Ulises Mejias: The Twitter Revolution Must Die

Reproduced from Ulises A. Mejias:

“Have you ever heard of the Leica Revolution? No?

That’s probably because folks who don’t know anything about “branding” insist on calling it the Mexican Revolution. An estimated two million people died in the long struggle (1910-1920) to overthrow a despotic government and bring about reform. But why shouldn’t we re-name the revolution not after a nation or its people, but after the “social media” that had such a great impact in making the struggle known all over the world: the photographic camera? Even better, let’s name the revolution not after the medium itself, but after the manufacturer of the cameras that were carried by people like Hugo Brehme to document the atrocities of war. Viva Leica, cabrones!

My sarcasm is, of course, a thinly veiled attempt to point out how absurd it is to refer to events in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as the Twitter Revolution, the Facebook Revolution, and so on. What we call things, the names we use to identify them, has incredible symbolic power, and I, for one, refuse to associate corporate brands with struggles for human dignity. I agree with Jillian York when she says:

“… I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight. But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.”

Granted, as Joss Hands points out, there appears to be more skepticism than support for the idea that tools like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are primarily responsible for igniting the uprisings in question. But that hasn’t stopped the internet intelligentsia from engaging in lengthy arguments about the role that technology is playing in these historic developments. One camp, comprised of people like Clay Shirky, seem to make allowances for what Cory Doctorow calls the “internet’s special power to connect and liberate.” On the other side, authors like Ethan Zuckerman, Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have proposed that while digital media can play a role in organizing social movements, it cannot be counted on to build lasting alliances, or even protect net activists once authorities start using the same tools to crack down on dissent.

Both sides are, perhaps, engaging in a bit of technological determinism–one by embellishing the agency of technology, the other by diminishing it. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between, and philosophers of technology settled the dispute of whether technology shapes society (technological determinism) or society shapes technology (cultural materialism) a while ago: the fact is that technology and society mutually and continually determine each other.

So why does the image of a revolution enabled by social media continue to grab headlines and spark the interest of Western audiences, and what are the dangers of employing such imagery? My fear is that the hype about a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube revolution performs two functions: first, it depoliticizes our understanding of the conflicts, and second, it whitewashes the role of capitalism in suppressing democracy.

To elaborate, the discourse of a social media revolution is a form of self-focused empathy in which we imagine the other (in this case, a Muslim other) to be nothing more than a projection of our own desires, a depoliticized instant in our own becoming. What a strong affirmation of ourselves it is to believe that people engaged in a desperate struggle for human dignity are using the same Web 2.0 products we are using! That we are able to form this empathy largely on the basis of consumerism demonstrates the extent to which we have bought into the notion that democracy is a by-product of media products for self-expression, and that the corporations that create such media products would never side with governments against their own people.

It is time to abandon this fantasy, and to realize that although the internet’s original architecture encouraged openness, it is becoming increasingly privatized and centralized. While it is true that an internet controlled by a handful of media conglomerates can still be used to promote democracy (as people are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, and all over the world), we need to reconsider the role that social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter will play in these struggles.

The clearest way to understand this role is to simply look at the past and current role that corporations have played in “facilitating” democracy elsewhere. Consider the above image of the tear gas canister “fired against egyptians demanding democracy.” The can is labeled Made in U.S.A.

But surely it would be a gross calumny to suggest that ICT are on the same level as tear gas, right? Well, perhaps not. Today, our exports encompass not only weapons of war and riot control used to keep in power corrupt leaders, but tools of internet surveillance like Narusinsight, produced by a subsidiary of Boeing and used by the Egyptian government to track down and “disappear” dissidents.

Even without citing examples of specific Web companies that have aided governments in the surveillance and persecution of their citizens (Jillian York documents some of these examples), my point is simply that the emerging market structure of the internet is threatening its potential to be used by people as a tool for democracy. The more monopolies (a market structure characterized by a single seller) control access and infrastructure, and the more monopsonies (a market structure characterized by a single buyer) control aggregation and distribution of user-generated content, the easier it is going to be for authorities to pull the plug, as just happened in Egypt.

I’m reminded of the first so-called Internet Revolution. Almost a hundred years after the original Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched an uprising in southern Mexico to try to address some of the injustices that the first revolution didn’t fix, and that remain unsolved to this day. But back in 1994, Subcomandante Marcos and the rest of the EZLN didn’t have Facebook profiles, or use Twitter to communicate or organize. Maybe their movement would have been more effective if they had. Or maybe it managed to stay alive because of the decentralized nature of the networks the EZLN and their supporters used.

My point is this: as digital networks grow and become more centralized and privatized, they increase opportunities for participation, but they also increase inequality, and make it easier for authorities to control them.

Thus, the real challenge is going to be figuring out how to continue the struggle after the network has been shut off. In fact, the struggle is going to be against those who own and control the network. If the fight can’t continue without Facebook and Twitter, then it is doomed. But I suspect the people of Iran, Tunisia and Egypt (unlike us) already know this, out of sheer necessity.”

Amongst the interesting responses in the comments field:

Stephen Ryan:

“Whilst you raise valid points about decentralisation of a movement as integral to its success, and over-reliance on networks as corporate tools you seem to miss a glaring point. Whilst the Mexican Revolution shouldn’t be named the Leica Revolution and the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are not products of Facebook and Twitter without these corporate bodies made digital the internet it is useless to the general public.

E-mail could be used in place of social networks, but e-mail systems are owned by companies. Telephones could be used instead of the internet, but the lines are owned by companies. Without regressing back to ham radio and Morse code (as some enterprising Egyptians have) we have no way to spread a message as quickly and effectively as by social networks. The obvious progressive step is internet owned by nobody and a replacement for Facebook and Twitter without corporate control or stock market flotation. Unfortunately I fear we are many years from this – if it even turns out to be possible.

Movements spread before the internet, and if it were to come crashing down they would proceed without it, but let us not belittle the good work being done using social networks for the time being and work progressively to find alternatives whilst they are not stifling our means of expression, and before they do.”

From a parallel dialogue between Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky, the analysis of the latter on the crucial role of social media:

” I would break Gladwell’s question of whether social media solved a problem that actually needed solving into two parts: Do social media allow insurgents to adopt new strategies? And have those strategies ever been crucial? Here, the historical record of the last decade is unambiguous: yes, and yes.

Digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination. As Gladwell has noted elsewhere, these changes do not allow otherwise uncommitted groups to take effective political action. They do, however, allow committed groups to play by new rules.

It would be impossible to tell the story of Philippine President Joseph Estrada’s 2000 downfall without talking about how texting allowed Filipinos to coordinate at a speed and on a scale not available with other media. Similarly, the supporters of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero used text messaging to coordinate the 2004 ouster of the People’s Party in four days; anticommunist Moldovans used social media in 2009 to turn out 20,000 protesters in just 36 hours; the South Koreans who rallied against beef imports in 2008 took their grievances directly to the public, sharing text, photos, and video online, without needing permission from the state or help from professional media. Chinese anticorruption protesters use the instant-messaging service QQ the same way today. All these actions relied on the power of social media to synchronize the behavior of groups quickly, cheaply, and publicly, in ways that were unavailable as recently as a decade ago.

As I noted in my original essay, this does not mean insurgents always prevail. Both the Green Movement and the Red Shirt protesters used novel strategies to organize, but the willingness of the Iranian and Thai governments to kill their own citizens proved an adequate defense of the status quo. Given the increased vigor of state reaction in the world today, it is not clear what new equilibriums between states and their citizens will look like. (I believe that, as with the printing press, the current changes will result in a net improvement for democracy; the scholars Evgeny Morozov and Rebecca MacKinnon, among others, dispute this view.)

Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underline the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens’ ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed. “

Here is a cogent analysis of the role if the internet in social uprisings, from the Echovar blog:

“One of the lessons of Tunisia was how to use the real-time network to organize protests. The other was to shut down the real-time network if you want to disrupt the protesters. Both lessons were put to use in Egypt. There’s an assumption that the Network of Networks is so deeply intertwingled with every aspect of our lives that it can no longer be shut off. It would be like depriving a fish of water. Certainly lots of business is conducted over the internet, but in a time of national emergency, revolution and general tumult, are there geeks in Cairo upset because they can’t use FourSquare to check-in to the latest demonstration or download the Anarchist’s Cookbook to their Kindle? Anything that’s really important will be transmitted over a private network. In a Network shutdown, both sides aren’t equally in the dark.

John Perry Barlow asks whether, in light of what has happened in Egypt whether access to the Network should be considered a basic human right. Faced with an unacceptable government, the Network is an indispensable tool to foment change. It should be noted that the Network is neutral with regard to the messages it carries. A fascist uprising would benefit as much as any through the use of the real-time network.

Real-time networks work as accelerants, they contribute to the general speed up. They currently have no tools for slowing things down, correcting errors or stopping things. This makes them an excellent tool for expressing general feelings of opposition and a less than optimal tool for building new institutions to replace the old. Newspapers and magazines seem capable of both kinds of action. Perhaps this is why a free press can never be fully replaced with a real-time stream.

The lessons for citizens are pretty clear, but what of the lessons for governments watching all this unfold? An internet kill switch backed by a robust private network for select services sounds like a start. Another lesson might be that the kill switch should be used sooner rather than later. Of course, avoiding situations of general revolution by fostering a healthy and happy citizenry is highly recommended. But as you look around the world, there are a large number of countries thinking about how they might implement a kill switch. Some, China, for instance, may already have such a switch in place.”

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