What Role Is Social Media Playing in the Mideast Revolts?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Turn on any TV news coverage of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt and you will hear talk of “Twitter Revolutions” of “leaderless” youth. In the more intellectual press we find an argument between “digital utopians” who sometimes appear to forget that people actually did communicate with each other before the Internet, and their critics, most loudly New Yorker writer Malcom Gladwell, who claims, quite incredibly, that the vast changes in communications technology are a distraction that we should ignore while we focus on the “root causes” of revolution.
In between these two poles is the more meaningful question of whether there is anything useful that people organizing for social justice might learn by paying close attention to the details of the interplay between technological and social movements. The answer to this question is obviously yes. A good place to begin is the problem, crucial to all movements for social justice, of how leadership emerges . Are these really leaderless revolutions, or is it simply that the media is confused because the way leadership emerges has changed?
In Gladwell’s most recent broadside against the Twitter-tistas, he asserts:
When Mao famously said that power springs from the barrel of a gun, it was assumed that he was talking about guns. There wasn’t much interest at the time in how he chose to communicate that sentiment... People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.
But the argument that we should leapfrog over the allegedly superficial interest in how people communicate to get to the “root causes” of revolution ignores the obvious fact people all over the world have always had profound grievances yet somehow revolutions are rare. People in Egypt and Tunisia have had a “root cause” for revolution for decades but only just now rose up and toppled regimes that had been widely seen as secure. The idea that new communication tools had no role in this sudden change, that the question of how to make a revolution is irrelevant as long as we grasp why, is as absurd as the idea that new communication tools caused the revolution on their own.
The corner of the ring opposite Gladwell is often occupied buy Clay Shirky, who does indeed sound as if he doesn’t understand that the great social movements and revolutions of history were all organized without “social media.” In his celebrated book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations , he celebrates the arrival of the Facebook era by asserting that “No one can found a newspaper on a moment’s notice, run it for two issues, and then fold it, while incurring no cost but leaving a permanent record.” This is simply not true. The underground press of the 1960s was awash in newspapers founded on a moment’s notice and run for a few issues, which incurred minimal cost and left a permanent record. The seminal feminist underground paper, The Furies, to name just one, was published by a collective household of young women who each chipped in a few dollars to produce published just ten issues over the course of less than a year, yet became hugely influential among lesbians in the second half of the twentieth century. In the late 1980s and 1990s, as personal computers were becoming commonplace but were not yet networked, “desktop publishing” technology fueled the underground ‘zine scene in which founding a paper on the spur of the moment and putting out just a few issues was the norm, not the exception.