Following the toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, new research has surfaced that deepens the debate over the role of social media in the revolutionary process.
In the research paper, covered today in the New York Times, Navid Hassanpour, a Yale graduate student, made the argument that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter serve to mollify, rather than aggravate, participants in a revolution. This conflicts with the conventional belief that such websites act as powerful incitement forces in times of upheaval.
Hassanpour looked at the Mubarak regime’s decision, made at the outset of the popular revolution, to flip the Internet kill switch on Jan. 28, a move that suddenly left 80 million people without their usual means of communication. In examining the situation, he concluded that the regime’s decision intensified the revolution, drawing people from their homes and into the streets, enraging people who had heretofore been apolitical.
Here is what Hassanpour concluded:
“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways. It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”
His findings corroborate an argument put forth by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, October 2010. Gladwell used historical situations from the Civil Rights movement and compared them to revolutions today. He argued that high-risk social activism, like that of the Civil Rights movement or Arab Spring uprisings, involved people who were intimately connected with one another, people who actually took to the streets because they were highly invested in the cause. People on Facebook or Twitter do not have this type of commitment, according to Gladwell. Tweeting about a cause is a far cry from descending upon Tahrir square and risking one’s life.
Yet people on the other end of the argument point out that social media do seem to play a big part. Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting for CNN, pointed out that key organizers formed groups on Facebook that grew to hundreds of thousands of members. With a single post the group leaders could inform their followers of meeting times and locations. These types of results are hard to argue with.
But Hassanpour’s argument is more of a systemic one. That is, it cuts to the core of revolutionary theory by pointing out that social media, tweet-by-tweet, post-by-post, tend to make people passive, tend to lull people into inactivity–something which any revolutionary knows is antithetical to any revolution. Crafty regimes, for example, are starting to learn that, rather than completely shut off social media–thus making Mubarak’s mistake–an uprising is better quelled through more subtle means: things like Internet throttling or blocking access to certain portions of the population.
Hassanpour drew inspiration from a 2009 study by Holger Lutz Kern of Yale and Jens Hainmueller of M.I.T., called “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes.” The authors studied the effect of Western media on Germans in the Eastern Block before the fall of the Berlin Wall. They found that the Western media gave East Berliners a “vicarious escape from the scarcities, the queues and the ideological indoctrination, making life under communism more bearable and the East German regime more tolerable.” (via the New York Times)
All said, the conclusion seems to be that social media have the tendency to distract. Ideas and people spark the conflagrations of revolution, not Twitter, not Facebook, not technology in general. Yet tools like Twitter and Facebook do serve some purpose–as evidenced by the Facebook groups in Egypt’s revolution–if they are put to use by organizers to actually draw people into the action.