How significant was the role of Twitter and other social networks in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions?
While shiny-new-thing evangelists would love to add “revolutionary” to their list of social media’s qualities, some commentators are appealing for a little perspective.
Malcolm Gladwell thinks the role of the communication medium is hardly worth noting in these uprisings. He makes the point: “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.”
Boyd states: “Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.”
Solis gushes: “It is the spontaneous fusion of strong, weak and temporary ties that align around interest or emotion that propels information across vast distances with far greater velocity. This impetus is the spark, the catalyst necessary for organization, communication, and also for engendering support. You need a powerful network for this to occur.”
I don’t know whether Malcolm Gladwell has any evidence to back up his claims that social media didn’t influence events in the Middle East.
As quoted on guardian.co.uk, Mohammed el-Nawawy, author of Islam Dot Com, thinks Twitter was important. “There’s no arguing that Twitter has played a key role in these events,” he says. “I remember when Wael Abbas [the Egyptian journalist] was arrested at Cairo airport. It was 3am and he tweeted he’d been arrested, the message was picked up by bloggers in Canada, and they called people in Egypt to come to his aid. That’s amazing.”
But el-Nawawy adds: “Social media played a role but this isn’t about social media. Now things are at street level in Egypt, most of those people haven’t even heard about Twitter. In the Arab world satellite TV has played a much bigger role than social media.”
Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, criticises “cyber-utopianism”, pointing out that there were only 19,235 registered Twitter accounts in Iran (0.027% of the population) on the eve of the election protests. He says: “As a public platform, Twitter is not particularly helpful for planning a revolution.”
I would be interested to know if there have been any objective, academic studies of how social change happens in our networked age as compared with past times of pre-internet communication.
How important do you think the internet and social media are in this political and social context?
(PS – For anyone wondering about the grammar of my headline, here is the original reference from The Sun newspaper.)