter to keep the service up to help Iranian protesters), the State Department now says it has clearly-stated values and policy guidelines in place when it comes to Internet freedom. We're for it, unequivocally—"untethered," as a State Department official told me, "to a given political end."

This isn't altruism devoid of national interest, of course. By pressing for an open, uncensored, and unobstructed Internet, the State Department feels it is not only advocating for a fundamental human right, but also for the long-term interest of democracy and the welfare of the United States.

Yet this basic presumption—the long-term part of it—is untestable except in the field, and with each swing of the youth-revolt-in-Country-X pendulum, and with each American reaction, a gaggle of social-media gurus, foreign-policy enthusiasts, and counterfactual-loving journalists renew the debate.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt just happened to coincide with the appearance of a long article in Foreign Affairs by Clay Shirky, a leading advocate for the politically transformative potential of connection technologies, and a new book by Evgeny Morozov, the most dogged skeptic of democratizing claims made on behalf of Internet freedom and social media. Shirky was in part responding to an article in The New Yorker last fall by Malcolm Gladwell ("Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted"), which in turn was a response to an earlier book by Shirky and articles by Morozov. Shirky and Morozov have been going back and forth publicly for more than a year now. Two weeks ago, Gladwell published a letter in response to Shirky's latest article. Shirky wrote a response to Gladwell's response. Shirky left a comment on a Web site about Morozov's and Gladwell's positions. Morozov blogged about it. Shirky made another comment in response to Morozov's blog. I recommend you read all of it! If you're strapped for time, here's a quick visual guide: If you close your eyes and say the words "social networking," "Internet," "activism," and "freedom," you should then be able to picture Shirky with a cautious smile, Morozov with a determined frown, and Gladwell picking some lint off his shirt.

Morozov's book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, released 10 days before the protests in Tunisia forced dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee, is a detailed takedown of what Morozov sees as rampant "cyberutopianism" in the Beltway and among pundits. It's a check against a romantic view of connection technologies—that they are inherently democratic, that they favor the oppressed citizen over the oppressive government, the freedom-lover over the terrorist, or the activist over the "slacktivist" who protests child abuse by changing his Facebook profile picture to that of a cartoon character and calls it a day. The book is chock full of examples of the ways in which autocratic regimes can cotton on to Web 2.0 and then surveil, censor, propagandize, and persecute with the very same tools that are supposedly going to liberate the world. Morozov questions whether it's wise to assume that providing unfettered Internet access to police states will lead to meaningful political discourse among their citizens. Might they not just enjoy large helpings of lolcats and YouTube videos of people falling down? These arguments are all useful correctives if you've ever found yourself getting breathless about the Internet, and yet I'm not convinced that Morozov's host of potential bad outcomes are worse than the potentially good outcomes are good. Nor, fundamentally, that the risks of defying a totalitarian regime—an inherently dodgy undertaking, whether you assemble your confederates via Facebook, word of mouth, or coded messages on parchment—have increased all that much over the centuries. Unless somehow it's the case that today's activists and revolutionaries are uniquely careless and don't realize the risks they are taking.

Risk-taking is a focal point for Gladwell. He lays out how the courage of activists like the four black college students who, in 1960, staged a lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., was forged from strong personal bonds among those four people. Strong bonds—formed over time, face-to-face—help commit people to dangerous activism, Gladwell says. We know this because someone later took the trouble to ask the protesters. Social media, on the other hand, promotes weak bonds. Weak bonds, nonhierarchical networks, and the instruments of social media

are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

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.

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.