Social Media and Social Revolution (2): the discussion continues

” How does the Net affect the leap of faith? Not, as the Net Utopians whom Morozov rightly criticises might have it, by making truth and transparency by themselves powerful and indisputable agents. Rather, they make the leap of faith easier and less risky by providing a ground where alternatives can become commonly accepted. The Facebook groups, the Wikileaks cables, the blogs all show that any one person is not alone in a particular set of beliefs about the regime. Another form of common knowledge is allowed to take hold. It is not indubitable, and it may have been infiltrated, manipulated and it may in time be switched off – as has happened in Egypt. But the reality of the critique of the regime is believed to be commonly shared. That moment of catching someone’s eye and deciding it is OK to act as if you are in the presence of a common soul has been moved online. In just the same way as dating sites have transformed the world of love, so social media have transformed politics: through the greater ease of making common knowledge.” – Tony Curzon Price.

In addition to my own intervention published 2 days ago, here are a number of very valuable thoughtpieces on the relation between social media and social revolution, which I strongly recommend you read.

1. Contribution by techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci

“A debate has been raging on the role social media — especially Facebook and Twitter— played in the apparently successful uprising in Tunisia. Most of the discussion seems to be centered around the use of the term “Twitter Revolution.”

People will be using social media tools as an integral part of politics during those times that politics takes to the frontstage like uprisings and elections. Evgeny Morozov’s argument is that these tools are not the best suited for promoting democracy, especially in authoritarian regimes, because they also strengthen the surveillance, propaganda and censorship. As I argued in many places, however, they also strengthen capacity for political action through multiple means:

1- Social media lower barriers to collective action by providing channels of organization that are intermeshed with mundane social interaction and thus are harder to censor.

2- Social media can help create a public(ish) sphere in authoritarian regimes, thereby lowering the problem of society-level prisoner’s dilemma in which everyone knows that many people are unhappy but the extent to which this is the case remains hidden as official media is completely censored.

3- Social media helps strengthen communities as it is the antidote to isolating technologies (like suburbs and like televison) and community strength is key to political action.

4- Social media seems to have been key allowing the expatriate and exiled community to mobilize and act as key links between rest of the Arab sphere as well as Francophone parts of Europe and ultimately the rest of the world

5- Social media can be a key tool for disseminating information during a crisis.

As we saw in the case of Iran, Burma, Moldova, Tunisia and others, the world had a strong sense of what was happening not because there were many reporters on the ground covering the events but because thousands of citizens armed with basic cell phones could record and transmit in real-time the situation on the ground. Yes, such reports are inevitably chaotic, and yes, the ability to disseminate information is not a sufficient cause for success, but it is surely a necessary one.

In that sense, I respect Jillian’s sensitivity to any wording that seems to take the credit away from the accomplishment of the Tunisian people that came at a great human cost. However, as a material cause, as a key part of the media and information substrate in which the events took place, it seems clear to me that social media was crucial. About 20 percent of Tunisians have Facebook accounts which remained uncensored throughout the crisis. I find it hard to believe that the ability to disseminate news, videos, tidbits, information, links, outside messages that easily, transparently and without censorship reached one in five persons (and thus their immediate social networks) within a country that otherwise suffered from heavy censorship was without a significant impact.

To say that social-media was a key part of the revolution does not necessarily mean that people used GPS-enabled phones to coordinate demonstrations; that is simplistic and misses the point in which social media shapes the environment in general. What it means is that the people acted in a world where they had more means of expressing themselves to each other and the world, being more assured that their plight would not be buried by the deep pit of censorship, and a little more confidence that their extended families, their neighbors, their fellow citizens were similarly fed up.”

In another blog entry, Zeynep examines the internet’s potential from the regime’s point of view, i.e. the ‘dictator’s dilemma‘:

“1- The capacities of the Internet that are most threatening to authoritarian regimes are not necessarily those pertaining to spreading of censored information but rather its ability to support the formation of a counter-public that is outside the control of the state. In other words, it is not that people are waiting for that key piece of information to start their revolt – and that information just happens to be behind the wall of censorship–but that they are isolated, unsure of the power of the regime, unsure of their position and potential.

2- Dissent is not just about knowing what you think but about the formation of a public. A public is not just about what you know. Publics form through knowing that other people know what you know–and also knowing that they know what you know. (This point was developed through a Twitter discussion with Dave Parry). Yes, all those parts of the Web that are ridiculed by some of the critics of Internet’s potential–the LOLcats, Facebook, the three million baby pictures, the slapstick, talking about the weather, the food and the trials and tribulations of life–are exactly the backbone of community, and ultimately the creation of public(s).

3- Thus, social media can be the most threatening part of the Internet to an authoritarian regime through its capacity to create a public(ish) sphere that is integrated into everyday life of millions of people and is outside the direct control of the state partly because it is so widespread and partly because it is not solely focused on politics. How do you censor five million Facebook accounts in real time except to shut them all down?

4- The capacity to selectively filter the Internet is inversely proportional to the scale and strength of the dissent. In other words, regimes which employ widespread legitimacy may be able to continue to selectively filter the Internet. However, this is going to break down as dissent and unhappiness spreads. As anyone who has been to a country with selective filtering knows, most everyone (who is motivated enough) knows how to get around the censors. For example, in Turkey, YouTube occasionally gets blocked because of material that some courts have deemed as offensive to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of Turkey. I have yet to meet anyone in Turkey who did not know how to get to YouTube through proxies.

5- Thus, the effect of selective filtering is not to keep out information out of the hands of a determined public, but to allow the majority of ordinary people to continue to be able to operate without confronting information that might create cognitive dissonance between their existing support for the regime and the fact that they, along with many others, also have issues. Meanwhile, the elites go about business as if there was no censorship as they all know how to use work-arounds. This creates a safety-valve as it is quite likely that it is portions of the elite groups that would be most hindered by the censorship and most unhappy with it. (In fact, I have not seen any evidence that China is trying to actively and strongly shut down the work-arounds.)

6- Social media is not going to create dissent where there is none. The apparent strength of the regime in China should not be understood solely through its success in censorship. (And this is the kind of Net-centrism Morozov warns against but that I think he sometimes falls into himself). China has undergone one of the most amazing transformations in human history. Whatever else you may say about the brutality of the regime, there is a reason for its continuing legitimacy in the eyes of most of its people. I believe that the Chinese people are no less interested in freedom and autonomy than any other people on the planet but I can also understand why they have, for the most part, appear to have support for the status-quo even as they continue to have further aspirations and desires.

7- Finally, during times of strong upheaval, as in Egypt, dictator’s dilemma roars. The ability to ensure that their struggle and their efforts are not buried in a deep pit of censorship, the ability to continue to have an honest conversation, the ability to know that others know what one knows all combine to create a cycle furthering dissent and upheaval. Citizen-journalism matters most in these scenarios as there cannot be reporters everywhere something is happening; however, wherever something is happening there are people with cell phone cameras. Combined with Al-Jazeera re-broadcasting the fruits of people-powered journalism, it all comes down to how much force the authoritarian state is willing and able to deploy – which in turn, depends on the willingness of the security apparatus. Here, too, social media matters because, like everyone else, they too are watching the footage on Al-Jazeera. Their choice is made more stark by the fact that they know that history will judge them by their actions–actions which will likely be recorded, broadcast and be viewed by their citizens, their neighbors and their children and grandchildren.”

2. Contribution by Mathew Ingram:

“Is anyone really arguing that Twitter and Facebook caused the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt, or even the earlier public uprisings in Moldova or Iran for that matter? Maybe cyber-utopians somewhere are doing this, but I haven’t seen or heard of any. Theargument I have tried to make is simply that they and other social media tools can be incredibly powerful, both for spreading the word — which can give moral or emotional support to others in a country, as well as generating external support — as well as for organizational purposes, thanks to the power of the network. As Jared Cohen of Google Ideas put it, social media may not be a cause, but it can be a powerful “accelerant.”Did Twitter or Facebook cause the Tunisian revolt? No. But they did spread the news, and many Tunisian revolutionaries gave them a lot of credit for helping with the process.

Did Twitter cause the revolts in Egypt? No. But they did help activists such as WikiLeaks supporter Jacob Appelbaum (known on Twitter as @ioerror) and others as they organized the dialup and satellite phone connections that created an ad-hoc Internet after Egypt turned the real one off — which, of course, it did in large part to try and prevent demonstrators from using Internet-based tools to foment unrest. As Cory Doctorow notedin his review of Evgeny Morozov’s book, even if Twitter and Facebook are just used to replace the process of stapling pieces of paper to telephone poles and sending out hundreds of emails, they are still a huge benefit to social activism of all kinds.

But open-network advocate Dave Winer made the key point: it’s the Internet that is the really powerful tool here, not any of the specific services such as Twitter and Facebook that run on top of it, which Winer compares to brands like NBC. They have power because lots of people use them, and — in the case of Twitter — because they have open protocols so that apps can still access the network even when the company’s website is taken down by repressive governments (athough they didn’t mention Egypt or Tunisia by name, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and general counsel Alexander Macgillivray wrote a post about the company’s desire to “keep the information flowing).

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.”

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