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Summary:

As it was during the recent uprisings in Tunisia, the role of social media in Egypt has been the subject of some debate. In the end, it’s not about whether to give credit to Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.

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Just as it was during the recent uprisings in Tunisia, the role of social media in the recent upheaval in Egypt has been the subject of much debate since the unrest began on Thursday. Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Friday poked fun at the idea that Twitter might have played a key part in the demonstrations, and there are many observers who share his skepticism. The real trigger for the uprisings, they argue, is simply the frustration of the oppressed Egyptian people — which is undoubtedly true. But it also seems clear that social media has played a key role in getting the word out, and in helping organizers plan their protests. In the end, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication.

Foreign Policy magazine columnist Evgeny Morozov has argued that Twitter and Facebook should not be credited with playing any kind of critical role in Tunisia, and suggested that doing so is a sign of the “cyber-utopianism” that many social-media advocates suffer from: that is, the belief that the Internet is unambiguously good, or that the use of Twitter or Facebook can somehow magically free a repressed society from its shackles. Morozov, who has written an entire book about this idea called Net Delusion, made the point in his blog post after the Tunisian uprising that while social media might have been used in some way during the events, tools like Twitter and Facebook did not play a crucial role — that is, the revolution would have happened with or without them.

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology who has also looked at this issue, described in a post following the revolution in Tunisia how professional observers distinguish between what she called “material,” “efficient” and “final” causes — in other words, things that are required in order to produce a certain outcome, and things that are nice to have but are not a requirement. Tufekci argues that social media was a crucial factor in Tunisia, while Jillian York of Global Voices Online believes that social media tools are useful, but not necessary. Ethan Zuckerman, one of the founders of Global Voices Online, has also written about how the uprisings in both Tunisia and in Egypt have more to do with decades of poverty and repressive dictatorships than they do with social media.

But 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. The argument 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 noted in 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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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Ahmad Kavousian

  1. Interesting post. Communication (and even more real-time communication) is key in any form of revolt/up-rising. When dictatorships want to take control of a country the two things they focus on are 1) the army and 2) the communication infrastructure. It is only natural that what was true for TV and Radio is true for the internet and the multiple forms of communications it enables. Communication is what transforms a simple up-rising into a long term/powerful movement.

    Beyond the real-time aspect of the internet, it’s global reach is also an important dimension. A single picture or video can create a significant emotional impact (and sometimes a distortion) and affect the branding of a country/government. Countries are increasingly very sensitive to this. They use to be able to control the message. The no longer can.

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    1. Well said, Edwin.

      Social & News Media derived from uprisings create a wider audience which in effect generates more drama, fixation and energy. All the focus fuels the fire. Until it fizzles out and the true impact, if any, can be assessed. Though very real and significant to those directly involved, it is News “Entertainment” to many. That’s how it is packaged and delivered. Attention is monetizated.

      These Uprisings are expressive but at some point, the mundane tasks of government reform need to take over. Screaming, shaking trucks, settings fires, looting and marching… don’t amount to much and can only persist for a short period before people are too jaded and inconvenienced to continue. Sadly, the attention on the stories subside when the noise and smoke fade away. Ripples. And “They” know it.

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      1. for the spelling sensitive…..
        monetizated = monetized

        ;-)

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    2. Definitely agree, Edwin. Thanks for the comment.

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    3. It is not Google or Bing, it is power of the internet!

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    4. Yes it is two mints in one!

      You need both the hammer and the nail.

      You need both the social discontent to fuel revolutionary change and the a communication medium by which to collaborate that collective social action.

      Ubiquitous real-time communication technologies, as Mcluhan might say, both accelerates and extends the power of such collaborative action by accelerating the time frame and by extending it’s geographical reach and impact.

      Indeed the social discontent is the nail but the real-time communication technologies give that collaborative revolutionary action hammer a lot more tour-de-force to drive home the change.

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  2. changingnewsroom Saturday, January 29, 2011

    I agree. I sense the skeptics here are making a kind of straw man argument here. The idea that Twitter or Facebook could “cause” people to risk life and limb to defy their government is non-sensical – these are just tools. No thinking person is making that argument. But are these powerful tools that are shaping these movements and enabling them to spread more quickly and efficiently? Yes.

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  3. It’s not just the Internet, that was turned off and the Egyptians still did a good job of protesting. Al Jazera TV has done an amazing job too, and I think mobile comms has been waaay overlooked by ‘netheads.

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    1. I agree that Al-Jazeera and mobile networks have also been powerful tools, Alan — it’s not about saying one is better than the other.

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      1. Recently I’ve been researching previous major political revolutions – the French, Russian (both 1917 and 1987), Weimar etc – and the role of comms. My overwhelming sense so far is that while the comms are a “nice to have”, they are secondary to the other factors. In fact, the biggest common factor I can see seems to be young males sensing they don’t have a future. And the young use the technology of the day to communicate their ideals, which is IMHO where the correlation comes in.

        In other words, the revolution is going to happen, whether the comms technology is horseback or broadband.

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  4. Without underlying social problems, social networking cannot start anything. Social networking is but a tool and nothing more alas it is making sharing information (true or false) and organizing that much easier.
    I was one of the thousands of people out on the streets in December ’89 in a desperate bid to depose Ceausescu. The pain was greater than the fear of repression… No Twitter back then, but somehow everyone knew.

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  5. I don’t know, Mathew. I think we’re up against something we don’t understand very well. You write:

    “But 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.”

    Notice that you don’t get many answers when you ask that question. I wrote to Spencer Ackerman of Wired (whom I know a little) asking the same thing about…

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/01/social-media-oppression/

    and I didn’t get any answer. (I defy you to figure out who’s being corrected when the Wired writer says, “The dozen or more protesters that self-immolated in Egypt didn’t do it for the tweets.” LIke we thought they did?)

    There is something about arguing against the cyber-utopian (or the Twitter-topples-dictators) thesis that satisfies writers and readers, regardless of whether anyone buys the thesis, and there is something about that thesis that convinces writers and readers that it’s widely bought, despite the embarrassing difficulty of finding actual buyers. That’s why the posts come without links and quotes. The authors somehow know they don’t need them. Conventions of the genre are that here you get to say, “It’s More Than Twitter!” without showing that anyone said it was only Twitter.

    We think we understand this pattern when we call it a “straw man” argument. Actually, we’re just giving it a name that sounds familiar. It makes us feel better but doesn’t illuminate a thing.

    We should recognize the following. Demand for widely bought-into cyber-utopian claims that can be corrected in this way is far greater than the supply. We can keep shouting, “there’s no supply!” (or, as you put it, “is anyone really arguing that…”) but the demand doesn’t go away. Lots of people paying attention to events sense this demand. So they speak into it. But where does the demand come from? I wish I knew.

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    1. I blame Mythbusters — everyone wants to out-skeptic everyone else :-)

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    2. Jay – maybe technological determinists are being more cautious this time, but last year during the Iran protests there were many broad pronouncements about how social media will invariably lead to social change and political freedom. From an piece I wrote last year:

      Influential blogger Andrew Sullivan has declared the events in Iraq “The Twitter Revolution.”1 Likewise, his Atlantic colleague Marc Ambinder writes, “The Revolution Will Be Twittered.” 2 Technopundit Clay Shirky says, “it seems pretty clear that . . . this is it. This is the big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media.”3

      Sources and full article at http://flowtv.org/2009/06/tweeting-the-dialectic-of-technological-determinism%C2%A0%C2%A0ted-friedman%C2%A0%C2%A0georgia-state-university-atlanta%C2%A0%C2%A0/

      — Ted Friedman

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    3. Jay, this “stuck discourse” (your apt phrase) of anti-cyber-utopian argument fell into this groove all the way back in the mid-’90s. The very first wave of Internet/Web anti-hype, spearheaded by Cliff Stoll et all, first dug this trench, and the arguments have barreled down it ever since. One consistent characteristic of this discourse, as Mathew points out, is the absence of actual citable cyber-utopian statements or adherents (the missing-person straw men). Another is the wilful misreading of statements that “the Net changes things” to mean “the Net makes everything better.”

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  6. and what IS the network in “networked communications” and why is it so powerful?

    it is the out-picturing in the 3d world of a developing mind beginning to cognize and express its innate connection to collective consciousness.

    in short, it is natural, a function of the nature of reality.

    it will grow. and grow.

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  7. One might just as easily dismiss the notion that Thomas Paine fomented the American Revolution.

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  8. While I agree that real-time communications with a world-wide reach can help give “power to the people”, I sure hope that is what the case is in Egypt. Unfortunately, I think the Mubarak dictatorial regime will be replaced by an islamic extremist dictatorship that will definitely not give power to the people. That is at least a possibility. So while social media can be great for creating a flash mob in a mall or in a country, it does not necessarily mean the end result will be freedom for the people.

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    1. That’s a good point, Doug — these kinds of events, with or without Twitter and Facebook, don’t guarantee that such revolutions will be successful by any means.

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    2. “Unfortunately, I think the Mubarak dictatorial regime will be replaced by an islamic extremist dictatorship that will definitely not give power to the people.”
      – This is not going to happen, and anyway betrays a total lack of understanding of what is happening in Egypt. The only way that democracy will be thwarted is if the US unconditionally backs Suleiman (who has strong ties to CIA and Pentagon). The only reason democracy has been stifled for so long is because of US support for thugs like Mobarak (1.3 billion/yr military aid). It would have nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. The US State Dept doesn’t want democracy any more than radical Islamists do, they want USEFUL regimes which will cooperate.

      Jay Rosen is right, this whole debate is sterile. Nobody has ever stated that social media is RESPONSIBLE for any revolutions, the problem is journalists and US technocrats looking for easy-to-memorize slogans for sound bites and newspaper headlines. Media are only tools, impetus for revolution comes from people, nobody is disputing that. The right questions to ask is who has access to and control over the tools, and who knows how to use them better in terms of surveillance and encryption – governments or citizens? Asking whether or not Twitter/Facebook are “responsible” for revolutions is asking a meaningless question. In the end it always come down to who has the guns, and how much citizens are willing to sacrifice to bring change.

      Doctorow and Dave Parry have written very thoughtful essays on this.
      http://profoundheterogeneity.com/2011/01/deluded-that-the-internet-transforms-power-structures/

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      1. @Rob: I don’t disagree with your points about what could thwart democracy in Egypt and I certainly am pulling for that outcome and an end to Mubarak and all like him, but there IS a possibility that in the end this could end up an islamic extremist state. All I was saying is the possibility existed. May main point was that social media technology does not guarantee total freedom as an outcome. I read the article you linked to and it seems to agree with my point. I would recommend others read it.

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    3. Even if the upcoming power in Egypt will remain secular (which is a possibility) the corruption will be even more rampant than it is right now as the new power and subsequent governments will fill their pockets as fast as they come into power. The legal system will not be subdued by force like it is now but bought with hard cash (which is probably worse) and no media scandals will make it go away.
      Just look at the emerging Eastern European democracies. In more than 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell there’s little progress showing and the steps taken towards having corruption eradicated and a legal system that actually works are timid at best.

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  9. Twitter and facebook are only used to alert the slacktivists so that they can change their profile pic appropriately. Tons of americans will think they helped by retweeting. Just like 10 years ago they helped by putting a yellow ribbon magnet on their car.

    The real communication between important people in this revolution is done through phone calls and sms, and email and IM. Services that are reliable (twitter isn’t) and trustworthy(facebook isn’t).

    Tech journalists are the worst part in this. Every day they have to make facebook and twitter seem important and meaningful so that they can get page views.

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    1. You are correct. In fact, I would contend that one reason reporters ( I am not speaking of tech reporters covering that angle, but the reporter covering the political event) that cover uprisings like this love twitter and facebook, is that they are lazy and social media allows them to get quotes and soudbytes without having to get out there and do the “man on the street” type interviews. These cable news networks also love it because they get tons of quotes and soundbytes without having to send more reporters into the field. It provides “breaking news” infotainment without spending much money.

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