What Role Is Social Media Playing in the Mideast Revolts?

It seems that Al Jazeera on the one hand and social media on the other have locked into a highly effective feedback loop that is truly explosive.

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.

If we go back further in time from blogs and tweets, we find The Liberator, the flagship journal of the abolitionist movement. It was launched by one man, working alone, with no money, living in an attic which served as his office, print shop, and home. Even the paper it was printed on was obtained on credit, and his meals were largely limited to what he could finagle from a nearby bakery (what today would be called “dumpster diving”).Yet after just one year of publication, the Georgia state legislature had offered $5,000 for Garrison’s dead body, and the Vigilance Association of Columbia, South Carolina (composed of “gentlemen of the first respectability”), promised $1,500 for the “apprehension and prosecution to conviction” of any white person caught distributing The Liberator. A civil war and 600,000 dead later, when Fort Sumter was finally recaptured by Union forces, the influence of The Liberator was so unquestioned that the President of the United States invited Garrison to do the honor of hoisting the Stars and Stripes.

The idea that small groups of people with few resources could not be heard before the Internet is just as absurd as the idea that the changes brought about by Internet are of no interest compared to the “root causes” of revolution. To the contrary, the how of communication is of utmost importance to anyone who wants to think strategically about how people might act more effectively in redress of grievances. This idea is nothing new. This is what 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan meant when he said that, in certain circumstances, the detailed workings of a particular “media” were more important than the “message” that the media conveyed. But we could reach back another hundred years to the grand old patriarch of the left himself, Karl Marx, who spent much of his life arguing that the motor of history was fueled by the tension between the forces of production and the relations of production. Surely no one, including Malcolm Gladwell, wants to argue that the vast, globe-spanning, capital-intensive, ever-growing, toxic-byproduct-spewing network of wires, transmitters, and machines called the Internet, that is putting whole industries out of business while birthing completely new ones, does not count as a force of production. 

It is no coincidence that modern social movements (and Garrison’s abolitionists were among the first) emerged in the nineteenth century in the wake of the first major innovations to the printing press since Gutenberg: the invention of the iron press and machine-made paper, which dropped the cost of producing a small newspaper low enough to place it within reach of a small group of people or even a sufficiently dedicated individual with few resources other than passion. The first newspaper published by African Americans (Freedom’s Journal in 1827), by labor (The Philadelphia Journeyman Mechanic's Advocate in 1827), by Native Americans (the Cherokee Phoenix in 1828), and the vast panoply of the abolitionist press all date to this transition in communication technology.

A similar precipitous drop in the cost of making a newspaper occurred in the 1960s, when “cold type”  composition equipment revolutionized offset printing. Before then, the technology for preparing a paper for offset printing cost about $20,000 and required a year of training. Suddenly, all that was required, in the words of one activist-publisher, was “an IBM typewriter with interchangeable typefaces, a lot of art work (cartoons, photographs, drawings, illustrations) and an urge to express his or her social, political, or cultural point of view.” The cost of printing fell dramatically at the same time. Offset printing had been invented in 1903, but only gradually caught on as various improvements to the process were made. In the 1950s, the technology became sufficiently generalized that establishment newspapers and entrepreneurs throughout the country invested heavily in offset printing plants, to the tune of $100,000 each. They quickly discovered that making a profit from such a large outlay required that they go  looking for cut-rate customers who would keep their presses running during off hours.

For two hundred years highly motivated groups or individuals have been able to publish their views on the printed page with few resources other than their passion for justice. What the Internet has revolutionized is not production but distribution. William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony all published nineteenth century papers that peaked at a circulation of 3,000. Making use of offset printing, some underground papers in the 1960s managed to achieve press runs in the hundreds of thousands. In the 1990s, desktop publishing technology again substantially dropped the cost of creating a paper without altering the cost of distribution, and a tidal wave of DIY ‘zines with tiny circulations was the result. With the development of the Internet, and in particular the subset of technologies that comprise the World Wide Web, the bottom has fallen out from under both the cost of distributing self-published material. Distribution is now immediate, worldwide, and free. “Production runs” are essentially infinite.

OK, so what? Of course technology has changed, but what are the relevant consequences for organizing for social justice? One of the most immediate and obvious consequences has been in the way that leaders emerge from social movements and are recognized as such in the broader culture.

For abolitionists, woman suffragists, and early unionists, the linkage between controlling a movement journal and being seen as a movement leader were extraordinarily tight. Movement journals were often a movement’s first institution; in some cases they remained the only one. Historians frequently peg the birth of a social movement to the founding of the movement’s first journal. Founding a newspaper may not have required much money but it did require organization – not so much for production as for distribution. Papers did not distribute themselves, and in an era before the telephone, building distribution networks meant extensive travel, public speaking, and more than anything, face-to-face contact with like-minded souls. In fact, the commonly held notion that social movement organizations created newspapers to get their message out is actually upside down: it was far more often the case that social movement organizations emerged out of the distribution networks of the first journals to address those issues, and the distribution networks remained the backbone of organizations.

These newspapers were very different from blogs. They were assembled in discrete issues of fixed and very limited content. Many were just one sheet folded into several “pages.” Not everything could be said. Someone had decide which words got printed and which did not, and the people who made those decisions became a de facto movement power brokers, and more often high-profile movement leadership. Frederic Douglass understood this well when he broke with Garrison, his mentor and champion, to launch a competing paper at a cost of severe financial hardship. And it was control of their newspaper, The Revolution, that allowed Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to continue as among the highest profile leaders of the woman suffragist movement, even after their militance had isolated them from the movement’s strongest organizations.

By the 1960s, however, radio and television has created a sea change in the media environment. Yes, movement activists could produce low-cost underground newspapers by the truckload, and having a loud voice in these papers was important for building a following within movement organizations. But in terms of being perceived as a movement leader by the larger public, the importance of controlling a movement paper paled in comparison to the attention one garnered in broadcast media, television in particular. From Martin Luther King to Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies to the Black Panthers, movement “leadership” was conferred more by television than by the movement press. The Black Panther newspaper may have been important to the internal functioning of the party, but it was the Panther’s incomparable television savvy that gave them so much weight on the left. But unlike print technology, broadcast technology did not experience any sharp drop in cost and remained beyond the reach of movement activists and organizations. As a result, the corporate media played the role of kingmaker among activists, a fact which was not lost on the activists themselves and resulted in no end of consternation.

Today, the inability of the corporate media to identify movement leaders in Egypt and Tunisia in the manner to which they are accustomed is behind all the hype about “leaderless revolutions.” This in itself is a measure of the degree to which social media has changed how leadership emerges from social struggle.

But neither do blogs confer leadership in the same way that print publications did a century ago. Publishing on the Internet is free. No resources have to be assembled to launch a blog and thus no a priori social organization is implied. Since distribution is free, the social networks required to distribute print journals, networks which generally then formed the backbone of social movement organizations, are not necessary. And since there is no limit to what can be said, the gatekeeper function inherent in the printed word, which empowered so many movement leaders, has vanished.

The scarcity of the printed word has been replaced by the abundance of the electronic word. The problem of who gets to speak has been solved, but the solution poses its own problem: with everyone speaking, who will listen? Which blogs get legs and become the hubs of large networks, and which languish on the outer fringes? It seems that the social media technologies that have become collectively known as “Web 2.0” are revealing the answer to these questions. And it should come as no surprise that one of the most visible leaders of the Egyptian movement is a young Google executive. It is is still quite early in the going, but thus far it appears that the dynamics of movement social media are sufficiently strong that they cannot be overshadowed by the dynamics of television. The power to determine their own leaders may be reverting back to insurgent movements and away from the titans of global media.

The importance of television, however, should not therefore be discounted. When changes in printing technology put the regular publication of newspapers within the reach of social justice activists in the nineteenth century, their newspapers coexisted with the one-off pamphlets that had been prevalent since American independence. The emergence of broadcast media in the twentieth century likewise did not put an end to the movement press, and a complex dynamic emerged between the two. In a very similar way, a complex dynamic is emerging between social media and broadcast media, and broadcast media itself continues to evolve. In this regard, one could easily argue that Facebook and Twitter have not been as important to the upheaval sweeping the Arab world as has Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is fascinating in itself. Television of course is not new. But “independent” television is indeed very new in the Arab world. The arrival of Al Jazeera on its own upset all kinds of political equations throughout the Arab world. But in Tunisia and Egypt, and now Libya, Bahrain, and elsewhere, it seems that Al Jazeera on the one hand and social media on the other have locked into a highly effective feedback loop that is truly explosive.

Historian, journalist, composer, Bob Ostertag's work cannot easily be summarized or pigeon-holed. He has published 21 CDs of music, two movies, two DVDs, and two books. His writings on contemporary politics have been published on every continent and in many languages. Electronic instruments of his own design are at the cutting edge of both music and video performance technology. He has performed at music, film, and multi-media festivals around the globe. His radically diverse collaborators include the Kronos Quartet, avant garder John Zorn, heavy metal star Mike Patton, jazz great Anthony Braxton, and others. He is currently Professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at the University of California at Davis.