Were Revolutions Created by Social Media?

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In no country in the world is there perfect transparency. This is particularly true in repressive or quasi-repressive regimes around the world where governments play an important role in regulating the information that everyday citizens can access. State media usually tends to be the most powerful tool in censorship. However, it is undeniable that in recent times the story is changing. ‘Social media’ has become a very frequently used word now, thrown around by people to explain and attach meaning to the phenomenal increase in the number of blogs, tweets and Facebook accounts in the past few years. In many countries around the world, endeavors by ‘everyday’ people – not just qualified journalists and statesmen have served as powerful voices against repression, bringing the concept of citizen journalism to the forefront of the dialogue about social media.

Citizen journalism, which is also referred by many as “Grassroots Journalism” doesn’t have a widely accepted definition. The Online Journalism Review describes citizen journalism as “The collecting and publication of timely, unique, nonfiction information by individuals without formal journalism training or professional affiliation. Examples include the publication of cell phone photos from a breaking news scene, blog reports covering local government meetings and discussion forums reporting results from international competitions.”

A very useful example that demonstrates the resilient voice of citizen journalism are the 2009 presidential elections held in Iran, which many observers and foreign policy experts dubbed a “Twitter Revolution.” Opponents of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took to the streets in June 2009 to protest against the re-election of Ahmadinejad, in what they believed to have been an unfair electoral process. For many keen observers around the world, most of the information came from Iranian bloggers and “tweeple” because foreign media coverage of “unauthorized” demonstrations was restricted by the Iranian government. As Evgeny Morozov, of the Open Society Institute remarked at the time of the Iranian protests, citizen journalists “filled an important niche.”

The recent growth in social media has led many people to herald the age of change, with many referencing it as a new beginning. Perhaps what many of them are forgetting is that change and revolution existed even before Facebook and Twitter did. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in this article for the New Yorker, the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s provides a great example of powerful activism.  According to Gladwell, this power was made able by the deep and personal connections that people had with each other, and social media doesn’t provide that kind of connection.

Gladwell also states that this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing; he cites sociologist Mark Granovetter who has said that our ideas – sources of information and inspiration come from  acquaintances and not friends. But social media can only reach out to people if you don’t ask too much of them, not if you ask them to commit to high end activism. Another point that Gladwell raises is that instead of forming hierarchies, social media forms networks which provide a lot of resilience in low risk activities:

Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Gladwell has also written on the issue recently, using Egypt as an example to try and reinforce his point. He says that people will protest whenever they feel slighted by a system, using East Germany as an example to prove his point that technology is not necessary for mass action to take place.

While what happened in Egypt was a long time in the making, with many observers wondering when there would be large scale opposition to Mubarak’s regime – it would probably be unwise to completely ignore the role of social media in this one. Indeed, as Gladwell has pointed out, some of the most powerful movements have happened at a time when there was no Facebook, but the reality is, this time there was Facebook, and it played an important role. Would the Egyptians have revolted against Mubarak’s regime even if there was no social media? Most probably, yes.  But communication networks would have been very different. A young Egyptian living in Cairo would probably have to have a friend, or friends of a friend involved in the protests to feel compelled enough to attend it. Today, just reading a passionate blog post written by an unknown person might be enough to incite action. Most of us hear about causes and information through the social media much more than we do from our personal acquaintances, and this often tends to inspire us more as we are able to find causes that we are passionate about.

Therefore, it’s important to recognize that while social media didn’t cause the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries– they certainly contributed towards shaping the protests. The important step ahead is seeing where this revolution goes. As Gladwell points out, revolutions will be nothing without a hierarchy, where a person or a group of people step up and effectively lead the country. Also, while social media in itself may not be revolutionary, citizen journalism has endowed many people with a voice that they didn’t have before, enabling them to be important tools of information and change, especially in societies that suffer from a lack of transparency.

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