Crowd politics: social media inspired political revolutions?

About Jonathan Lea

Jonathan is a specialist corporate and commercial lawyer who has worked at both large international City firms and smaller outfits. He now practices as a self-employed solicitor, whilst also getting involved in other areas of business, including acting as a UK representative for overseas companies, organising events and advising on PR and media strategies. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanlea

The recent events in Egypt have renewed the debate about how far social media is leading to an increase in political movements and revolutions around the world and bringing into sharp focus how the socialisation of the web is, like both the invention of the printing press and the development of the mass broadcast media before it, leading to a step change in human evolution. 

Democratisation of information

Control of information has sustained governments since time immemorial.  In the past, authoritarian regimes could just draw a shroud around unfavourable events in their countries. It wasn’t long ago that you would need a TV station or a printing press to be heard and governments have developed, particularly authoritarian ones, by using or appropriating centralised communication in order to maintain centralised control. 

However, social media changes the powers governments have, with sites such as wikileaks bringing about the end of state censorship and sites such as Facebook and Twitter allowing masses of people to easily share ideas and organise themselves.  Broadly distributed internet tools and the spirit of informed and confident tech savvy people, mean that populations can no longer be so easily repressed.

Network density

Brian Solis, in a brilliant post about social media’s role in revolutions, highlights network density (the bonds created between people) as a decisive factor in the events in Egypt.  His point is that social media, by facilitating connections, builds network density, thus reducing social distance and enabling action.

Social media is therefore the defining factor in the rapidity with which revolutionary fervour has spread like a virus from Tunisia to Egypt, a country where Hosni Mubarak has otherwise enjoyed a largely uncontested 30 years of power thanks to a formidable security apparatus and trenchant support from the West.  Other protests have since appeared in Yemen, Jordan and Syria, organised and publicised by individuals through Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

The US experience

As the home of innovation and technology, it would be surprising if social media had not already impacted on the US political landscape.  The 2008 Obama For America campaign  relied heavily on existing social networks such as Facebook to help drive its grass roots community organising efforts, leading to far better organised and more energised campaigns than both Hilary Clinton’s effort for the nomination and the subsequent Republican election run.  It is arguable that Obama would never have come to power if he had not recognised and been helped by the influence of America’s digitally connected youth and technology aficionados.

As a demonstration of the US government’s understanding of the critical importance of social medial to effecting political change, during the 2009-2010 Iran protests, the US State Department even took the step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its website.

Malcom Gladwell v Clay Shirky

In an article in The New Yorker entitled ‘Why the revolution will not be tweeted’, Malcom Gladwell argued, rather unconvincingly (so much so that there are no points of resonance I can refer to), but to much fanfare, that these uprisings would still have been possible without social media tools.  Clay Shirky, writing in the Foreign Affairs journal, counters Gladwell’s argument and points out that “digital networks have acted as a massive positive supply shock to the cost and spread of information, to the ease and range of public speech by citizens, and to the speed and scale of group coordination”, allowing committed groups to play by new rules without needing permission from the state or help from broadcast media and meaning that the behaviour of groups can be synchronised quickly, cheaply and publically in ways that were impossible as recently as a decade ago.  

As the communications arena gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action.  A wave of Tunisian and Egyptian style movements looks likely.

Conclusion

As with the abortive Green Revolution in Iran, it is looking likely that the Egyptian movement will be unable to bring about any meaningful change, particularly as the demonstrators are la
rgely peaceful and unarmed, lack a central leadership figure (ultimately, they are led by well educated, albeit mostly anonymous, youth) and are not backed by any existing government figure.  Clay Shirkey believes that both the Green Revolution and the Thai Red Shirt movement were curtailed by the willingness of the Iranian and Thai governments to kill their own citizens. 

It seems that no matter how large these peaceful movements are they are unlikely to overthrow a determined government desperate to hold onto power.  After Hosni Mubarak’s intransigent and deluded speech yesterday (February 10th), it appears that any form of political change in Egypt may now only happen via a military coup, supported and prompted by the digitally led crowd in Tahrir Square, but that will still leave the Western backed military in control of Egypt and it’s democratic fate in their hands.  Not much of a ‘revolution’!

However, as Hinh Tran writes in the Berkeley Political Review, while technology alone can’t cause the fall of a government, it can clearly help catalyse idealistic students, intellectuals and an angry, oppressed population into action by allowing them to organise and exchange ideas online.  Greg Satell in his post on social media and revolution, summarises the importance of social media most succinctly in stating that while revolutions existed long before twitter, political movements are manifestly social phenomena, influenced by networks and therefore accelerated by social media. 

While most of these social media ‘revolutions’ have as yet been unable to bring about genuine democratic change, as Clay Shirky states, social media’s real potential lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere which will produce significant changes, not necessarily in the immediate future, but over future years and decades.

 

 

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