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New Media and the People-Powered Uprisings

Social media is a potent tool for change, one that upends the collective action dynamics that, until now, have constrained Arab citizens.
August 30, 2011

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill at the School of Information and Library Science with an affiliate appointment in the Department of Sociology. She is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Her research revolves around the interaction between technology and social, cultural and political dynamics, and she is particularly interested in collective action and social movements, complex systems, surveillance, privacy, and sociality. She blogs at

Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years while Muammar Gaddafi dominated Libya for nearly 42 years. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali reigned Tunisia for 24 years, and the ousted, but not-yet-out Yemen leader Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power since 1978—36 years and counting. Bashar al-Assad has ruled Syria since 2000, when he took over from his father’s 30 year reign, making it 41 years of Assad rule.

By all accounts, these regimes are/were deeply unpopular. While we have no reliable polls from when these autocrats were in power (because they did not allow them), a post-Mubarak poll, for example, finds, that 66 percent of Egyptians want him executed if convicted. When asked to describe his regime, the top choice of Egyptians is “Dictator” (48 percent) followed by “Corrupt” (46 percent). The real question, then, is not why Mubarak or the others faced a revolt; rather, how did these tyrants succeed in holding on to power for so long? How can one man or a very small group hold on to power over millions for decade after decade?

It’s certainly not for lack of bravery on the part of the citizens. As we witnessed, many people are willing to take a stand for freedom and dignity at considerable risk. And, as John Pollock’s article, Streetbook, discusses, there had been demonstrations and even large labor strikes in the region-the April 6th youth movement in Egypt derives its name from the strike it was founded to support, and the Gafsa labor unrest in Tunisia was sizeable, but it lacked the national vision later protests would have. What are the mechanisms which allow for decades of “durable authoritarianism”? How does the new media ecology alter this equation?

The short answer is that these regimes survive mainly by creating a “collective action” problem for their citizenry and by playing “whack-a-protest” to prevent cascades of action. (The long answer also includes networks of patronage, international power relations, sometimes natural resource wealth, and often ethnic and religious divisions).

“Collective action problems” arise when a problem can be solved only through cooperation by many, but when there are strong disincentives for any one individual to participate, especially if victory is not guaranteed. These problems can be seen as a society-level version of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” a well-studied model in game theory where two criminals in custody are told they will be allowed to go free if they confess and their partner doesn’t or if neither confesses; however, they will be punished severely if their partner confesses and they don’t. The logical option would be for both to “defect” and confess for fear the other one would; this seemingly logical outcome is actually to the detriment of both, who would have been better off if neither confessed.

A society-level collective action problem arises under an autocracy when costs of dissent are high for individuals and the means of organizing to overcome the dilemma are stifled. Thus, under autocracies, torture and arbitrary and lengthy prison sentences are not just expressions of capricious cruelty, but key mechanisms which allow these regimes to survive. When even a whiff of dissent is met with disproportionate response, this creates a strong disincentive for any individual to be among the first. And as Pollock’s article demonstrates, “whack-a-protest,” as exemplified by the Gafsa strike in Tunisia, 2008, allows these regimes to isolate and repress regions of unrest. Ben Ali’s regime might have been cruel, but, like all states, it is a resource-constrained actor: it cannot be everywhere at once; it cannot arrest hundreds of thousands of people, and it cannot easily crush a mass uprising. Even if such an uprising can be crushed, often at great cost, tyrants certainly prefer a stable situation with a population that remains repressed and quiet while they plunder the country to a civil war. Thus, censorship and isolation of protests is a key mechanism of survival.

Collective action problems are hardest to crack if it’s difficult for citizens to coordinate and communicate. Indeed, game-theorists have long known that communication between participants dramatically alters the dynamics of these “dilemmas” which appear rigged against the interests of the individuals. Indeed, “united we stand, divided we fall” is not just a corny motto, it’s what arises from game theory calculations.

Another key dynamic is what’s known as “preference falsification” to political scientists and “pluralistic ignorance” to social psychologists: when people privately hold a particular view but do not share it in fear of reprisal, punishment, or violating a social norm. In autocracies, this can cause a “spiral of silence” in which many wish for regime change, but are afraid to speak up outside of few trusted ties. Indeed, when I was in post-Mubarak Cairo, my hosts kept pointing in amazement to various street corners where fierce political discussions were being held and often whispered, before remembering they could now speak up and adjusting their voice, “You never saw this. Nobody ever discussed politics openly, ever.” Then they would pause and add, “Well, except online, of course. We all discussed politics online.” And this is exactly what these autocrats had been able to stifle for many decades: an oppositional information/action cascade.

Such a cascade doesn’t just mean that people learn about each other’s views—it’s reasonable that many knew that these regimes were unpopular. Cascades occur not just because of information, but also when people assess an opening and a reasonable chance of success—and as Pollock reports when “people realize[d] it was now or never.” There are few moments more dangerous to an autocracy.

It is in this context Facebook “likes” of dissident pages such as “We are All Khaled Said,” sharing of videos of regime brutality, online expressions of political anger, and acceptances of Facebook “invitations” to protest all matter as they help build a visible momentum which, itself, is a condition of success. A public is not created just because everyone individually holds an opinion but because there is multi-level awareness of other people’s views leading to a spiral of action and protest. (I know that you know that I know that you know that we know …).

That is why the new media ecology is a game-changer and that is exactly the process John Pollock’s extensive on-the-ground reporting unravels. The new media ecology is not just the Internet but a potent combination of a politicized pan-Arab broadcast network, Al-Jazeera, mass diffusion of video and picture-capable cell phones, as well as social media—and all this in just a few years. Facebook in Arabic was introduced in March of 2009 and taken up quickly with about five million users in Egypt by the time the protests rolled around. As Pollock notes, there were only 28,000 Facebook users in Tunisia at the time of the Gafsa protests but there were more than a million when Bouazzizi committed his desperate act of self-immolation.

The very features of Facebook we sometimes gripe about—that it does not make it easy to segment audiences; that it seems to be brimming with the trivial and the mundane (see Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cat Theory”); and that it enforces/fosters a norm of real identities—made it an ideal platform for dissident politics under an autocracy (although, it increased risks for individual activists at times as in the case of Wael Ghonim). In Tunisia, Ben Ali censored all other platforms making Facebook even more potent as it became the de facto video sharing platform—and many people in the region tend to have large social networks online and offline. In fact, during my discussions in the region, I was repeatedly told that the norm was to “Facebook friend” all your cousins, people you met at work, people you met in weddings, outings, and elsewhere.

What more could a political activist wish for? Indeed, that is the ideal infrastructure to create the information/action cascade that Pollock’s article so eloquently documents—especially since these regimes seemed unable to develop potent ways to deal with the political consequences of digitally enabled social networking (even at the end, all Mubarak could do was clumsily unplug the whole Internet which certainly was of fairly little importance by then: the uprising was well underway; the die was cast).

There has been a false debate. Was it social media or the people? Was it social media or the labor movements? Was it social media or anti-imperialist movement? Was it social media or youth? These questions are wrong and the answer is yes. The correct question is how.

These categories are not logical equivalents: people, youth, labor, and other movements can and do use social media. These uprisings are an impressive demonstration of that very fact. Social media is not a movement, it’s a tool and it certainly did not jump out of the screen and cause Ben Ali to flee. However, as Pollock’s extensive reporting demonstrates, it can be a potent tool for social change and as I tried to summarize here, there are strong theoretical reasons to think it alters collective action dynamics.

Contrary to Malcolm Gladwell’s flip assertion, repeated in the article that “surely the least interesting thing about [the protests] is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of new media,” the emergent media ecology is among the most important issues thrown up by this amazing wave of people-powered uprisings. This is not because the courage demonstrated by millions of people or the persistent efforts of activists for decades are unimportant. On the contrary, that will surely be remembered as among the most moving, amazing stories of the 21st century.

The new media question is interesting and important not just because this is an intellectual curiosity (which I’ll admit to finding fascinating) and not because academics (which I’ll admit to being ) need a subject to study, and not just because many authoritarian regimes remain in the world (which I’ll admit to believing are threatened by digitally enabled political activism), but because the most complex, the most crucial problems humanity faces are collective action problems. These range from the health of our democracies to global warming, from financial and asset bubbles to social unrest. The very survival of our species may depend on finding a way to organize our way out of situations in which there is a strong conflict between individual incentives and collective goods within our hierarchically organized societies. I think that qualifies as important, and I believe the new media ecology will be an inevitable part of the solution; that is, if there is one, and our fragile species manages to find it.

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