What Actually Happened
Did social media matter in the Arab Spring? We sent a reporter to ask the revolutionaries.
What was the significance of social technologies such as Facebook and Twitter to the revolutions that overthrew the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt in January and February, and whose example continues to inspire protests in Libya, Syria, and Yemen?
The subject is disputed ground. In “Streetbook” John Pollock writes, “The Arab Spring has sharpened an acrimonious debate in the United States and Europe about the uses and importance of technology in regime change.”
Writing in the New Yorker three months before Tunisia’s President Ben Ali was ousted, Malcolm Gladwell insisted, “The revolution will not be tweeted.” The platforms of social media are “built around weak ties” between virtual friends, he argued. Real revolutionaries, like the black civil-rights protesters who sat at a whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, have “strong ties” to each other and are highly organized. Shortly before Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, fell from power, Gladwell returned to his theme, sneering, “Surely 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 to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.”
Who were these credulous promoters of social media? One strange feature of the dispute is that skeptics felt the need to demonstrate their realism in the absence of many serious claims that either Tunisia or Egypt had experienced a “Twitter revolution.” (Civil unrest in Moldova in 2009 was described as such at the time, because the protesters may have organized using the messaging service.) There were overheated claims about the role of Twitter, including some by ABC News. But if skeptics were responding to anyone, the writer they had in the back of their minds was the New York University professor of journalism Clay Shirky, whose book Here Comes Everybody Gladwell called “the bible of the social-media movement.” There Shirky writes, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.”
The problem with the debate, conducted at this level of abstraction, was that it was “dumb,” as another NYU professor of journalism, Jay Rosen, has bracingly observed. The dispute missed almost everything that was really interesting about the uses of social technology during the uprisings. To the editors at Technology Review, the more fruitful question was: how did Tunisians and Egyptians use social media during the uprisings?
We decided to answer that question by reporting what actually happened, and we sent Pollock, a writer who specializes in Africa, to interview the principals behind the region’s youth movements.
What Pollock discovered was stranger and more inspiring than anything the debate between Western academics and journalists had suggested. In North Africa, social media seem to have made two things possible. First, they made publicly knowable experiences of tyranny common to many Egyptians and Tunisians but hitherto unacknowledged. Second, they helped revolutionaries organize continuous protests (in countries where the police had efficiently beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered dissidents) by creating networks the regimes found difficult to suppress.
Pollock movingly describes how people used social media to circulate evidence of the regimes’ atrocities. But his real scoop is the account by two secretive Tunisians, “Foetus” and “Waterman” of Takriz, an organization that rarely coöperates with journalists, of the tactics they employed to excite alienated street youth. Here, social media were overwhelmingly important. Foetus says, “Facebook is pretty much the GPS for this revolution. Without the street there’s no revolution, but add Facebook to the street and you get real potential.” The image the reader takes away is of very modern revolutionaries: seated in darkened rooms, hacking the streets from their laptops, before putting down their computers to join the riots.
Pollock’s research did confirm one bias of Gladwell and his fellow skeptics: in the end, history happened on the streets. He quotes Nizar Bennamate, the 25-year-old cofounder of Morocco’s February 20 movement, who is unhappy with the corrupt Makhzen, the elite of King Mohammed V’s court: Bennamate says the streets are where the real action is, and where the real change occurs. “On Facebook and Twitter and social media we just speak [about] what happens,” he says.
The virtual-reality scientist Samir Garbaya, of the Paris Institute of Technology, tested the interconnection of social media and the events on the street by writing a script using semantic search techniques that measured how long it took for Facebook posts to provoke responses (on the day Tunisia’s president left office, just three minutes). He uses the portmanteau that lent Pollock his title. “Streetbook,” Garbaya says, is “the transfer of the interaction from social networks to manifestation in the real world, on the street.” Tell me what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.