I came across this article in ABC’s The Drum Unleashed by Charles McPhedran, an “Australian journalist based in Berlin”. Reading McPhedran’s argument, it is quite clear that he is coming from a…very
trendy particular perspective:
Minutes later, Barack Obama, standing before a gilded 18th century fireplace and framed by the stars and stripes, reported that Hosni Mubarak had pledged to create a “better democracy” in his land. Obama himself wanted greater “freedom, opportunity and justice” for Egyptians, remarking rightly that this is what everyone everywhere wants. Like during his election campaign two years ago, Obama’s authoritative tone convinced – even as his words remained vague.
Like the imagery there? The rich an important American president speaking empty words about democracy while supporting a dictator? Of course, this is the year of Mark Zukerberg, and the real hero here who totally brought down the establishment was social media.
On Twitter, a cacaphony reported on events in Suez, Alexandria and the Egyptian capital in a dozen languages. On Facebook, protests were organised in every major city worldwide. A global public community emerged, exposing every lie and untruth of those leaders who refused to help the Egyptian people move towards popular democracy in Egypt.
Obviously this global roar of outrage wouldn’t have occurred without the public protest of millions of Egyptians. However, it has been the social networks that have amplified the message from Cairo, and helped to make a quick massacre of protestors less likely. Even though Twitter and Facebook are controlled by large corporations, over the past few days they have provided a space in which there is a global exchange of short reports and views going on.
I love social media probably more than the next guy, and I would love to thank Twitter and Facebook for everything that happens in the world, but it’s not always the case. For instance, Syria doesn’t seem to think it’s such a problem anymore. There has been a lot of debate recently in slightly more reputable publications than The Drum about how much political impact social media really has.
One of these was Malcolm Gladwell, possibly the most influential social commentator of our generation, in The New Yorker.
He outlines exactly how people like McPhedran are thinking:
The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change.
Then after looking at different examples of revolutions, he goes on to look at how social media really affects things:
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life
…The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents.
Disputing internet “guru” Clay Shirky, adjunct professor in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, his take-home point is that social media can help make people care more about something, but it is not about to change the world into a democratic haven overnight and cannot actually replace genuine protests. That said, Egypt has seen genuine protests, not just a series of Facebook groups, so there must be more to it.
Clay Shirky responded in Foreign Affairs, arguing that while social media is not the solution to all of the world’s despots, it does allow resistance movements to better organise themselves through facilitating communication:
Despite this mixed record, social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements, just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments (and, alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it. In response, the U.S. State Department has committed itself to “Internet freedom” as a specific policy aim. Arguing for the right of people to use the Internet freely is an appropriate policy for the United States, both because it aligns with the strategic goal of strengthening civil society worldwide and because it resonates with American beliefs about freedom of expression.
Finally, he points out that social media cannot change the world overnight, but it can effect change long-term, simply by allowing populations to be more informed and connected:
It would be nice to have a flexible set of short-term digital tactics that could be used against different regimes at different times. But the requirements of real-world statecraft mean that what is desirable may not be likely. Activists in both repressive and democratic regimes will use the Internet and related tools to try to effect change in their countries, but Washington’s ability to shape or target these changes is limited. Instead, Washington should adopt a more general approach, promoting freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly everywhere. And it should understand that progress will be slow. Only by switching from an instrumental to an environmental view of the effects of social media on the public sphere will the United States be able to take advantage of the long-term benefits these tools promise — even though that may mean accepting short-term disappointment.
Gladwell responded with:
This is the question that I kept wondering about throughout Shirky’s essay-and that had motivated my New Yorker article on social media, to which Shirky refers: What evidence is there that social revolutions in the pre-Internet era suffered from a lack of cutting-edge communications and organizational tools? In other words, did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?
And Shirky had the last word:
Even the increased sophistication and force of state reaction, however, underline the basic point: these tools alter the dynamics of the public sphere. Where the state prevails, it is only by reacting to citizens’ ability to be more publicly vocal and to coordinate more rapidly and on a larger scale than before these tools existed.
This seems a little different from McPhedran’s idea that the world was informed about Egypt because of Twitter. From what Gladwell and Shirky were saying, the revolution in Egypt would probably have happened regardless of Facebook.
Another thing to consider is what Facebook and Twitter themselves could have done regarding Egypt. Adrian Chen at Gawker even argues that Facebook is getting in the way of the protestors and should be doing more to help the revolution along:
In many ways, Facebook has made itself actively hostile to those who would organize against a repressive regime or advance an unpopular idea. Most problematic is the policy that bans pseudonyms. Facebook defends the policy by saying their service is about “real people making real-world connections.” But what if the real world is full of secret police looking to crack down on dissent, or snooping bosses who might be supportive of a regime? Harvard Internet freedom expert Jillian C York calls the real identity policy “ludicrously out of touch.”
…Facebook should earn Egyptians’ thanks by doing more to enable protesters and activists to use their service safely. This isn’t just a matter of human rights, but of good business. Imagine if Facebook worked to improve its privacy and security practices to the point that an Iranian dissident would feel comfortable using the site to organize anti-government actions. (Under a pseudonym, of course.) There wouldn’t be much left for us to complain about! (To its credit, Facebook did something like this when it responded to the Tunisian government’s mass-hacking of Facebook by boosting security for all users, including Tunisian protesters.)
Chen does have a point, in that these social media giants wield huge international power without having any real policy, which is a strange situation to be in. It is possible that, had they made a decision either way, Facebook and Twitter could have stifled or spurred-on the revolutionaries. McPhedran’s Messiah complex aside, this is really the way in which social media could affect change, and is kind of worrying. What if one of the networks falls into the wrong hands?