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January 31, 2011

Viva la Twitter: Social Media and Global Revolutions

January 31, 2011

Tweeting, Facebook invitations, and self-immolation: all over North Africa and the middle-east, people are setting themselves on fire. In Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and now in Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, people are immolating themselves to protest corrupt regimes.  They have also been using Twitter and Facebook, apparently.  The uprising in Tunisia started spontaneously after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, who--frustrated by unemployment and lack of opportunity--set himself on fire after the fruit from his fruit stand had been confiscated in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia in late December.  This set off protests all over North Africa and the middle-east, most notably in Egypt.  The degree to which Twitter and Facebook can be credited as tools which sustained and helped to culminate these uprisings has been a matter of intense debate.

In the early stages of the uprising in Egypt last week, 90,000 people signed on to a group page on Facebook inviting people to a mass-demonstration last Monday. Thanks to some savvy organizing, partly carried out on Facebook, 200,000 people showed up to meet the 20,000 police arrayed to meet them.  Last Friday Egypt's government shut down the Internet to dampen the tide of agitation and protest that was occurring on that bandwidth.

As the protests in Egypt drag out, and the fortunes of the parties involved in the conflict sway this way and that, it is time for us to review the discussion about the role that Social Media has played in revolutions and emerging democracies in the past few years. Iran, China, Tunisia, and Egypt--regimes all over the world have been effected by the availability of Social Media.    Everyone is asking: is this the age  of internet revolutions?  Will Facebook, Twitter and text messages provide essential ingredients in democratic change?  Or, as the ongoing protests in Egypt perhaps show, is the internet only one tool in this process -- nothing more than the modern version of the telephone?  Opinions vary, but its hard to argue that--while they may not have been the main ‘catalyst’--Twitter and Facebook have been major players in getting these movements off the ground.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about the role of Social Media in activist causes and revolutions in the New Yorker last October.   Here’s a long quote from that article, where he paraphrases the buzz:

The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns. When ten thousand protesters took to the streets in Moldova in the spring of 2009 to protest against their country’s Communist government, the action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together. A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change. “You are the best hope for us all,” James K. Glassman, a former senior State Department official, told a crowd of cyber activists at a recent conference sponsored by Facebook, A. T. & T., Howcast, MTV, and Google. Sites like Facebook, Glassman said, “give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was ‘eating our lunch on the Internet.’ That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation.

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