Social Media and Social Revolution (3): why the ‘how’ of media are so important

This is crucial: The point is that the existence of a specific technology and its widespread adoption fundamentally alters the society which adopts said technology. (This is alters not determines.)*.

The first contribution is excerpted from Zeynep Tufekci. In the second contribution, Dave Parry examines the case of Egypt in more detail. In the third contribution, Paul Mason sees the class background of the revolt in young graduates with no future.

(the two first authors are responding to Malcolm Gladwell’s pieces, here and here)

“The “how” of social organizing matter because means of connectivity impact the nature of a movement, the chance for its success, the tactics it can adopt–which in turn, impact its character–, the roles in can play, and the measures the state can deploy against it. All of these shape the nature, outlook and the reach of the movement.

For example, in his earlier piece, Gladwell argued that social media does not support the kind of strong ties which he claimed formed the basis of high-risk tactics such as the lunch-counter sit-ins. Again, leaving aside my disagreements with this claim, it is certainly true that the composition of a movement impacts its nature, and the means of connectivity used in its formation impact its composition. (Let me note the disagreement briefly: my and others’ extensive research on this topic find that while social media do support weaker ties more effectively compared to some earlier forms of communication, this does not appear come at the expense of strong ties. On the contrary, most people use social media to keep strengthen their bonds with strong as well as weak ties and the relationship between the two is not one of opposition but of complementarity and continuum. That is not to say that the rise of social media has not been disruptive at a societal level–rather, the effect is complicated and not the simple one way dilution of strong ties some critics claim. I wrote more about this here.)

Let’s take a specific look at how the “how” or organizing appears to have had an impact in the latest events in Tunisia and Egypt.

1- Both of these movements have arisen without being directed by a well-defined political party and are not expressed through a well-defined programme. This is both their strength and their weakness. This trend of “non-political” politics precedes the spread of the Internet but has clearly accelerated along with the spread of the Internet and is in direct contrast with social movements of early 20th century.

2- These protests were first kindled through Facebook and other social media which are integrated into rhythms of mundane sociality. This means that rather than being directed at first by a well-defined group of activists who were able to reach only other politically-motivated compatriots, the dissent and the protests propagated through ordinary social networks which, in turn, ensures that the movement is broad-based. Consequently, both the Tunisian and the Egyptian protests have so far been able to avoid balkanization that plagues opposition movements in similar situations.

3- Both movements have so far only been able to express straightforward demands. “Out with the dictator, in with the elections.” (Similarly, other movements of this kind have sprung up in reaction to stolen elections). This is partly because there is no political leadership with whom there could be negotiations, no programme which outlines a list of demands, no spokespeople who can clarify and expand upon issues. While this seems utopian, and certainly has positive sides, it introduces weaknesses–especially by constricting the demands to the absolute minimum common denominator.

Lack of leadership and definition also opens up movements to cooptation and confusion. If Mubarak says he is leaving in July is that good enough? What kind of elections? What kind of freedoms? What if he is replaced by a strongman who is not a relative? It remains to be seen if the newfound dynamism in Egyptian and Tunisian societies can grow beyond “dictator out.”

4- The specific kind of social-media assisted movements are most likely to erupt in situations where there is already widespread dissent and a fairly-clear problem, i.e. a dictatorship, stolen elections or an authoritarian, corrupt regime like those of Egypt and Tunisia. In other words, social media is best at solving a societal-level prisoner’s dilemma in which there is lack of knowledge about the depth and breadth of the dissent due to censorship and repression and a collective-action barrier due to suppression of political organization. (I wrote more about this here)

5- Thus, social media probably has so far been best at triggering a “empire has no clothes” moment. The role such tools play in situations where there is polarization and strong vested-interests on multiple sides remains unclear. In polarized situations, this dynamic might increase polarization through the facilitation of the “dailyme” in which people filter out dissent from their exposure stream and retreat into epistemic enclosures of the like-minded.

6- To highlight the importance of “how” let’s take Gladwell’s favorite tool, the counterfactual, and imagine a movement that was organized in Tunisia the old-fashioned way, i.e. through building of a political opposition party in a repressive regimes. First, the movement would likely only spread through the most-committed dissidents whose numbers are never large and are easy-pickings for police states. Evgeny Morozov repeatedly highlights how social media increases state capacity for state to surveillance. That is certainly worth considering. However, as I argued here, surveillance is not that useful when the opposition activity is completely entangled with everyday sociality of millions of people and when dissent is widespread.

Thus, our word-of-mouth movement would struggle to grow person-by-person and would be easily outmatched by the state security apparatus. It might be able to put together brave and small demonstrations here and there—the news of which would likely never travel beyond the lonely corner in which they were staged. Even if they managed to get some critical traction in a locality, the state could more easily counter, encircle and repress because unlike the current protests in Egypt and Tunisia, which started rapidly and emerged through a broad-base all at once, authoritarian regimes have a pretty advanced-arsenal against old-fashioned political organizing.

The “how” of organizing often turns into “how” of governance. Our word-of-mouth movement would likely have to remain secretive and suspicious. Does anyone think that it is completely coincidence that successful revolutions by secretive movements often turn into paranoid governments? If for no other reason, this is why the “how” is crucially important.”

2. Dave Parry on the role of social media in Egypt:

Through leveraging influence on the ISPs Egypt managed to shut off the public internet. But here is the deal, while the Egyptian government could mostly shut off access to the public internet, they couldn’t shut off the internet public. That is, while the government could shut down the hardware of the internet, it could not shut down the social effects of the digital network.

“The how of something getting accomplished certainly shapes the what is accomplished, to try and separate the two is to be a “technological idiot.”
One Lesson From Egypt

I think it is pretty clear, and maybe I’ll build this case later, that what happened in Egypt and Tunisia would have looked much different, played out differently if the how of the revolution had been different, if social media had not been one of the tools used as a means of communication. And to see why this is the case one needs to look not at the particular uses of Twitter or Facebook (whether people were Tweeting or updating about cornflakes or Cadillacs) but rather at the existence of the publicly used internet.

From an internet studies standpoint (not the protest as a whole, just what I study) the most interesting moment was the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down the internet. On January 28th, amidst increased activity, the Egyptian government shut down citizen access to the internet. Only one internet service provider, the Noor Group (which is largely responsible for corporate connections, the stock market Coca-Cola, etc) remained connected. As the Noor Group only provides roughly 8% of the internet traffic in Egypt, and with the other big four service providers following government orders and cutting access, most Egyptians were mostly cut-off from the internet. (The mostly is key here, as we discovered Egyptians started to find ways around the blackout.) It is worth noting that the government also cut mobile phone service, so more than cutting off the internet, the government cut off hyperconnectivity, reducing protestors to more traditional means of communication. (Mubarak seemed to be trying to have both sides of the dictator’s dilemna, enabling economic communication while restricting all others.)

As many have observed this was an “unprecedented move” by a nation-state. While other countries have “pulled the plug” on the internet, namely Burma in 2007 and Nepal in 2005, this is the first time that a country with such a large internet penetration had entirely shut off access. While Iran heavily filtered the internet, and drastically slowed connection speeds, they stopped short of using the “kill switch.” Also important to note is that in prior cases it was the government acting to kill centralized routing, rather than intervening as Egypt here did at the level of the ISPs. Through leveraging influence on the ISPs Egypt managed to shut off the public internet.

But here is the deal, while the Egyptian government could mostly shut off access to the public internet, they couldn’t shut off the internet public.

That is, while the government could shut down the hardware of the internet, it could not shut down the social effects of the digital network. In the same way a public is fundamentally changed by the existence of print technology, a public is fundamentally altered by access to the digital network. This is what makes the Egypt case different from Burma and Nepal. In these other two cases the internet was not widely used, and certainly was not accessible by a substantial sector of the public who relied on it, and used it to maintain and foster social ties. Keep in mind that when Nepal shut down the internet in 2005 there was no Facebook or Twitter which they were shutting off, same goes for Burma (mostly). So while in other cases the government was shutting down access to information from the outside and controlling the flow of news, in this case Egypt was shutting down the way that a substantial portion of their populace was communicating.”

3. Paul Mason’s ‘class analysis’:

In this first set, Paul Mason stresses the p2p aspects of the uprisings:

Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany.

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.”

Here, Paul explains the new psychology at work, driven by the availability of networked knowledge:

“13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects.”

4. Watch this video on the role of social media in Tunisia:

And here is a perfect conclusion by Dave Winer:

“When people think of the revolution in Egypt happening on Facebook and Twitter, what they really need to know is that these two corporate-owned websites are part of the Internet. It is that part that is useful to revolutionaries. The corporate side of their existence is an opposing force, because the tug of governments and profits makes them want their services to not be used for revolution. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

This will become more obvious over time. It’s why we must develop systems that are equal to Twitter and Facebook, but that aren’t so easy to block. Permanent link to this item in the archive.

We must make it so that a country, if it wants to turn off Internet-enabled revolution, must turn off the Internet itself.”

1 Comment Social Media and Social Revolution (3): why the ‘how’ of media are so important

  1. AvatarRob Myers

    Are social media acting as an enabling technology (in David J. Bolter’s sense) in the way people are thinking of these events?

    Or is the social graph a (hopelessly anaemic but nonetheless revealing) successor to the folk, the mass, or the multitude as the idealised subject of certain kinds of politics?

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