Is there still a debate on whether social media can cause revolutions? If this was ever a serious question, it was mainly an argument between straw men: on the one hand, wild idealists who saw the internet as an all-encompassing force for freedom and on the other, the crusty curmudgeons who fear technology and pooh-pooh the idea that social media is good for anything but posting pictures of cats. NYU professor Jay Rosen characterized the debate as “Wildly overdrawn claims about social media, often made with weaselly question marks (like: ‘Tunisia’s Twitter revolution?’) and the derisive debunking that follows from those claims (‘It’s not that simple!’)” and argued that these “only appear to be opposite perspectives. In fact, they are two modes in which the same weightless discourse is conducted.”
I think we can safely put that debate aside. While Malcolm Gladwell made a lot of noise last October by declaring that “the revolution will not be tweeted,” reporting like John Pollock’s “Streetbook” demolishes the idea that there is some intrinsic and impassable barrier separating “street” activism from the kind of “slacktivist” organizing of which Gladwell is so dismissive. But it’s worth noting that even the most visible “cyber-utopians” and “cyber-pessimists” seem to be converging on a point somewhere in the middle. In March, Clay Shirky significantly qualified the kinds of claims he makes for the centrality of social media—arguing that it is access to each other, not access to media, that makes revolutions—while Evgeny Morozov has pointed out that both he and Gladwell have been clear that the internet can be an effective tool for political change, as long as it is “used by grassroots organizations (as opposed to atomized individuals).” If you can see the fundamental divide between these arguments, you see more clearly than I do.
What’s different, I suspect, is that we can now ask the question in the past tense, and the answer is that middle ground onto which both sides are converging, a very middling “kind of, but not completely.” What happened in Egypt and Tunisia were revolutions, but they were obviously not caused by Facebook or Twitter: as Ramesh Srinivasan pointed out only 15% of Egyptians have Internet access, and only a small percentage use social media sites. But along with reporting like Pollock’s, the work done by people like Zeynep Tufekci, Samir Garbaya, and Ramesh Srinivasan allows us to stop talking, hypothetically, about “technology” and “revolutions” in the abstract, and to start looking at what it was about these revolutions and these regimes that gave these social media tools such potency, visibility, and usefulness. Which is all to the good. Talking about the technology risks making Facebook or Twitter the hero of the story, thereby turning our attention away from the courage and commitment of face-to-face organizers and masses in the street.
But while Malcolm Gladwell may still think that “the least interesting thing [about the protests in Egypt] is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media,” it still seems undeniable that social media has achieved a unique kind of visibility in the story of the “Arab Spring.” You cannot tell the story of Khaled Said, after all, without talking about social media: he was dragged out of a cybercafé and beaten to death for posting a video showing police corruption, whereupon pictures of his battered face became a mobilizing point for the Facebook group “We Are All Khaled Said,” moderated by Google executive Wael Ghonim. Ghonim’s declaration to Wolf Blitzer on CNN that “This revolution started online…on Facebook” is not really credible, of course; at most, Facebook organizing managed to build on and enhance the Kifaya movement, which started years ago. But if Facebook is not the whole story, it is certainly part of the story. And what are we to make of the story of the Egyptian newborn named “Facebook”? Or of photos like this one?
It seems to me that there are two significantly different perspectives from which to ask the question of what social media technology does. On the one hand, what Pollock documents in the streets of Tunisia is the way social networking can enhance and enable forms of organizing that are utterly precedented: groups organized around Facebook merge seamlessly with groups organized around football. And as I think both Shirky and Morozov would agree, the important thing is the groups themselves, the grass-roots organizing and access-to-each other that could start with something like football, but which could also be maintained and expanded by something like Facebook. In this sense, “social media” is only one medium of revolution among many.
But the medium is also a message. After all, to join a Facebook group like “We are all Khaled Said” is not the same as joining the group for Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. To “like” Hosni Mubarak would be to endorse a leader—the leader, in fact—but the extremely visible leaderlessness of “We are all Khalid Said” seems to be exactly the point. In other words, instead of the personality cult by which Presidents-for-life like Ben Ali and Mubarak have ruled for decades, the masses of nameless Cairenes and Tunisians—assembled on Facebook and in the street—represents a kind of anti-personality cult. When everyone is “Khaled Said” (or “Mohamed Bouazizi” in Tunisia), after all, the story being told is not only about that the nation is united, but that it is united by the common experience of having suffered at the hands of the state. In this sense, instead of “leaderless revolutions,” perhaps we might think about how Facebook helped facilitate a “revolution of leaderlessness”?
If we pull back from the level of the street, in other words, and think about the story being told by people like Wael Ghonim about the revolution, “Facebook” doesn’t just represent a medium of street-level organizing. It’s also a media messaging strategy, a way of branding and identifying the revolution for the millions who were watching. And it’s always worth remembering that these revolutions didn’t only succeed in the streets: Mubarak and Ben Ali both lost power when their own militaries (and world opinion) turned decisively against them, siding instead with the nation united in opposition. But how did “the nation” come to seem so completely united? What happened to the ethnic, sectarian, political, and regional divisions that supposedly made it necessary for a strong man dictator like Mubarak to hold the state together? Remember, this has been the argument made for years (and by Mubarak, quite explicitly): Egyptians are so fundamentally divided that without a strong leader, the state would come apart at the seams, would explode into chaos. A Facebook group like “We are all Khaled Said” not only makes exactly the opposite argument—that Egypt is a nation united by its victimhood at the hands of the state— but it demonstrates, quite visibly, that this is the case.
What social media debunkers like Malcolm Gladwell have always argued is that platforms like Facebook are poorly suited for producing strong consensus on a program of action; for Gladwell, the Civil Rights movement was a social movement that could not have been tweeted. And this may be true. But if the movements to oust Mubarak and Ben Ali had been led by a single charismatic leader, or by a party with a clear platform, it would have been much easier for Mubarak or Ben Ali to divide the opposition, to make it seem not like a nation united in opposition to its leadership, but as a particular party or demagogue striving to supplant him. If the Muslim Brotherhood had taken a clear leadership role, after all, Mubarak would have received much more support from those leery of Islamist terrorism. But if the movement had taken on an exclusively secularist character, substantial portions of the population would have been alienated from it. In other words, what Gladwell flags as a weakness of social media—the difficulty of producing strong commitment to a single idea or plan—might actually be what makes it uniquely valuable. By uniting around the crimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the much more difficult political question of what kind of government was to succeed him could be deferred until later.
Aaron Bady is a PhD student in African Studies in University of California Berkeley’s Department of English, and the author of the blog zunguzungu.com.