Social Media and Social Revolutions: what is their relationship?

Every time we are witnessing a massive mobilization of social movements, a social uprising or even a true social revolution, we can be sure to witness a new round of debate between those that insist on the crucial role of social media, sometimes even calling it a Twitter Revolution, and those dismissing this and even warning for the dangerous role of trusting or highlighting their use.

Here is my own contribution to this debate.

First of all, I’d like to distinguish between two meanings of the concept of Revolution.

The deep meaning of Revolution is one of phase transition from one social system to another, and it is important here to distinguish the long course of history, and its sometimes explosive accelerations, when a long term quantitative development becomes a qualitative leap.

I have not the slightest doubt that the invention of peer to peer communication, i.e. the internet, the web and its social media derivatives, by allowing direct, cheap and ubiquitous communication between peers, is a true and deep social revolution, as important as the invention of writing and of print once were. Literally, as with writing and print, the change in communication infrastructures, the new socialization and balance of power it permits, changes every field of social activity, not just gradually, but eventually leading to a new social system working on different premises. But it is important to realize that such deep phase transitions take time, generally speaking more than one generation, though we do expect that one of the effects of p2p technology is undoubtedly an acceleration of historical processes.

Having said this, we are not saying that technology is the only factor, but it is a major and important factor, with very deep social effects. Once print was invented, the monopoly of truth of the feudal system and the Catholic Church was broken, this is undeniable. Nevertheless, technological affordances are part of an integrated set of change factors. We are also not saying that new technology has only emancipatory and liberating effects. It has some, and they are very important for social forces seeking freedom, justice and equality, but technology is always a tool of struggle and contention, and will be used by opposing social forces, each seeking to use it to their advantage. But what is certain, is that a new communication infrastructure changes the balance of forces, and has democratising effects. If the privileged want to remain dominant, they have to seek new ways, advance a new social contract.

Today, we can except that peer to peer communications, and their new forms of horizontal socialization, and the new tools it offers to citizens to organize around common value, will also have a deep seated influence on social structures, BUT, this will take time. At the P2P Foundation, we expect first a reformulation of capitalism, but we also expect, in about a generation, a fundamental phase transition towards a new form of society.

Now we come to the second meaning of Revolution, as a specific political revolution or uprising leading to a change in regime. Here also, peer to peer media (a much broader category than social media), have an important enabling effect, but we must distinguish different temporalities. First of all, there is again a deep temporality, favouring horizontal socialization and the creation of a new type of affinity communities based on shared values. This socialization prepares for a stronger civil society, which gradually undermines the control of authoritarian regimes whose control is based on the use of previous forms of mass media. Yes, we do believe that in the longer term, even as authoritarian governments learn to control and use the internet to their advantage, that it does give more advantage to civil society forces, who learn to extend their own autonomy and spheres of freedom.

It is this longer process which prepares the way for the open source insurgencies that we are now witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia. Based on that longer process of socialization, which happened in the preceding years, this allows at certain moment a rapid and massive mobilization of the people, who become conscious of their power and unity, and indeed, gives them the confidence to confront authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, these open source insurgencies are based on common and general demands, and they can dissolve as soon as either the goal is attained, or the battle is lost, then reverting again to the longer term socialization processes we have just described.

Needless to say, don’t confuse p2p media with corporate social media (though the latter play a very important role due to their popularity), and of course, these same media can be used for identification of dissent and repressive measures, especially if the movements are defeated. Intelligent use of such media is a sine qua non, and as we have seen in Egypt, even as people learn to creatively communicate even without it, once the will to change has been established.

But as we said, open source insurgencies can dissolve just as quickly once the common goal, usually general enough to unite everybody, like with the slogan, ‘the dictator must leave’, is achieved. At this point it is important that groups have used social media on a longer term basis, to establish themselves as real communities that can play a social and political role. This does not necessary have to be a traditional political organization as we have known from the previous era, but can be a movement like the April 6 Movement, who has recognized leaders that had organized themselves before.

In other words, no serious social movement who wants to effect deep change, can merely rely on the quick mobilization power of social media, but needs longer term policies of socialization and of achieving consensus around common goals and values. It needs a staying power that social media alone cannot provide.

Recent events around Wikileaks, Tunisia and the total shutdown in Egypt have also given us a valuable lesson into the reliability of corporate social media, and the internet, susceptible to government and corporate control around choke points. This means that at all times, serious activist will be ready not just to apply alternative digital media, but also non-digital media. But in no way am I making an appeal to abandon social media, or the public internet, indeed, this is where the people and the users are, and no social change effort can be successful, if is isolates itself from the mass of the people. Smart social change agents will have a combination of confidential media for their own longer term internal organization, and the judicious and careful use of social media to reach larger audiences.

To come back to the debates we mentioned at the beginning. Yes, peer to peer and social media are deep agents of social change, and essential organizational tools, but they must be part of an integrated strategy, that uses both long term socialization and its short term power of massive and rapid social mobilization. But even if we loose a battle, the deeper social change, will continue unabated, though nobody can predict the exact balance of power, the capacity of social control, and the new social contract that will prevail. But one thing is sure, society, and its ruling classes, cannot stay the same in the context of emerging p2p media, and the larger social forces, that can benefit from further emancipation and democratisation, can also not ignore the great potential for autonomy and self-organization, and the possibilities to use these media to create a more free, just and equal society.

Let’s not forget, the rulers had their own internets at least one decade before us, and didn’t need a expanded public internet. That we now have access to it, even under imperfect conditions and under their control, is a profound game changer, it represents a unique opportunity and a unique tool that we cannot dismiss and leave to our enemies. No social struggle is conceivable today, without the right usage of p2p media. Just as the Reformation crucially relied on books, and the Labour Movement crucially relied on print and newspaper, so must we also rely on peer to peer communication infrastructures as a really crucial component of any strategy for social change.

(I have not touched here on the issue on the centralized control over p2p infrastructures: creating true distributed structures is a parallel struggle and effort that needs to take place on an ongoing basis, see here)

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