New Media Revolutions: The Problems
Facebook must be truly a magical medium. It cannot only reconnect you with your old high school friends but whip up a democratic revolution in its spare time. It received so much initial credit for the Arab Spring that political activists in places like Egypt began to question whether or not they were sufficiently committed or worked hard enough. Well, that was all an exaggeration but it is the case that Facebook had at least “something” to do with influencing the uprisings.
I enjoy my twitter (that’s me @dellis2) and Facebook accounts and they represent truly important advances in technology and the puffed up power of information networks. But as of now their media created images remain more potent than the reality; the impact of online activists is exaggerated although not unimportant. Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy (Twitter Devolutions), argues that the power of social media must be tempered, that activists and academics sang the praises of these new media too loudly and they are subject to more criticism than has been levied. Moreover, the gritty politics that follow these uprisings is more important for shaping political life, yet if you judge by news coverage new media seem to have little to do with this. Facebook and twitter only seem to rear their heads during times of revolution. Off-line politics is turbulent but remains more central to the struggle for transition from authoritarian systems to more democratic ones. Below are some questions and issues that must be addressed with respect to new media because on the one hand new media get too much press, but on the other they are truly impactful. This means our understanding must be more nuanced.
1. Why do social media seem to get more attention or have more impact during revolutions or times of upheaval? During quiet times Facebook seems to offer little more than a pleasant pastime or benign exchange of information. There is still a tinge of awe surrounding new technology that lends technologically laden significance to a story that it carries. The story is not trivial because it is circulating on new media; on the contrary, it is important. When there is a crisis or political instability Facebook and Twitter seem to structure stories quickly as “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong.” I would guess, and I have yet to see data on such an effect, that any flurry of new media activity has a polarizing effect that results in binary oppositions such as “right vs. wrong.”
In the article cited above, Lynch observed that during the most active times in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online community structured their Twitter and Facebook exchanges exactly as described. Every time a story was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood it was quickly shared and reinforced by additional stories critical of the Brotherhood. And the same was true of the other side, every story critical of non-Islamist political activists was redistributed and shared by the Muslim Brotherhood thus perpetuating spirals of polarization. Habermas’s glorious inclusive and democratically aesthetic public sphere was nowhere to be found.
2. Why is it that social media are better at organizing and stimulating upheaval then routine politics? The new media seem to love energy and issue-driven controversies rather than the slow work of building political organizations. Again, Lynch points out that Twitter and Facebook were more successful at merging once disparate coalitions than mobilizing masses of voters. Perhaps Facebook is simply easier and faster and works best when a political situation is amenable to faster organization. Moreover new media can quickly employ the power of visual and auditory messages that increase their impact. Violence or a grisly death can be captured immediately on a cell phone and uploaded within minutes. This captures the attention of activist groups and encourages involvement. There is a “thrill” to new media because of its speed and multisensory impact that is not present during routine politics.
3. The political strengths of Twitter and Facebook can be easily challenged by any regime willing to be as repressive as it needs to be. Places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran and Syria, are finding new ways to interfere with online activism including shutting them down when necessary. After enough pressure, and it does not take much, citizens and active account users will simply stop participating in online activity in order to avoid persecution and even violence. The possibility of harassment and arrest make it quite easy to withdraw from the online community.
The various social media did not create revolutions in Egypt or the Arab spring, but they did play a role. They have undermined traditional models of information and helped elites and activists empower themselves in order to facilitate change. But if we hail the opportunities for elites and activists to encourage democratic changes, we have to also recognize the problems and limitations of these new forms of communication. At the moment, given the instabilities still raging in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.