Feb 11 2011

After Tunisia and Egypt: towards a new typology of media and networked political change

The hub of a networked revolution

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?

Mediated World

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.

Diffuse Dissent

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.

Networked Power

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...]

Next questions?:

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?

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20 Responses to After Tunisia and Egypt: towards a new typology of media and networked political change

  1. Ben M says:

    Interesting. Yesterday, I changed my dissertation topic to reflect my questions about the same thing. I used to work with social media analytics to help clients understand changes in public opinion of their brand or legislation and predict problems in the future. I want to know how useful it actually is, and whether it can be more accurate in predicting election outcomes than old-school polling.

    Very interesting from this morning’s WSJ is how twitter was used to fool the police into guarding the wrong streets while protestors marched to the palace.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704132204576135882356532702.html

  2. Ben says:

    I think this is a much more nuanced argument than the more polemic responses out there.

    The most powerful argument for social networks as an agent of change comes from systems theory. Applied to cultural evolution, it makes clear that social change is correlated to commincation technology which, reflected by Moore’s Law, is exponentially increasing the links in the network. This will democratise the creation of the emergent property we know as History.

    I would be interested to hear your views on this idea, i’ve written about it with regard to twitter/revolution here: http://grimeandreason.blogspot.com/2011/01/cultural-evolutionary-function-of.html

    and in more philosophical, historical depth here: http://grimeandreason.blogspot.com/2010/06/we-are-what-we-think-we-know.html

    This last one is an overview of the theories I developed and is a evolutionary essay, as in it changes with each feedback I get and another name is added to the list of contributors. Would love to add your name to the list if you have time.

  3. jon snow says:

    Interesting post Charlie with which I agree strongly..however I do think the ‘leaderless’ nature of these revolutionary developments DOES owe much to the social network..the medium allows for diffuse leadership which ha as yet not really manifested itself in physical appearences on the street….some in the Square here in Cairo actually still tel you there are no leaders. Whereas as hacks we are aware..through the social network of very active, very strong leaders who are active in a well organised online ‘committee’.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    “The immediate causes of the events of a revolution are changes in the state of the mind of the conflicting classes.”

    History of Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, page 754, Gollanz

  5. Boz says:

    I’m not sure why you so casually dismiss causal claims, given the evidence you lay out. The placement of the communication and new media technologies as tools and catalysts is plausible, but no more plausible than suggestions that they are causes. If economics, politics, structural social factors, and geo-political context are all preconditions as you say, then the cause is as yet unidentified. Couldn’t new media technologies have led to cultural changes and new expectations for protests to occur? That seems to be the implication of statements from many of the organizers and participants. Perhaps you could explain why a new typology of media and networked political change would be different from and better than causal arguments. But you haven’t done that. If you’re going to dismiss causal arguments altogether, you have the burden of producing some alternative model and showing why it’s better. That’s something you and others who dismiss causal arguments have yet to specify. We ought to preserve space for reasonable people to make claims of different kinds rather than summarily dismissing whole classes of argument.

  6. CharlieBeckett says:

    Hi Boz,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You have misundertsood my case completely – I have not ‘dismissed causal effects altogether’. Quite the opposite.

    I obviously have not been clear, but then it’s not a clear-cut argument. But that was also the point of the piece, I am bored of people trying to make simplistic, clear-cut arguments about complex media and politics.

    Yes, media has a causal effect but I am trying to suggest that you have to set that in a much more complex set of factors. Firstly, all those socio economic factors are the real drivers of change, but mediation is increasingly important as a catalyst/enable etc. But more important, or more interesting, is that these new networked communications help facilitate a much more networked, diffuse form of politics.

    Have another read of the article. At one point I say ‘It strikes me that social media embodies the connection between action and expression.’ Well, that is precisely me suggesting a causal relationship.

    And as for, ‘the burden is on me to come up with another model’, well again, read the article. That is precisely and explicitly what I say I am trying to do.I am suggesting that we are seeing a new networked form of media and the kind of politics reflects that.

    I don’t pretend to have anything like an answer because media effects are never simple and we are witnessing an evolving set of issues. Anyone who reduces that to simple, clear conclusions is missing the point.

    The reason that the title of the piece says ‘towards’ a typology is because I don’t claim to have a lovely, pat theory that explains what’s going on. Generally, good journalism and good research at a time of transition doesn’t make simplistic assertions.

    cheers

    Charlie

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  9. Thanks Charlie for another thought-provoking piece.

    I was especially interested in your speculation on how social media embodies the connection between action and expression – whilst at the same time you acknowledged the phenonomena of ‘weak ties’.

    As you suggest, it’s at least arguable that social media does little more than offer the simplistic and meaningless option of “I’ve signed up to the Facebook page and so I’ve done my bit.”

    I think I support your suggestion that these new networked communications help facilitate a much more networked, diffuse form of politics.

    I wonder if the primary (or initial) role of social media is simply to facilitate the creation of a framework of weak ties. This framework of itself neither guarantees or generates consequent action. ‘Real-time’ action needs other actors who can exploit the framework to instigate or organise the action.

    In which case there are three possible roles for journalists in a dynamic situation, such as a revolution. The first role would be reporting the emergemce of the framework and thereby contributing to its ‘legitimization’ and immediate development (as was the case in Egypt).

    The second, sort of dual, role would be as a channel or conduit for the action–instigating players, whilst analysing and reporting back into the framework participants on the motives and objectives of these players.

    Another, subsequent, role would be acting as the communication channel between the disaffected or alienated and between them and the potential leaders of the new regime who will be struggling to establish a new mass communications in a post-dictatorship scenario.

    The role in respect of the disaffected or alienated would have to be performed in large part through social media and associated online means. I seem to recall some commentator remarking on the significance of how the decaying old regime in Egypt sought to close-down the local Internet, whilst the rising orders were making maximum use of it.

    I was also struck by how quickly after the initial crowd massing in the Cairo square, journalists moved onto the questions of “what will happen next, who are the new leaders?” Indeed, some of this commentary seems worryingly prescient, given the lack of the emergence of a popular pan-opposition leader.

  10. Isn’t the glamourisation of the social technology involved obscuring something older, more obvious and more interesting? A leaderless uprising is not a new idea. Anarchism has never been my cup of tea, but Tahrir Square is surely what serious anarchists have always believed in right back to the nineteenth century – the will of the people, uncorrupted by leaders. Just as Marx is coming back into vogue in economics, maybe anarchism should be dusted off in politics. Maybe anarchism has simply been waiting for the social technology that makes it possible.

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  12. Andy says:

    I really like this entry, its great knowing there are other minds out there who I vibe with. I was wondering if you had any links or further reading regarding the “shift in developed countries towards less rigidly defined political movement.” This is definitely an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a while now, and I’ve only just now seen it articulated clearly. This makes me think I’ve missed a ton of information on the topic, so if there’s anything to catch me up I’m insanely curious. Thank you!

  13. Boz says:

    Thank you for correcting me – I appreciate your clarification that you do not dismiss causal arguments entirely. This gives me some hope that you will disavow major portions of your original post, since you obviously didn’t mean what you said.

    For what it’s worth, I read your initial post with great care; I inferred that you dismissed causal claims because the words on the page seemed clearly to indicate that. If that’s not your intent, I applaud you for it.

    You suggest that it’s not a clear-cut argument. It can’t be that simple, you claim. We have to set in complex factors, you assert. My answer – unless in fact it is a clear-cut argument. Unless it is that simple. Unless setting in complex factors isn’t the right thing to do. You appeal to us to look to the organizers and participants of the event for their interpretations. Surely you must know those you would look to have made far more “causal” arguments than any you would countenance; probably because organizing and participating in the events in Egypt were intentional acts where causal thinking has its benefits. Or maybe because they know of what they speak.

    That said, it’s striking that at every juncture where causal thinking surfaces in your original post, you take the less causal explanation as your preferred account. (samples in a separate post following this). While I am far from bored, I am quite dismayed at people trying to make complexity out of something that many organizers and particpants see as clear-cut.

    There’s the rub. As with many observers in the received view held by Western media critics, it is taken as a foregone conlusion that complexes of indirect factors, mysterious unknowns, and absence of evidence means we cannot know the role — not the influence — the role new media played in the events in Egypt and Tunisia. No particular arguments for complexity as the better explanation are advanced. No clear model of the relationship of causal, catalytic, or antecedent factors is put forth (though I admire your first attempt at putting for the latter two kinds of accounts). Is complexity better because it explains more of the variance? We don’t know, because that is neither explained nor examined. The rationale for rejecting straightforward claims is not explained, because these cannot comprise an accurate account of what happened. The implications of accepting complexity and mystery over straightforward explanations remain unexamined. Accounts are judged on interesting rather than other criteria. No Occam’s Razor here. Instead, we know it’s complicated and that it will take a long time to figure it out – if we ever do.

    With all respect to your lovely writing and your very interesting exposition of factors that possibly played some minor role in the events we witness, the reason you haven’t been clear seems to rest with the mode of thought you’ve adopted – ironically, without a great deal of thought.

    As with most of the Very Serious People opining on this topic, you prefer interesting explanations over important explanations. I prefer the latter. I’ve tested these modes of thought using criteria other than interest in academic circles. Elsewhere, I argue that we should examine the implications and consequences of these two competing modes of thought. I’m baffled by the benefit interesting explanations bring to the world. The two most promising lines in your post are these:

    “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.”

    Sadly, however, for you there is no debate. To you, “media effects are never simple,” (even though we’re in an unprecedented era, which suggests we cannot possibly know that to be true), we “have to set that in a more complex set of factors.” We must conclude that socio-economic factors are the *real* (emphasis mine) drivers of change.” Why? You don’t explain. These media factors are catalysts, facilitating (but not driving) diffuse politics.

    All wonderfully interesting stuff, worthy of peer-reviewed journal articles, books, awards from academic societies, tenure, and a nice watch when one retires. But not, of course, anything you’ve justified on any criteria other than, you’d be bored if this weren’t true.

    Moreover, you fail to consider any direct causal explanations. Isn’t it reasonable to suggest, as some of the organizers of these events have done, that social media *changed the culture,* and the changed culture is what drove the events we’ve witnessed? Couldn’t it also be that the tools provided by net activists afforded direct protection of organizers from agents of the state, demonstrably working past abortive attempts by the government to shut down the internet in Egypt? These would seem to be rather direct, causal accounts, supported by the available evidence, and substantiated by direct accounts of
    observers who witnessed what was happening.

    They also have the benefit of perspicacity. Arguably, the larger part of the variance is explained through such causal accounts. Such is hardly the case for any of the complex explanations offered.

    By now, you must realize that your gestures toward causal reasoning are half-hearted and
    empty. It’s not how you prefer to think. You reject in on mostly unstated grounds. Though you say we should look to people who were there, you don’t run with their version of events.

    You hope that your account can help us to arrive at a more democratic politics. I applaud this motivation. While I thank you, I note that for several decades, eminent net activists have been specifying the new networked politics you hope to reverse engineer. It would be far better for the world if you just went with their version. So I’d ask you to reexamine your accounts relative to your
    motivations. How we explain these recent events goes to other important discussions. One example: is access to free flow of information over the internet – or whatever communication technologies are available in a given time – a fundamental human right and a prerequisite to people’s right of self-determination? Those who favor a yes answer tend to take a causal view of what happened; as with the organizers of the events in Egypt, they take intentioned steps to ensure free flow of information is
    assured through technology and law. Importantly, those who favor a no answer also take a causal view – but of course, they welcome a complex view. But if the implications of media technology on these rights are just too complex to understand, then the impact of abridging these rights is also arguably too complex to understand. Indeed, arguments for complexity are often the basis for claims that these
    rights do not exist.

    I believe you’ve been abundantly clear – as of yet, you haven’t given straightforward causal arguments a fair hearing. You can of course address this by justifying complexity. I’d find it very interesting reading were you to try. I’d find it more *important* were you to consider the following question – what if everyone in the world believed as you do about the role of communication technologies in events of this kind? What would the world look like? Would Net Activists even bother to provide software programs that protect people from police states? Why bother when the role of media are so unclear? Technologies can’t address the “real” causes — the socio economic ones. Governmental advocates of international treaties protecting free access to information would wonder, would they not, whether it was really all that important, given that information doesn’t address the real problems. It’s not as if we can’t find traces of these beliefs in discussions of public policy today.

    I’ve been struggling to put my finger on it, but now I understand what is so unsettling about accounts such as yours. It’s the fact that you gesture to the need to gather the opinions of people who were there or who participated. But of course, you reject their accounts. This was an internet revolution. hank you facebook. We are the digital generation. Our culture is changed by what we learned online, they say. In your labored, learned way, you eventually get around to saying no, child, it’s not that simple.

    Above all, we must remember that yours is a profoundly *revisionist* history, not unlike contemporary scholars who suggest, for example, that the American Civil War wasn’t at all about slavery. It hinged on different economic systems. Or states rights. Or cultural predispositions — anything but what it was actually about. You might think the analogy outrageous. Think again. Your pattern of thought is essentially the same in all respects, save the real objective of those apologists for slavery. Then again, both discussions – slavery then and freedom from corrupt governments now – are fundamentally about whether we accept or reject human bondage.

    In this little chapter of the long struggle to free the people of the world from their oppressors, I and those like me are the abolitionists who believe their pamphlets and smuggling of slaves through the underground railroad can bring the end we seek. Delusional, say the Very Serious People who dominate the discourse. You and all the other Very Serious People like you are the accommodationists who think those activities can’t be known to make a difference. I’ve read a good deal of correspondence from that period – the New Media of its day. You fit the mold.

    Trust me – I know – I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It can make all the difference in the world to those who are freed.

    Change your thinking, or defend your thinking, Charlie. You can’t have the politics you want with the style of analysis you prefer. If you believe you can, prove it rather than assuming it.

  14. Boz says:

    And now for some of your statements in need of revision, given your clarifying statement that you don’t reject causal arguments:

    Social media did not ’cause’ the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt. [didn't you disavow saying this in your reply?]

    Social media is now a useful indicator, if not predictor, of political change [indicator | predictor != cause]

    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. [not a cause of the events, a factor in a precursor - quite a demotion, Charlie!]

    All these factors drive revolutions. But in an increasingly mediated world, communications become more important as tools and catalysts. [Why do these factors drive, but tools act as catalysts? Why not the other way around? Why not some other account?]

    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. [too early? but the people involved say so and other independent evidence exists]

    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. [sterile debate or one you refuse to engage in?]

    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. [all of this wasn't planned well in advance?]

    These new tools are different, they are networkable. This suits the kind of new politics that appears to be emerging. [emergence presumably being a superior account to the idea that organizers planned what happened - though the texts of their posts provides primary evidence they did, and they testified at the time what they were up to]

    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. [why is Tahrir Square the ulimate fact, with Google, Facebook, and AJ playing their part? Would Tahrir Square have happened but for the direct influence of those channels - channels the government tried to shut down?]

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  17. There is some relevant copy in the current edition of Prospect on this theme of online-offline-weak-ties. This extract gives the perspectives of skeptic, promoter and senior policeman seeking more control over such activities:

    “… Two months before Anonymous brought down the Mastercard server, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an influential article in the New Yorker explaining why “the revolution will not be tweeted.” He claimed online networks create “weak-tie connections” that make “it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” He contrasted the weakness of digital protests with the discipline, strategy and hierarchy of effective protest movements in the past: “If Martin Luther King Jr had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery [where public buses were segregated],” concluded Gladwell, “he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure.”
    Others claim Gladwell drew a false distinction between offline and online communities. Aaron Peters, a 26-year-old participant in UK Uncut, says: “We soon realised that those offline and online networks could serve to strengthen each other—during the Vodafone protests they both worked together in symbiosis. Online networks sped things up dramatically.”
    Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, says there is “a generational divide” in policing, which makes senior officers “look like complete amateurs” when compared to technically literate young people. One problem, he said in an interview with Prospect (see below), is that protests rapidly organised online—as in late November—are much harder to police: “There is a whole new dimension to public order: speed…”

    Arrticle available from Prospect online:
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2011/01/uk-uncut-austerity-cuts-protest-brendan-barber-tuc-students-hugh-orde-interview/

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