People, not technology, will make us free

Previously I expressed my doubts that social media was the all-important spark of revolution in Egypt that it’s been made out to be, and cited Frank Rich’s and Malcolm Gladwell’s comments for support. But Andrew Sullivan makes a compelling counterargument:

The real point here seems to me to be obvious, and certainly should be for writers as gifted a Rich and Gladwell. Words and images matter. And the sudden accumulation of words and images matter. They expose reality that is constantly veiled by tyrants. They inspire others to anger. They break through fear by revealing the courage of numbers.

Of course they are not enough. They are necessary but by no means sufficient. If a regime is as evil as Tehran’s, nothing can stop the use of tanks and guns and thugs from murdering and torturing dissenters. But if social media can generate a collective spark that can then lead to street organizing, and then help spread that success via al-Jazeera, and the military and police split, then regimes once deemed unshakable can topple.

We just saw it happen three times in eighteen months in a region that has been stagnant with the same dictatorships for decades. One tragically failed to rid itself of its theocratic police state, but destroyed its legitimacy for good; two succeeded. But consciousness changed for ever. And social media empowered people, and helped give them the skills that democratic citizenship requires. No, it was not the whole explanation. But it was a critical, seminal, revolutionary spark.

Yes, but here I think his second paragraph is key. Social media is only one of many factors that can influence the fate of a movement. The spread of information via traditional media — TV, radio, and newspapers, whether established, independent, or wrested from state control — is another. The stance of the military and the police is another. Behind-the-scenes conversations with internal players and foreign powers are another. And so on.

I think Rich and Gladwell on one side, and Sullivan on the other, are talking at cross-purposes here. No one is denying that social media was a very effective tool in the hands of people whose decades-long grievances finally led them to rise up against their oppressors. The disagreement lies in the question of how much online social networking deserves the media spotlight that’s been shone upon it, to the point where terms like “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolution” are bandied about as shorthand ways to explain the nature and causes of these uprisings. (I certainly don’t recall the People Power revolutions of the mid-to-late-80s referred to as “the radio and TV revolutions,” no matter how vital those technologies were to the protesters. Was the 1979 Iranian Revolution ever dubbed “the cassette revolution”?) I think Rich and Gladwell are pushing back not against the effectiveness of social networks, but against the media’s tendency to reduce conversation about these revolutions to their newest, shiniest factor. They’re arguing that we should be talking more about the protesters themselves and the root causes of their unrest, rather than (or at least more often and more thoroughly than) the communication tools that made these particular uprisings possible.

As the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry points out:

Movements for social change don’t just “happen.” Too often, the media reports on them the way we talk about the weather or chemistry: Protest is said to “flare up,” “gather steam” and “boil.” Other times movements are said to take a country “by storm” or “peter out.”

Having grown up on such empty descriptions, it’s not surprising that we’re hearing so much today about Egypt’s “Facebook revolution” or its “Twitter revolution.”

Lacking any real knowledge of the forces on the ground, too many media outlets have offered us a view from afar, where some shiny new tools of communication are made out to be more important than the people doing the communicating and the messages and tactics they have chosen to use.

And as significant a factor as Internet access surely was, a more nuanced view of the forces behind revolution would reveal that a lot more was at work than merely “the youth of the Internet” (as Facebook organizer Wael Ghonim claimed):

[T]he “youth of the internet” were more than that. A nucleus of human rights activists, lawyers, bloggers and labor organizers have been hard at work for several years in Egypt, risking prison, holding small rallies and vigils, raising consciousness online by distributing pictures and video of torture victims, writing protest manuals, mobilizing lawyers to petition arrested comrades out of prison and studying the lessons of other failed uprisings — like the protests after Iran’s 2009 election — in order to develop more nimble and less controllable strategies to build their movement.

Along the way, they devised some ingenious hacks around the police state, like using mobile phones and Twitter to share information about imprisoned activists and using international phone lines for sending text messages. They learned how to make more effective online videos with the help of Peter Gabriel’s human rights group Witness, and how to use open source mapping tools with the help of the Kenyan nongovernmental group Ushahidi.

As Maryam Ishani writes in Foreign Policy magazine, “By the time the November 2010 elections (in Egypt) rolled around, a new mechanism was in place.”

What’s clear from this analysis is that social media per se isn’t the magic ingredient behind revolutions; the power of the Internet was significant, yes, but only in that it was harnessed by organizers, who worked hard for years to lay the groundwork for change — and would have seized on whatever communications tools were at hand. As Michael H. Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, recently said: “People are so enamored of the technology […] People have a view that technology will make us free. No, people will make us free.”

What Rich and Gladwell are decrying is the lazy implication, by much of the mainstream media and even by revolutionaries like Ghonim, that the mere fact of the Internet is what creates the conditions for revolution. Not so, and Sifry drives the point home:

“If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet,” Ghonim said Friday.

Well, if you add a free and open internet to a society with a large number of young people, give a majority of them mobile phones, and fail to offer them any chance of economic and social advancement, you will have ripened the conditions for changing the world. But small groups of dedicated and organized people still have to make it happen. Like Margaret Mead once said, nothing else ever has.

When the American media stuffs such complex social movements into a pat category like “Internet revolution,” it misses an opportunity to engage the American public in a more thorough conversation about the social conditions and grievances behind such mass protests. And this is a real loss, since a deeper understanding of the causes of Egypt’s revolution might lead us to recognize that, actually, the socioeconomic and political conditions in Mubarak’s Egypt were in many ways not unlike our own today. And what might such a realization lead the American people themselves to do, to demand social justice here in the United States?

On a related note, I’ve always found it ironic and a little disturbing that the democratic flowering of free speech that we see on Twitter and Facebook is taking place on a decidedly undemocratic, corporate platform. In a panel on the Internet and the Arab world, Sifry and other panelists note this as well:

The role and responsibility of social networks was debated by the panelists, with Sifry saying, “I’m terrified that we’re relying on these corporate entities to enable this kind of activity. It’s very dangerous. There’s really no reason they have to be socially responsible at all. Their responsibility is to the bottom line. Twitter did not have to inform its users that the Justice Department was seeking all of their IP information in this WikiLeaks situation. They’re under no obligation to tell you. How do we get out of conducting vital public discourse, organizing, on a corporate foundation? Facebook hasn’t even joined the Global Networking initiative, claiming that they can’t afford the $250,000 annual fee. At least Google is part of that, as is Yahoo! and Microsoft. Twitter hasn’t joined.” Vila added, “It’s up to people who care about these issues to push Facebook in a way that’s going to take care of activists. They don’t even encourage anonymity on Facebook. You can get your account deactivated for being anonymous.”

We’re all dancing on a rug owned by others, with no guarantee that the owners won’t someday pull it out from under us. How shall we safeguard against this? How do we keep the people’s voices free?

(Image by John Sherffius)


Other arguments (both for and against):

People, Not Things, Are The Tools of Revolution

Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution”: Looking Under the Lamp Post?

Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article

Knowing and Unknowing the Egyptian Public

How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak

Jay Rosen Is Wrong: “Twitter Revolution” and “Facebook Revolution” Cyber-Utopians Really Do Think It’s That Simple

The Architects of the Egyptian Revolution

Think Again: The Internet


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