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Memo to Gladwell: Social media helps activism, and here’s how

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Ever since the first rock was thrown in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, there has been a debate about how much social media such as Twitter and Facebook had to do with the events that took place there, and the downfall of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Author Malcolm Gladwell in particular has dismissed the impact of these tools several times, saying they are effectively irrelevant in the larger scheme of things when it comes to social activism. But sociologist Zeynep Tufekci disagrees, and she makes a persuasive case in a piece for MIT’s Technology Review that Facebook in particular played a key role in the revolutionary events that have taken place in Egypt and elsewhere.

In Gladwell’s original dismissal of social media’s effects, in a piece in The New Yorker last October, the author contrasted the kind of “real” social activism that occurred during the civil-rights protests over U.S. segregation in the 1960s with the kind of lightweight social impact that Twitter and Facebook have. According to Gladwell, people might be willing to change their location status on Twitter to Tehran in solidarity with dissidents there, or join a Facebook group to raise money for someone needing a bone-marrow transplant, but this is simply “slacktivism” (although he didn’t use that word) and therefore isn’t as meaningful as real-world activism. In the end, Gladwell says:

Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

There is no “online world” vs. “real world”

Gladwell’s central point was that the kind of “weak ties” (as sociologist Mark Granovetter called them) that are developed through social media are not significant enough or powerful enough to affect things in the “real” world — and that Twitter and Facebook are effectively consumed by ephemera and trivialities. But Zeynep Tufekci has made the point before that drawing a distinction between online activity and “real-world” behavior makes less and less sense today, when our online lives are becoming inextricably linked with our offline ones, and that social networks can impact real change.

In Egypt, for example, the seemingly simple (and for Gladwell, effectively meaningless) act of joining a Facebook group devoted to Khaled Said, the Egyptian programmer who was killed by that country’s police forces, helped to turn what was an online protest into a real-world phenomenon that eventually toppled a dictator (something described in a feature in the Technology Review based on interviews with dissidents in Tunisia and Egypt). Did Facebook do this all by itself? Hardly. But Tufekci argues that it clearly played a crucial role in creating what she calls a “collective action/information cascade” that drove the protests out of the online world and into the “real” one.

How did it do this? According to Tufekci, who has made a study of dissident activity in countries like Egypt, there is often a kind of sociological logjam that prevents real revolution from occurring in such societies, where any kind of political action could be met by detainment or even death. Because the costs of dissent are so large, there is a “collective action problem” that is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory — no one wants to take action by themselves because of the consequences, but since there is no way to be sure that anyone else is going to join them, revolution becomes a stalemate. As she puts it:

Collective action problems are hardest to crack if it’s difficult for citizens to coordinate and communicate. Indeed, game-theorists have long known that communication between participants dramatically alters the dynamics of these “dilemmas” which appear rigged against the interests of the individuals.

Social media helps build social momentum

What social media such as Facebook does, Tufekci argues, is to create a sense of a larger community around such issues (something we have argued is the power of real-time social networks). If thousands of people join a Facebook page for Khaled Said, in other words — something that is far from a meaningless act in a country like Egypt, thanks in part to Facebook’s “real name” policies and the fact that police forces can and do track dissidents through such networks — it shows others that there is a groundswell of revolutionary feeling, and that can help tip things over from simple online community-building into “real world” activism.

It is in this context Facebook “likes” of dissident pages such as “We are All Khaled Said,” sharing of videos of regime brutality, online expressions of political anger, and acceptances of Facebook “invitations” to protest all matter as they help build a visible momentum which, itself, is a condition of success.

What’s always been surprising to me, ever since Malcolm Gladwell started trying to minimize the impact of social media on revolution, is that what Tufekci and others have described fits almost exactly with the concept of a “tipping point,” which the New Yorker writer so famously laid out in his book of the same name. If anyone is equipped to grasp the idea of collective action occurring based on a build-up of small events and seemingly innocuous connections, shouldn’t it be Gladwell?

For whatever reason, however, the author has continued to downplay the idea that social-media activity can be a necessary part — or even an important part — of real revolution or social activism. But Tufekci makes a strong case that what she calls the “new media ecology” created by Facebook and Twitter and other real-time information networks is a game-changer for social activism. And not only that, she notes that understanding how collective action works in such situations is important because “the most crucial problems humanity faces are collective action problems [ranging from] from the health of our democracies to global warming, from financial and asset bubbles to social unrest.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Richard Engel, NBC and Flickr user Petteri Sulonen

10 Responses to “Memo to Gladwell: Social media helps activism, and here’s how”

  1. I’ve submitted comment to the original written by Zynep and for the sake of enriching the argument, i’d like to re-submit here as well:
    The uprising in the arab world has certainly spurred a lot of discussion on the role social/new media has played in those events…in all counts, this piece comes out to be the most complete in its diagnostics and assessment of the various factors/implications particularly on the Egypt case…

    However i feel that you somewhere you have fallen in the same “projection trap” that many journos/researchers fall in when their research is either conducted remotely or when the intervention is not deep enough… let’s begin with the facts:

    Egypt’s Facebook base was 4.5million before the uprising and 5.4million after it (official estimations by Facebook); the total population of egypt is 80million which puts Facebook’s penetration at 5.6% pre and 6.7% after…not only that, but 80% of Facebook’s subscribers fall in the age bracket of 15-25, which in itself constitutes 28% of total population in egypt…for the record, internet in general stands at a penetration of 20% concentrated in key urban pockets within cairo and alexandria while TV commands a +90% penetration uniformly across all of egypt.

    While Egypt was a case of “Collective action problem” as you rightly put it, the role of social media as a communication enabler among one single constituency of the uprising factions did not “…dramatically alter the dynamics” because it eventually empowered a group of individuals who were already connected, savvy and thereby empowered…

    In the lead up to the finale, in fact, the real tipping point happened at the very same week when communication in egypt was blacked-out completely for the exception of voice services…yes people found alternate routes to hook-up; yes the likes of al arabiya and al jazeerah offered alternate solutions…but again, those were accessible to select savvy group of individuals…the tipping point happened because the ordinary egyptian rose as well; the same egyptian who is not on Facebook or twitter (the most used social media platforms in egypt); the same egyptian who cannot afford an internet subscription at home… the history of uprising in egypt goes back to as far as Mubarak’s early days and his 2 predecessors…The youth movement certainly gave the uprising more legitimacy and oomph. But let’s face it, factions like the muslim brotherhood, Kifaya, Ayman Noor and Mohamad al Baradei (to name a few) have long been active on the political reform front and it is their contribution that gave the uprising enough stamina to cut-through…

    Communication among the participants might have created the tipping point but TV might have contributed more to the dissemination of the message than what social media might have contributed…i’m afraid, in the case of egypt, Malcolm Gladwell’s statement about the new media tools as being “…effectively irrelevant in the larger scheme of things..” is a better representation of what really happened on ground… That said, the increased proliferation will only mean that the impact you described will materialize in the few years to come. For the time being, the people of syria, yemen and any other oppressed nation will depend on more reliable tools: Will Power!

  2. Zeynep Tufekci has been paid by Facebook. FB invests a lot to make propagandas, propagandists and huge amount of fake accounts. Its an evil monopoly strategy where they have beaten the big brothers G and MS :) Probably we will have some tangible data on wikileaks soon.

  3. It is odd.

    Social media platforms are a new tool in the communication arsenal. Just because it isn’t good at one thing does not imply that it is not good for another. A saw isn’t so great at hammering nails into wood, but it does a fine job cutting wood. Similarly, social media platforms may not create strong ties between users. In the case of social upheaval/trauma, they don’t need to establish lasting ties, the event itself does that. What they can provide is an extremely simple and fast way of communicating over vast networks of people, which hopefully we can agree are assets in the above context. Now, name another method of communication that enables communication at comparable scale, as quickly and as easily.

    Certainly, one can argue about the extent of the role that social platforms played in recent global social movements, but to suggest that the underlying technology is fundamentally irrelevant to those events is patently absurd.

  4. Ian Gertler

    The key point (in my opinion): there must always be a solid foundation. Social media doesn’t create this passion and desire, but it allows for the underlying issues to be expanded upon to reach more people. It’s like building a house. The foundation must be present and solid. Once that’s done, social media can help people, organizations, companies and governments build and decorate the rest of the house. If this happens enough, it contributes to the development of a better global community of worldwide citizens.