Social Media and Revolution
The events in Egypt have renewed the debate about social media and revolutions. As someone who has actually experienced a revolution myself, I have found much of it to be silly and more than a little annoying. There’s just something creepy about people sipping lattes and tweeting about how much good they’re doing.
Nevertheless, social media’s mere prominence in the story of the Egyptian protesters does suggest that there is something afoot. While revolutions existed long before Twitter, political movements are clearly social phenomena and therefore governed by the laws of social networks and accelerated by social media.
In light of what’s happened over the past few weeks, it seems like a good moment to reflect on the similarities of how technology and social networks played a part in the protests of both 2004 Kiev and 2011 Cairo.
The Orange and Egyptian Revolutions
In Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which I wrote about in a previous post, much like in 2011 Cairo, massive street demonstrations broke out. In Ukraine, the proximate cause was the fraudulent election of Victor Yanukovitch.
Watching the events unfold in Egypt, I’ve felt an incredible sense of déjà vu. Both seemed to appear out of nowhere and were led by well educated, albeit mostly anonymous, youth. Both were peaceful, but obliterated previous perceptions of what their respective societies were capable of achieving.
Technology had a role in both as well. We didn’t have Twitter back in 2004, but the Internet and mobile phones certainly played apart. In Egypt, of course, social media was deemed threatening enough that the regime turned off the Internet (although the blackout wasn’t complete and numerous workarounds, like this one, sprouted up almost immediately).
As Mathew Ingram of GigaOm put it, it’s not about Twitter or Facebook: it’s about the power of real-time networked communication. Modern technology and social media do indeed have specific attributes that help enable grassroots political action.
It wasn’t so long ago that you would need a TV station or a printing press to be heard. It is no accident that state-owned media in both 2004 and 2011 used fraudulent video to misrepresent facts on the ground. People in power know that centralized communication is crucial in order to maintain centralized control.
One important attribute of real time communications in general, and social media specifically, is how accessible they make mass dissemination of information to ordinary people. As I wrote in a previous post about why the Web wins, the Web was designed with two basic attributes in mind: connectivity and universality, both of which lend themselves to organic political movements.
Tim Berners-Lee designed it that way because he intended the Web to be a medium for sharing information, not controlling it. He perpetuates this ideal through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which continues to create open and non-proprietary standards that can be used by everyone. No license, financial contribution or special affiliation is required.
Social media, it is true, is just the latest iteration in a long line of innovations beginning with the printing press. Nevertheless, it is the most accessible and therefore extremely consequential.
The Strength of Weak Ties
One of the most prominent issues regarding social media and revolutions is Malcolm Gladwell’s contention, which he recently reiterated, that revolutions are a “strong tie” phenomenon. Social media, he claims, are the domain of “weak ties” which can play a tertiary role at best.
With all due respect to Mr. Gladwell, he simply does not know what he’s talking about.
Firstly, he completely misunderstands the term, first coined in Mark Granovetter’s famous paper (pdf). “Weak ties” refers to interactions between network clusters and are extremely important to how information flows in a network. Moreover, they are only weak ties with respect to the network, not to people in them.
I, for instance, live in Ukraine where I have many close ties. I am, however, an American and have family and friends across the ocean. Both sets of relationships are strong ties to me, but “weak ties” with respect to each other. Over time, these separate networks tend to form their own direct links in a process network theorists call triadic closure.
Further, it’s obvious that Mr. Gladwell has never experienced a revolution himself or anything like it. Most of the time, you are searching for information. Where to go? What’s needed? Where might danger lie? How you can help? You can’t find out within your own tight cluster, because those people tend to have the same facts you do.
The only way to stay informed is to search your links to other clusters through “weak ties.” By facilitating weak ties and triadic closure, social media plays an important role.
Instantaneous Phase Transitions
Another striking aspect that both the Ukrainian and Egyptian Revolutions shared was that they seemed to erupt out of nowhere. A normally docile and complacent public all of the sudden rose up and defied authority. Even in Ukraine, where I had somewhat of an inside track I, like others, was taken completely by surprise.
However, this is exactly what classic social network theory would predict. Duncan Watts (interestingly no fan of Gladwell), in his seminal work on social networks called the phenomenon “instantaneous phase transition” and used this graph to describe it:
For anyone who has experienced a revolution, the graph hits home. One minute things are going along as they always were and then, all of the sudden, society reorders itself.
While Gladwell has a point that social media is neither a necessary nor sufficient cause, clearly the role it plays when it does exist can’t be denied. Social media, after all, extends social networks and makes network effects more salient.
Diversity of Voices
Probably the most encouraging feature that the two political movements shared is their relative peacefulness. A strong case can be made that this is largely due to the fact that both were socially driven as opposed to hierarchically driven. (Incidentally, in his original piece, Gladwell maintained, obviously in error, that revolutions are necessarily driven by hierarchies).
When movements are driven by a charismatic leader, they tend to take on the personality of that leader, warts and all. Not surprisingly, many magnetic leaders tend to be ego-driven and extreme in their views. While there are obvious exceptions, such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi, this characteristic of many revolutionary leaders tends toward violence.
Socially driven revolutions, however, are subject to a variety of viewpoints which, at least from recent experience, seems to temper fanatical views. This point, of course, is speculative, but makes intuitive sense. Multipolarity, at the very least, raises the bar for extreme action.
Velocity in a Small World
Social networks are, essentially, about spreading information and coordinating action. In fact, modern network theory initially grew out of investigations into how things like heart pacemaker cells, crickets and Malaysian fireflies are able to synchronize their actions without a leadership structure.
(For those who are interested in the fascinating story of how our understanding of social networks evolved, see here).
Brian Solis, in an excellent post about social media’s role in revolutions, points to network density as a decisive factor in the events in Egypt. Social media, by facilitating connections, undeniably contributes to network density. By reducing social distance, it enables action.
Again, this doesn’t make a tweet a heroic act, nor does it mean that significant social action can’t be taken in the absence of social media and, it must be said, I haven’t heard anybody arguing in favor of such notions. Nevertheless, social media and other communication technologies are helping to shape the political landscape in important ways.
Unfortunately, It Takes More Than a Revolution
Our discussion wouldn’t be complete without taking note of one simple, inescapable and depressing fact: The Orange Revolution, after initially succeeding, ultimately failed. Victor Yanukovitch, the same man who we took to the streets to prevent from taking office, is now President of Ukraine.
He is just about as bad as most thought he would be and Ukraine is again on the verge of becoming a police state. It happened because the people who were swept into power by the Orange Revolution were unable to govern or build lasting institutions. Fortunately Georgia, whose Rose Revolution took place just before Ukraine’s, is fairing much better.
So, on a personal note, I would like to wish the people of Egypt good luck. The hard work truly lies ahead. Taking to the streets among the excitement and camaraderie of a sweeping political movement is the easy part, settling down to build a new social order is vastly more difficult.
As Albert Camus once said, “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.”