Revolutions: Don’t Shoot the Social Media Messenger

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Image is from NorthJerseyMusic

As we watch protestors risk their lives and demand governmental change in Egypt, a secondary news story has evolved. Pundits are actively debating the role (or lack thereof) that social media and the Internet played in sparking the Egyptian protests, Tunisia’s revolution, and Yemen’s unrest. There’s a whole camp of Malcolm Gladwell-esque voices who bitterly claim only revolutionaries make revolts, social media has no valuable role in the discussion. To deny the use of new tools as exciting and noteworthy in a revolution is a mistake. It’s the equivalent of shooting the messenger, the poor soul carrying information between warring parties.

At the same time, one can see how statements like “the same Web tools that so many Americans use to keep up with college pals and post passing thoughts have a more noble role as well, as a scourge of despotism,” would fuel such angst. Like the messenger, social media is just a communications tool set, and perhaps not even the most powerful one at play.

Consider Al Jazeera’s incredible role in covering the events to date, particularly given that the U.S.-based media was focused on domestic events until the past few days. Al Jazeera’s coverage has been outstanding. Just this morning Egypt shut down Al Jazeera‘s local offices.

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The best testimony about social media’s role in these events has to be the efforts of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments to thwart or completely cut off the Internet. As you can see from the above chart published on Mashable, the Internet became a critical communications point leading up to the events of the past few days. It’s no wonder that the autocratic Mubarek regime sought to protect its own power by cutting the Internet.

It should be noted that the protests have significantly escalated since the proverbial kill switch was hit on the Egyptian Internet. So at best social’s role can only be painted as a catalyst, and not the ultimate factor.

Perhaps the most sane analysis of the debate about social media’s role came from Jeremy Littau: “So of course social media caused the uprising in Egypt, and of course it didn’t. It truly is both and to try and pin it on one type of public is too simplistic. It’s never one thing.” Indeed, there are many, many factors at play in the Egyptian protest, most importantly the willingness of individuals to publicly stand against oppression.

Stories, Carrier Pigeons and Prayers

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People complaining about stories debating social media’s role will likely remain frustrated. The ongoing conversation is an inevitable story, and rightly so. The fast, networked decentralized capability that social brings to revolutionaries and protesters is incredible. That sword cuts both ways, too. Autocrats can use social media to identify and monitor networks of dissidents!

Framing the argument around using online tools to better activities makes a ton of sense. The tools have evolved, but historically there have always been ways to spread the word in times of unease. Messengers and carrier pigeons were used before the telegraph and radio, which preceded television and email. All were used historically for revolutionary purposes to galvanize human networks, as well as to oppress whole countries and commit genocide. As you can see, it was not the tools, but the people who used them to deliver their messages. Yet watching this week’s conversation, if social media were a carrier pigeon it’s already been well roasted by its various masters.

Expect to see a lot more discussion on the role of social media in the Arab world’s 2011 uprisings. But know until either Twitter or Facebook releases statistical data (if ever) about in country use of the tools preceding and during the revolutionary events, it’s strictly conjecture.

We just know that in some ways, these tools have lent themselves to a higher purpose than talking about Kim Kardashian’s marketing on Twitter. And that’s a great thing. But it pales in comparison to freedom and change in an autocratic regime.

Lest we get too exited about the tools, let’s not forget that people have died. The people are the one’s shouldering the risk invoking this would-be change. So our prayers should go to those souls who are fighting the good fight in Egypt. May there be as little bloodshed as possible.

What do you think of the ongoing debate about social media’s role in the Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemenian uprisings?

Related Reading: Tunisia Teaching Gladwell, Beth Kanter’s Spotlight on Social Media, Crowdsourced Translation, Egyptian Protests and Diplomacy.

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  • http://www.ann-sense.com/ Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR

    Social media has emerged as another channel to organize and get information out to the masses when traditional media is tightly controlled. Cafes and churches were where many organizing happened using word-of-mouth, social media now amplifies the message reaching people not in the neighborhood circle. Many governments are behind the curve in understanding and using social media so they react they only way they know how by plugging the plug.

    • Anonymous

      It’s a way to circumnavigate control. For sure. It can be used the other way though by savvy and nasty governments. I guess once again, it’s but a tool. Good comment, thanks for visiting Ann Marie!

  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    I wish the debate had come after the safe fate of the people involved was secured. However, since we’re in the real world, as you said, these new media tools are communication devices. It shifts the rhetoric is focus for me to think, “what if I joined a people’s revolt about poverty in America, and every phone in the US had gone dead?”

    It’s an issue that transcends the story but doesn’t eclipse it. At the moment, I’m much more focused on thinking how I could possibly help those people who can’t even communicate what they need. I wonder if outside Aid, not necessarily the US, is going to get involved. I wonder how much we would have heard about the story had various regimes not attempted to subvert attempts at communication with the outside world.

    Even a bloodless revolt is an extraordinarily tense, potentially scary thing. I’ve only a shading of a memory of being present during one. But the feeling is unreal, like being forced to jump off a cliff blindfolded, with no prior knowledge of whether your fall with be a few inches or a few miles. So my heart goes out to the people willingingly or unwillingly involved in the struggles.

    • Anonymous

      Well, I kind of see it as social media use was cut before things escalated, and that was the first dramatic, “Oh,” moment for folks throughout the world. I definitely agree with this statement, “It’s an issue that transcends the story but doesn’t eclipse it.” And we would all be smart to remember that if we do talk about social’s use by dissidents as events go on. I feel like if this gets much bloodier the conversation will be tabled, though.

    • Anonymous

      Well, I kind of see it as social media use was cut before things escalated, and that was the first dramatic, “Oh,” moment for folks throughout the world. I definitely agree with this statement, “It’s an issue that transcends the story but doesn’t eclipse it.” And we would all be smart to remember that if we do talk about social’s use by dissidents as events go on. I feel like if this gets much bloodier the conversation will be tabled, though.

  • http://twitter.com/rupertmike Mike Rupert

    Excellent points Geoff. From an American perspective, I think it is great that social media has almost forced these issues to be covered by US media outlets and raise awareness among casual news followers. As most of the international bureaus for MSM have been shut down in recent years, social media has allowed a very personal, direct window into these events. These revolutions now have millions and millions of additional ‘witnesses’ that may never have existed without social media. Which is a good thing.

    • Anonymous

      At this point, I think updates on Twitter etc. is the largest role social is playing. Keeping us informed of what’s happening. It certainly isn’t playing a role in Egypt anymore.

  • http://twitter.com/ColinStorm Colin Storm

    Thanks for writing Geoff. I think there is no doubt that social media played a role in the speed of organizing these groups, but as you eluded to, it is not the hinge point that made organizing possible. To say Social Media did not play a role at all is silly, but we shouldn’t give it too much credit.

    I don’t even believe that social media gives these causes a measurable voice. For every person tweeting there will be an unknown multiple of that who are not. However, social media is the squeaky wheel because we, and the national/global media can get our hands on it. Rather than having just the iconic image of a man in front of a tank, we have the chance to know exactly what that man is thinking at the time.

    So I guess I am saying that the story of social media may have less to do with enabling (though it does help) a revolution and more to do with our sense of access to it.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Colin, I appreciate the need to see things in balance. There are many factors at play, and the reality is that as people sit in

      At the same time, I don’t think dismissing social media as not having a measurable voice is true, All you need to do is look at the chart. And if it was that insignificant Mubarek wouldn’t have shut down Facebook and Twitter. I do think it was a critical tool, and it’s no coincidence that this happened as soon as people saw it worked in Tunisia, where it’s very clear that Facebook had a critical role. Also note that this uprising is distributed with no central voice… Sound like something we know?

      So what was social media’s role in Egypt? Likely contributory, and it’s likely to be seen that Mubarek was not able to monitor the conversations, so they pulled the plug. But it’s also likely to be seen that Al Jazeera had a larger role, especially as Tunisia went down, and as Mubarek cut the interwebs.

      No matter what the final analysis shows about the tools, the scores of people who died will have played the largest role. Nothing can erase the courageous humanity of the actions behind status updates, rocks thrown, and the blood stained on the grown.

  • Ferg_e

    Great post, great perspective. I am so glad that you took the time to close with the reminder that this is more than a case study. People have died trying to make the world a better place.

    • Anonymous

      And while we focus on Egypt, they are dying in other places like Burma and Sudan. This is a zeitgeist, but it does not surpass the struggles of humanity. Thank you for your comment!

  • http://richardrbecker.com/ Rich Becker

    Communication has always played a role in dissent, with the only change being the speed of delivery. For our own revolution in the United States, it was historic engraving of the Boston Massacre that was long on propaganda and short on accuracy.

    You’re right. The argument is rather silly, else we say that the printing press was the real hero of the American Revolution and the people who shared their thoughts were meaningless in comparison. Even if the Boston Massacre was trumped up from actual events, I prefer to think of the founding fathers as the catalysts and not the equipment.

    Excellent thoughts as always. We need to keep things real.

    All my best,
    Rich

    • Anonymous

      Great points, Rich. I would say the new aspects social brought to the table are distributed networks, speed, and the ability for anyone to not only read, but add to the dialogue. Love the printing press analogy. Thomas Paine would certainly love his press, but not credit it.

  • Anonymous

    Geoff,
    Interesting perspective. I believe, however, that this is a debate that may never be settled. I’ve read Gladwell’s point on revolution (to which I agree somewhat) and numerous posts on the power of social media to bring about social change.

    This Christmas, one of my gifts was the Woodstock documentary film (blu-ray, of course) and just watching how many people converged on Yasgur’s Farm without even the benefit of email made me wonder if “revolutions”, even cultural ones like Woodstock, are just meant to “become” by some unexplained force of will.

    When Michael Lang, one of the producers of Woodstock, looks out into the 500,000 people and says to an interviewer, “These people are communicating with each other” it was for me a sobering reminder of what “communication” was considered then and is today.

    You can go as far back as Paul Revere (Gladwell makes an interesting observation on his story in “The Tipping Point”) to the March on Washington by MLK, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the protests in Tiananmen Square, etc. etc. Would they have been any more effective with social media? I think the social media enthusiasts might want to believe so but history holds many lessons that revolutionary thinking and action is “communicated” by passion for change and is almost bound to happen.

    I’m no historian, nor am I half as smart as you are. I’m just an observer of things. I’m sure someone can uncover several examples of social media creating awareness (and generating action) to certain political, social, and cultural causes. But then I watch Joe Cocker singing “With a Little Help from My Friends” in front of half a million people…

    Nuff said?

    • Anonymous

      I love history, in fact I minored in European History during college (fell on class short of achieving that distinction, drat). I majored in Literature. Later I went to Georgetown and studied Communications, Culture and Technology and graduated with distinction. The program’s focus is how digital is impacting the way societies and cultures behave. So you’ll forgive me if I can’t help but see this a little differently.

      During Medieval times, the Catholic Church was one of the greatest oppressors in history. The invention of moveable type brought an increase in the proliferation of books (and literacy, and educated people), most notably the Bible. The Renaissance and then the Reformation both have their roots in this incredible, yet now ironically simplisitic communications tool. But the tool did not cause Calvin or Martin Luther or Galieleo to be themselves, nor did it cause their oppressors and opponents to respond as they did.

      History would say that moveable type was a catalyst. As many of the other examples here show, their have been many tools that have empowered people to act. Where they belong in the historical context takes time and analysis, and assuredly historians will debate the impact of social media. One thing is for certain, there is action where preceding social media there was not.

      Now is not necessarily the time to determine how much. Context and time and data are needed for relative accuracy. But like a baseball statistician can get excited about numbers, it’s not for geeks to get too excited about the tools. Now is about people and their lives and freedom. The debatable impact of social can and will continue for years.

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