Social media did not ’cause’ the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt. But if I want to find out where the next uprising in the Middle East might occur, that is certainly where I would look. Social media is now a useful indicator, if not predictor, of political change.
And regardless of the causal relationship, social media does seem to be a critical factor in the evolution of a new networked kind of politics.
Of course, the most important pre-conditions for revolution are economic. Both Tunisia and Egypt had recently suffered economic downturns on top of gross income inequality in societies that are relatively developed.
Then of course the politics is vital. Both countries were ruled by repressive, rigid and corrupt regimes. The safety valves for dissent or protest were blocked. The machine for maintaining power and resisting change was becoming sclerotic.
Then there are other structural social factors. Has demography created a surplus of dispossessed and unengaged youth with little to lose? Is there a large middle-class who are feeling under-appreciated by the regime? Is there a commercial sector that feels it is being hit by the regime’s inefficiency?
Is the population reasonably well-educated and so more aware of alternatives and the techniques for organisation? Is there an historic sense of grievance or aspiration to a different national ideal?
What about the geo-political context? What will Washington or Riyadh do? And perhaps, most important, what do the generals think?
All these factors drive revolutions. But in an increasingly mediated world, communications become more important as tools and catalysts. New media technologies are a key and growing part of this, but they have to be seen in the wider context of mass media such as radio or TV. Increasingly, that mediation also happens across borders thanks to the Internet and satellite TV.
From the evidence I have seen – and it is still much too early to make any kind of empirical judgement – the uprising in Tunisia was crucially galvanised by social media, often operating in a networked journalism way with mainstream and especially international news media. The people involved say so. And it is difficult to explain how Egypt caught fire without noting how many people make a direct link to the Tunisian example seen online and on TV.
Perhaps, though, the most interesting aspect of these revolutions is not the often sterile debate about media causality or even media effects. The bit that intrigues me is the networkedness of the uprisings.
These two uprisings were not the work of organised conventional opposition parties or charasmatic leaders. They were not directly connected to a major event such as an election (as in Iran) or a conflict. They arose incrementally and were then accelerated by relatively symbolic individual acts combined into collective movements. Some of those acts involved great heroism and suffering, even death but generally they were diffuse.
This amorphous organisation was connected around nodal figures who all tended to resist conventional leadership roles. And the momentum was animated by collective, marginal actions (eg demonstrations) rather than a tactical objective (eg seize the Presidential palace). These coalesced in Egypt into that extraordinary physical statement of the crowds in Tahrir Square.
Take the battle for Tahrir Square, for example, when protestors faced up to the organised violent pro-Mubarak incursion into the demonstration. It was resisted in a collective but relatively spontaneous way.
The diffuse, horizontal nature of these movements made them very difficult to break. Their diversity and flexibility gave them an organic strength. They were networks, not organisations.
Now this is where media – and especially networked communications comes in. Bear in mind that this is new. Levels of Internet penetration and mobile telephony in the Middle East have increased rapidly in the last couple of years. It has given people new tools for political expression and activism. But this is what is significant. These new tools are different, they are networkable.
This suits the kind of new politics that appears to be emerging. Not just in developing countries either. There seems to be a similar shift in developed countries towards less rigidly defined political movements. But it is particularly effective in authoritarian regimes.
Strong Weak Ties
These networks may be made up of relatively ‘weak’ ties but, as I have written elsewhere, these are more effective because they connect people in a personal and diffuse way that is harder (but not impossible) for the authorities to control. And as we have seen, the networks that connect through weak ties can also be converted in a relatively short period into a public, real world manifestation with impact.
Go and look at how the activists and citizens used social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc. Go and see how they used the Internet to network themselves directly and to spread their activities to a wider world. It was effective. But when you look at it in detail you will also see that it was different to previous forms of political activist communication which were linear, vertical, directed. The flash mobs, the data maps, the texting, the blogs and all the rest were not organised like a conventional party election campaign. It’s not even like Samizdat which was, in effect, simply an underground version of conventional political written journalism. These are fluid, personalised, interactive, peer-authenticated communications that promote personal engagement and collective endeavour.
Social media also works wonderfully with one of the most significant political communications practices – especially in urban areas – word of mouth.
Understanding The Social
So if social media has an increasingly potent role, we need to know how it worked to better understand what might work well in the future. For those of us who like democracy and would like to see more of it around the world, this is more than a media studies debate.
That’s why we need this new typology of media and networked political change. It may well take up the work of people like Castells and Benkler as a framework. I am sure my more academic colleagues can help with the reading list.
But let’s get busy on asking those involved how they did it, but also why and what was different.
Here’s a couple of thoughts from my very limited study of the recent period.
Action And Expression
It strikes me that social media embodies the connection between action and expression. For example, you can Tweet that you are going to a demonstration. The hashtag connects you to others and acts as an expression of your opinion, a call to action and builds solidarity. It is democratic, efficient and endlessly variable. It is personal but it increases social capital for the movement. That’s quite impressive isn’t it?
This all seems to me to be some sort of shift in the terms of trade of the political economy.
Of course, the ultimate fact of the Egyptian revolution has been Tahrir Square. Google, Facebook and Al Jazeera all played their part. But it was the physical, heroic presence of those people in one place for so long that meant that in the end, Mubarak had to go. I think that fact of the crowd is the ultimate symbol of this new networked politics of change: diverse individuals networked into a meaningful and effective political network for change.
[I explore the idea of 'weak ties' as a force for political networking in more detail here]
[I have also looked at some of these ideas in the context of Neda and Iran - similar concepts, but different result...]
How does this change the way that we report on revolution as journalists?
How does it feed into the post-revolutionary politics and general political communications?