Social networks and revolutionary change: “The Twitter revolution”.

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Since the civil upheaval in Moldavia in 2009, whenever a revolution is in the making the term “twitter revolution” comes around. The term raises the question of if, and how strongly, social networks like Facebook or Twitter can shape these social movements. The debate was given a major boost last spring when an article in the “New Yorker”, ‘Small Changes’ by Malcolm Gladwell summarized that “the revolution will not be tweeted’. He based this conclusion on a comparative analysis between the activism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the USA and the recent ‘arabellion’. The former was eventually successful because of a considerable degree of often hierarchical organization, the readiness to take high risks of real sacrifices and strong personal ties between the protagonists. Of course, this cannot be said about the activities labeled as “internet activism”. This support is not organized, is for most followers riskless, and the ties between people involved are weak. In fact, Gladwell argues that the internet actually reduces motivation in activism by providing a means of less or more symbolic participation, for example by pressing a “like” button. Finally, the bases of the success for Martin Luther King’s movement were discipline and strategy, both elements which are missing in social networking.
This provocative article sparked a serious debate on the impact of social media. A series of studies tried to clarify the issue by analyzing Twitter data which, according to Rebecca Greenfield in the ‘Atlantic’ revealed mixed results. The number of “tweets” evidently rose considerably, but it is virtually impossible to say from whence they came and what actual impact they had. In addition, the studies lacked a detailed analysis, in this case of the decisive interactions in the Arabic language.
Nevertheless, there does seem to be some agreement that social networks do not contribute particularly to the workings of these movements. In fact, it is sometimes overlooked that the movements of the ‘arabellion’ are much more inspired by the concrete realities of rising food prices, massive unemployment and corrupt oppression than by the abstract concept of freedom. The internet still only plays a minor role in countries like Egypt which has an illiteracy rate of close to 30 per cent. Internet users are in the minority and stem from the more affluent strata of society who are able to cover the high costs of internet usage. With this background, many observers point to the pivotal role of television, especially the station El Gasira which broadcasts in Arabic. In addition, there is a striking analogy to the civil rights movement in the USA with regard to centralized information points. Gladwell points out that at that time 98 per cent of the black population could be reached in churches on Sunday. It may not be 98 per cent, but a vast majority of the population in the arabellion countries can likewise be reached in the mosques. Most demonstrations actually started after worshipping together on Fridays.
However, the internet not only has its limits when it comes to social activation and information but can also be a risky means of personal communication. It is a proven fact that countries like Syria and Libya bought sophisticated technology to monitor and control network activity. At the end of April 2011 Egypt effectively shut down the internet completely for some days, activists using the internet are in imminent danger to be singled out electronically and tracked down personally. Communication by word of mouth, personal meetings and crowds are much more secure and safer forms of co-operative activism.
With this background the role of the internet would appear to be limited when it comes to the organization of national protests. With its limited access and the prominent role of English in communication, the extent of its local contact can be brought into question. However, the internet can be invaluable in the distribution of information to and from the outside world. Many reputable news organizations take up videos posted on You Tube and also millions of people follow groups and channels on Facebook and Twitter. The internet can therefore serve as the central multiplier of information on an international level. For individuals who are discredited as ‘bandits’, ‘dissidents’ and ‘minorities’ in their own homeland, it is comforting and reassuring to feel that they have broad international support. In addition, internet social media can help to organize this international support. Names which have become known and events which are documented are leads which can be followed by the press and also at an institutional level. The internet may also play a major part in the post revolutionary stage when the ground for a new form of government is established.
Social networks can therefore play a significant role in the current social revolutions, but the indirect effects on the international level may be more significant than the direct ones at the local level. The social media on the internet can give revolutions a voice, however, it needs much more than this to succeed. Some democratic movements still have a very hard time and for some arabellion revolutions it is also too early to state that they have in fact succeeded.
It comes as no real surprise therefore that the internet and the media may be of some help, if not always decisively. Probably the most influential revolution, the French Revolution of 1889, had, and did, succeed without it. It is not certain that Marie Antoinette really said “Let them eat cake” in relation to the people protesting about high bread prices, but the slogan nevertheless became famous. However much we admire the speed of information relayed over the internet, it shows that important news has always travelled fast.