- Guerrilla Social Media Ops from Tahrir Square (click for picture credits)
I previously wrote
about the role of social media in empowering tangible political and social action, citing social movements in Egypt and Iran that seemed to be driven, at least partially, by “digital activism”. My argument was that using social media as a tool for inspiring political action is not merely a cathartic outlet for the oppressed yet digitally-empowered masses, but rather an effective device for invoking widespread and effective popular action. The most readily observable value of such use is making an otherwise impossible (or at least greatly stifled) popular political discourse (due to regime coercion and crackdown on activists, and state-controlled traditional mass media) possible in “virtual space”, as well as making use of the vast possibilities in community organizing and rallying disparate efforts for deployment of “real” political action.
Then the Tunisian uprising and Egyptian January 25th Revolution came and BAM! We have rock solid empirical evidence for a significant positive correlation between the use of social media and progressive political action in the form of major, powerful grassroots tsunamis of rebellion overthrowing coercive regimes in surprisingly short time spans. As strong as such evidence is, it has surprisingly fuelled the debate in the blogosphere on this topic even further, mainly relating to the significance of observed causality (between social media and “real” social or political change).
Several opinions going against the popular grain on this topic (which generally holds that social media drives and catalyzes tangible political action) have understandable merit when regarded from certain perspectives. For instance, where does the use of social media play a larger, more significant and observable role? Is it about amplifying the dissenting voices and calling media attention to what is downplayed by state-controlled traditional media as insignificant, foreign interest driven and isolated action by rouge factions? Or is the real value in the community organizing efforts and the planning and coordination tools made possible by using digital activism? What is a fact, however, is that the overwhelming evidence provided by the current wave of popular protests and revolutions in the Middle East makes it exceedingly difficult for many dismissive views to hold any water. The debate itself is nothing surprising, what is baffling, though, is that one of such dismissive opinions comes from a guy like Malcolm Gladwell, author of books like The Tipping Point and Blink.
In a very short post titled “Does Egypt need Twitter?” on the New Yorker’s blogsite, Newsdesk, Gladwell argues that social media is not necessary for revolutions. Popular uprisings happened long before there was Internet. The means by which social change happens is, according to Gladwell, “less interesting” than the core causes that spark it. Gladwell writes:
“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: whether he said it in a speech, say, or whispered it to a friend, or wrote it in his diary or published it in a book. That would never happen today, of course. We now believe that the “how” of a communicative act is of huge importance. We would say that Mao posted that power comes from the barrel of a gun on his Facebook page, or we would say that he blogged about gun barrels on Tumblr—and eventually, as the apostles of new media wrestled with the implications of his comments, the verb would come to completely overcome the noun, the part about the gun would be forgotten, and the the big takeaway would be: Whoa. Did you see what Mao just tweeted?”
Bizzare example to use in this context, if you ask me. Are we talking about the effect of the modes of message transmission on its symantics, or about the how the wide-spread adoption of social tools is used to incite and organize popular protests?
Gladwell goes on to say that…
“People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice”
But of course they did! Revolt is a natural consequence of injustice and modern social media is not an ingredient to rebellion against coercion, but Gladwell seems to be answering the wrong question (Is social media necessary for popular uprising?) and missing the more important inquiry: Is digital activism a true catalyst for social change?
Indeed, the revolt of the oppressed is inevitable, notwithstanding the availability of social media tools, but it is not a question of necessity, but one of effect.
In other words, perhaps it could be argued that the current wave of uprisings and protests in the Middle East would have eventually happened given the aging, coercive non-democratic patriarchal regimes that dominate the region. Nonetheless, to use a Gladwellian term, the “tipping point” of this dominos effect (Tunisia, Egypt, now Algeria, Bahrain and Jordan in progress) would have been much further down the road. These uprisings would have been disconnected and far between if social media tools were to be taken out of the equation. Strangely, Gladwell posits that social activism requires “strong ties“, then dismisses the role of social media in fostering and enriching such ties not only within nations, but across borders as is the case with the Middle East right now.
Addendum, February 16th 2011: Another thing Gladwell said in this blog post is rather perplexing (the way I read it):
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.
Maybe I could understand this statement if made by a political scientist or historian, but it is such a strange remark coming from an astute observer on dynamic social phenomena such as Gladwell. The general culprit of popular dissidence is pretty much universal throughout modern history: the desire for freedom, equality, and democracy. The way people go about claiming those rights, however, is dynamic and evolving. It is, in fact, very
interesting from a modern multidisciplinary observation standpoint.