Social Media and the Arab Spring

This post reviews the reading this week that covers social media and its role in the Arab Spring.  The article A “Cute” Facebook Revolution? by Basem Fathy posits that the 2011 Egyptian Revolution was neither one purely borne out of social media, nor one that was pre-meditated, pre-planned  and carefully pre-conceived.  It says instead that this revolution was ten years in the making, with offline actions and activism preceding the same online, and that the organization was loose and non-hierarchical.  Fathy also makes a seemingly innocuous-looking point in his conclusion that the pouring of people onto Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011 was the result of the Egyptian government clamping down on the internet and preventing people from viewing events unfold online.  This last point ties in with Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory, which says that social media sites are fertile places for dissident movements to start.  This is because when authoritarian regimes shut down sites like Youtube, the masses who use such sites to look at cute cats sit up and take notice.

A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History by Kirkpatrick and Sanger is an excellent summary of how the Mubarak government was brought down; owing in no small part to the roles played by Egyptian bloggers and Wael Ghonim’s activism on Facebook.  Tufekci’s article The #freemona Perfect Storm is an excellent anecdotal piece on how Twitter was used to mobilize action to release an Egyptian-American writer from Egyptian captivity.  Finally, The Net Delusion (afterword to the book here) is Evgeny Morozov’s argument about how those who think the Internet is the ultimate liberator are sorely mistaken.

There is absolutely no doubting the major role played by online social media in the series of dissident movements in the Arab Spring.  This is only the latest instance of the mobilizing power of the Internet and social networks.  The earliest internet-facilitated mobilization I can personally recall was just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  According to some estimates, a total of 36 million people were mobilized for protests against this war from January to April that year.  From these readings though, one moves away from the simplistic claims of social media as the harbinger of global democratization and liberation, to the more sober realization that there is so much more to just social media generating movements and liberating masses.

Consider the humble telephone.  A great piece of technology in its time, it connects people, enables them to communicate, and even though communication is point-to-point, it can, with repeated use, enable groups of like-minded people to gather at one place to partake of an activity of common interest.  Much like social media, it can be (and indeed has been) used for benevolent and malevolent ends, and is a useful—in times gone by, essential—tool for those who seek to organize.  It is plausible to imagine that with its invention and proliferation in the late 19th century, people might have been wildly optimistic about the good things it could bring to humankind.

Yet, more than 125 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the apparatus to telegraphically transmit sound, it is inconceivable that one might hail the telephone as the technology to liberate longsuffering peoples and democratize societies.  This is because, having thoroughly understood what the telephone is about, we know what it is capable of achieving, what its role in life is, how it can be manipulated, and when over-grandiose claims about what it brings to our lives is just hot air.

And so it could prove to be with social media.  We have seen what it can do in democracy movements.  But just as one swallow makes not a summer, it is much more prudent to not just make conclusions from the information that is easily available (what I learn from Todd Rogers’ behavioral science class as the availability heuristic).  Rather, there is a need to synthesize as well the information that is not easily apparent, and that which is not available at all (meaning, we need to go search and research).

It has only been ten years since social media burst into the scene, and there is much about it that is not yet known and understood.  While I applaud the pivotal role social media has played in liberation movements and other mobilizations that make for a better world, I am nevertheless clear on two things about it: one, that it is a vehicle and a tool (or perhaps, weapon) that serves the intention of the one who wields it; two, 125 years from now, we would label it just as what it fundamentally is—a great piece of technology, no more, no less.

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