First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, now in Libya: technologically savvy protestors are making extraordinary use of the Internet and digital media to support mass movements against autocratic governments. The Twitter hashtag #jan25 and its corresponding date in history will mark a change in how those seeking to cling to power will look at networked digital technologies for the coming generation.
But before we get too excited about the future of global democracy, we should put the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa in their proper context. One context is regional. The other is historical.
The regional context is crucial. The way that activists, and relatively passive citizens, for that matter, use digital technologies in civic life is very different in different parts of the world.
In the United States, the way the Internet has driven sociopolitical change has been limited. Technology visionaries like Chris Hughes, the Facebook cofounder and a leader of then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign organizing efforts, use these tools to improve classic offline campaigning tactics, like door-knocking and get-out-the-vote. Since the election, Hughes has turned his efforts to organizing groups to give more generously to philanthropy through a site called Jumo. This kind of sophisticated usage of the Internet in well-established democracies is effective, but not (yet) transformative. Perhaps our discourse is richer for the contributions of bloggers and others writing in what Yochai Benkler calls the “networked public sphere.” But the kind of change that we see in long-standing (I hesitate to say “advanced”) democracies is, so far, marginal.
On a different end of the spectrum, some of the world’s strongest autocrats have managed to overcome Internet-supported protests in their streets. The response of Iran’s government to the protests in 2009, despite quite effective use of the Internet to coordinate protests and to alert the world to atrocities on the ground in Tehran, was to crush the protests, punish the offending organizers, and get back to the business of running the state. The Internet may have helped organize the revolt, but it also might have given the Iranian state an effective way to track organizers down and prosecute them. The military junta in Burma in 2007 similarly survived the use of cell phones to organize and share pictures of monks marching in the streets. Examples of the triumph of states over Internet-fueled protests are easy to come by.
The point is that the technology matters far less than the context of the politics, culture, and history of the place and people involved in using the technologies. In Tunisia and Egypt, it was crucial that a minimal number of people, commonly both young and elite, had high literacy rates, access to the technologies, and skill in using them. These states have very large youth populations and growing levels of sophistication, at least among the children of the wealthy, in their access to and use of digital technologies. One organizer of the Egyptian uprisings is now known to have been 30-year-old Google executive Wael Ghonim. He had created a Facebook page to commemorate 28-year-old Khaled Said, a businessman beaten by police the previous June. The sophistication of the activists and the corresponding lack of sophistication of the autocrats matters enormously.
The regional context matters in another way. It is plausible that the domino effect that we are witnessing in the Middle East and North Africa has something to do with the network as well. In some respects, common language and use of the same Internet-based tools is more important in a digitally mediated world than geopolitical boundaries are. The fact that the uprising in Tunisia prompted sympathetic protests in the region, and as far away as Turkey, may have something to do with the extent to which digital networks carried news of the uprisings very quickly, through social media and formal news outlets, in Arabic, English, French, and other languages. This is not to say that the governments in Libya and Bahrain will necessarily experience what the governments in Tunisia and Egypt have. It is instead to say that linguistic and regional affinities may be strengthened through digital networks, and may in turn lead to tinderbox-like conditions in certain regional settings.