Why is the strategy of ‘containment’, in order to derail social movements, no longer working?

Interesting excerpt, from Mark Heley, followed by a tentative hypothesis about the role of social media in changing the very logic of social organisation.

1. The problem

“The contemporary institutions of national government, born out of the age of radio and television, are simply constitutionally incapable of processing what is happening. They are analogue institutions in a digital age. They are as defunct as tape recorders and VCRs. The Egyptian government is the MySpace of Revolution 2.0. The underlying dynamics of this situation are literally out of anyone’s control. The mechanisms that have maintained the status quo for thirty years in Egypt, just suddenly no longer work. No matter how desperately the Egyptian government rearranges the deckchairs, it isn’t stopping their Titanic from sinking. This is for the very simple reason that the people are no longer listening. They are speaking to each other. They are texting, phoning and tweeting each other. They are sharing on facebook and uploading video to YouTube. Then, most importantly, they are taking action.

Even recently, superficial concessions and re-branding might have worked in dispelling the momentum of a popular movement like this. Yet, in Egypt, the old strategy of containment and then waiting it out is failing. This is in marked contrast to the massive protests against the invasion of Iraq that happened in 2003. Then huge numbers of people took to the streets, but the US and UK governments simply waited for them to dispel and then went about their business as usual. What is the difference between then and now? In February 2004, an obscure website called thefacebook.com launched at Harvard University. By December 2004, they had one million users. Now, there are more than 500 million. In 2011, if facebook were a country, it would be the third biggest in the world. It’s not just facebook, of course, that’s responsible for the Egyptian revolution. More specifically, it is a critical mass of networked humanity.

This is not to say that the Egyptian revolution is a fait accompli. It is far from certain how events will play themselves out over the coming days and weeks. The decisive element will be whether critical mass really has been achieved. It needs more moments like the one where the Egyptian army was forced to abandon its plan to check the identity cards of those entering Tahrir Square, by the sheer force of numbers. The key is that when the people stand up and take collective action that they do so in such a decisive way that they are irresistible. Even in the most repressive of regimes, the armed forces, police, and government agencies of any nation will always be a minority. When enough people stand up at once, these agencies are effectively powerless. This is the key realization that has rippled throughout the collective consciousness of the Egyptian people, that the people united are stronger than any force that opposes them.”

2. But why is this happening now?

“A fundamental balance has shifted, with implications that go far beyond the Arab world. More than 50% of the world’s population is under 30. Last year alone, facebook added more than 200 million users. The ubiquity of social networks and mobile phones means that we are connected to each other in a way that just hasn’t happened before. The Egyptian government’s internet and mobile shutdown was an epic fail. As studies on communities and resilience show, once the reciprocal bonds of networking are established, it takes more than a momentary disruption of the internet to shut them down. In fact, reciprocality is how resilience is built. Habits of exchange are the key. “

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.