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Social Media and Revolution

2011 February 9

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

Kiev’s Independence Square in 2004 and Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011

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.

Accessibility

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.”

– Greg

22 Responses leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011

    Complimenti per il parallelismo tra le 2 rivolte.
    Alan Taronna´s last blog post ..I confini della Realtà Aumentata

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Grazie:-)

    [Reply]

  2. February 12, 2011

    Very well said. You almost convinced me asI dropped by after reading another view on Techcrunch where You posted this link.
    Why almost?
    I think it’s a bit of the semantics we’re talking about here. How much does the revolution grant to the use of Facebook and Twitter in a country where less than 25% of the population has access to the Internet? Imagine that the 25% is probably counted with the followers of Mubarak and the ones that gain access through public libraries, schools or work so how can we really just say that social media has taken the most important role in the revolution?
    Almost because I think that social media had a great impact on… the people outside of Egypt, on Obama and otger leaders who saw that this is a mass movement. People in Egypt were probably spreading the word from mouth to mouth (no Internet) about the support they have from the world. Information flow from both sides gave courage to them and helped them win. Still I would ask rather not IF social media helped which is obvious as that horse of Paul Revere in America, but how much blood less was spread in Egypt or how will it impact the future of Egypt. Will it help?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Tomasz,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Although, I’m not sure I get your point. Egypt has 17 million Internet users. While that’s only 20% penetration, I’m sure it’s at least double for younger, college educated people in Cairo who drove the protests (much like penetration is much higher in Warsaw than it is in Rzeszow). Certainly, far less than 17 million people were out in the streets.

    I also don’t get why the fact that the protesters saw getting their message out to the world would diminish the importance of social media (in fact, it seems to me to increase it).

    In any case, the protesters in Egypt certainly saw social media as important (as we found Internet bulletin boards crucial in the Orange Revolution). Leaders of the movement consistently point that out in interviews. People in Tahrir square hold up signs about it, etc.

    Finally, as I wrote in my comment to the article you mentioned, it is not so much that Gladwell’s conclusion is wrong, but his premises about weak links and hierarchies were completely ridiculous to anyone who has actually experienced something like a revolution first hand.

    For anyone who wants to read the TechCrunch article, you can find it here: http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/11/tools-of-revolution/

    Thanks again for your comment.

    – Greg

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  3. EGD permalink
    February 12, 2011

    Great post – extremely well articulated.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  4. Allan Hoving permalink
    February 12, 2011

    you are correct, these new media tools are force multipliers

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Yes, they are:-)

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  5. February 13, 2011

    hello from Ukraine! :)

    yes, in 2004, the Internet was the place to hear news about oppositional candidates & to share alternative information in Ukraine, because most of TV channels and press, even privately owned, were given instructions from the former President’s office about how to cover the events

    what I liked about the web then is that the content that was shared was interesting and catchy. web users could watch funny cartoons ironizing about current political situation. web 2.0 was not so well available then, so it was web-based media who commented on the protests and shared pictures & videos. imo, it reflected the peaceful nature of protests and kept the positive spirit on

    well, now I hope that with the experience of successful protests we will be able to protect freedom in Ukraine better

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Irene,

    I hope so as well, but things have been a bit depressing lately…

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  6. Michael Slavitch permalink
    February 14, 2011

    Saying that social networks don’t affect revolutions is like saying an AK47 doesn’t affect gunbattles because in both cases it is a person pulling the trigger.

    Their argument is an angry snit lashing out at people who were actually there with the gall to accuse people in Tahir of being wrong from the comfort of London.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Michael,

    You’re right. It is a bit strange that those that deny the role of social media are far from the events while those who are there mention it prominently.

    – Greg

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  7. February 18, 2011

    Good and timely post, Greg. So, was social media significant factor in Egyptian revolution?
    Stan Yanakiev, PMP´s last blog post ..Book Review – Thinking Harder Being Smart about Transformation

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    I think so!

    – Greg

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  8. February 26, 2011

    been meaning to post here since being led to it via Devin Coldewey’s article. Great article and analysis. Been enjoying your other posts as well; I share your general thinking that understanding social network theory and user behavior is the key to successful social media implementation. Great stuff!
    Mustafa Stefan Dill´s last blog post ..On Egypt- Foreign Policy and Islamophobia

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Mustafa. Have a great weekend!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  9. sandro permalink
    March 10, 2012

    Hi,

    I am in the process of doing my masterthesis on the Egyptian Revolution. The role social media have had in FACILITATING and ACCELERATING is the endgoal. I have a question on your weak ties explanation. Does it mean that information exchange that would take ages between two (otherwise) not directly linked societies is accelerated because of a third partie with which both have strong ties?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Sandro,

    The concept of weak ties is central to network theory and very much related to triadic closure. It basically means that we tend to get information from people we don’t know well, not from people close to us. Our strong ties know pretty much what we know. Check out the Granovetter paper linked in above. It’s the primary source.

    Revolutions are extremely confusing and you end up spending a lot of your time trying to figure out what’s going on. Social media makes accessing weak ties that much easier.

    btw. Please don’t capitalize words. It’s the same as shouting and I don’t like it.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  10. Rtfm permalink
    March 13, 2012

    Thanks a lot for that article (and the links you provided !), even though I never had the chance to study networks or revolutions (well, I only read some history books on the latter), the article remained fully understandable for me :)

    I’m always mad and angry when I read “Twitter/Facebook Revolution”, my bullcrap-o-meter is exploding everytime I see such thing, sadly whenever you point out it’s a complete lie made up by western white middle-class people to feel better about themselves you’re getting violently rejected (nb : I’m a western white middle-class person, blond hair blue eyes and all that stuff).

    They’re all bragging about social networks like Facebook/Twitter bringing democracy to the Third World Countries, like if these people needed our latest western white middle-class toy to make a revolution, like if these people needed us and “our” democracy to have a better society and life.

    Everyone around me (western white middle-class) are pretending frustration, corruption, unemployment, the scars of colonialism and post-colonialism domination (through economical and military superpower) have little to nothing to do with these revolutions, they want to believe it’s just the young people using “Internet” to overthrow the old people.

    Then they get all “OMG WHAT HAPPENED ?!” (nb: sorry for the caps) when the new regime is not a western-like democracy based on laicity (funny enough, they completely forget “In God we trust” is the motto of the USA since 1956), but an islam-focused regime pretty much similar to the previous one.

    The fact that the religion was the strongest social structure, social care system and morality institution was swept under the carpet. Same with the fact that most people didn’t wanted a completely new regime, but basically the same thing (so they can keep the whole families/tribes system and avoid the meltdown of the society) with less corruption, more justice, more social care, more jobs.

    nb: just like during the French Revolution, most people wanted a constitutional monarchy, they wanted a big reform – not a revolution. The monarchy was finally removed from the power several years later due to a series of events (= the chaos of the Revolution, that lasted for years), not really because it was fully intended.

    Somethime I just want to e-punch my co-western white middle-class people on their face-book, it seems they’re acting just like during the colonization : “these savages need civilization, we’ll help them become real humans by forcing our culture and systems down their throat – damn, we’re so generous with them, they must venerate us !”.

    Regarding Facebook/Twitter providing an access to more “weak ties”, I think it is actually kinda dodgy and dangerous : these social networks are watched by the authorities and spammed with unreliable informations, it’s (in fact) really hard to communicate an information on these networks.

    Having your own encrypted emails, or using your own secured forums/boards (or any hidden easy-to-build/easy-to-dismantle communication platform) is a much better way to create a “weak ties” hubs online.

    In my opinion, the only thing Facebook and Twitter made for these revolutions, is preventing superpowers (USA/Europe) from helping the regimes threatened by these riots, by legitimating these protests in the western white middle-class.

    It’s gaining the “public opinion” “support”, so it will be more difficult for the USA/Europe governments to support the dictators/old regimes (= the govs will have to make that in secret) and more easy (and public opinion friendly) to support the protesters.

    It doesn’t mean the govs won’t support some specific protesters in order to control the country and its ressources after the revolution – we clearly saw that during the “Arab Spring”, providing missiles, intels and instructors in exchange for future oil exclusivity deals.

    ps: I’m sad to hear Ukraine is back to becoming a police state again :(

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for sharing.

    Greg

    [Reply]

  11. Hasan Sonmez permalink
    May 22, 2014

    I think Malcolm Gladwell’s point is not that social media is ineffectual, rather, that its effect is massive and quick, but it does not run deep, and therefore is not all that useful to effect profound and lasting changes. Compare a real, flesh-and-blood friend who you have shared experiences with for years, to a Facebook “friend”. The networks created solely through social media are nowhere near as strong and powerful as traditional social networks, which benefit more from some kind of accepted hierarchy, discipline, and from having enough time to think clearly.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    I understand the point, but I think you’re confusing strong vs. weak ties. Strong ties are, in fact, not very effective in terms of information transfer. The people closest to us tend to have the same information we do (See Granovetter).

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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