The Weakness of Twitter Revolts

Recent protests in Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen demonstrate the remarkable power of social media to spread messages, create transparency and incite protest. Satellite TV news, Internet access, and social media applications like Facebook and Twitter swiftly empowered weak movements into mass demonstrations.

Building protests in more than five countries and two regions in less than a week was impossible twenty years ago. From the 1960s through the 1980s, limited information access and haphazard distribution meant political and social movements moved slowly, but deliberately. Building and sustaining a revolutionary social movement took time and leadership.  (The American Civil Rights Movement is one example).

Today, instantaneous transmission of injustices inspires protest at light speed empowering everyone with a cell phone or Internet connection into the streets and onto rallies challenging unjust governments. While the speed and proliferation of these “Twitter Revolts” are impressive, I believe the old, slow-build grass roots efforts will ultimately achieve more revolutionary change than today’s social media phenomenon.

I’m hopeful that these protest increase freedom, political rights and civil liberties in these countries. But, I’m a little nervous when I watch what is happening. I’m not part of these revolutions and rely on others (AlwaysJudgedGuilty, WaqalWaq, Sahelblog, MoorNextDoor) for explanation of country specific events. Here’s why I’m worried about “Twitter Revolts”:

1- Advantages of vertical versus horizontal organizing
Twitter revolts are great.  A large-scale, rapid presence in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Tehran looks amazing on cable news and illustrates mass unrest. These protests can result in the resignation of leaders in the most successful case (Tunisia). But usually, Twitter and social media is shut down; stopping the mob’s gains. Unable to organize and lacking central leadership, the uprising slows and eventually dies (Iran). The Twitter Revolt is great at achieving the immediate objective of getting people to protest, but it falls far short of the ultimate objective of political change. Because there is no clear vertical organization underneath the “Twitter Revolt”, the movement loses steam as no one is quite sure what the next step is.

Even if the oppressive leader resigns, what is the next step for the Twitter Revolt? Who’s in charge? What is the agenda? How is progress made? How do we work together to advance civil liberties? How do we hold together an already fragile economy?  In a horizontal Twitter movement, there is no direction and thus uprisings fail to achieve revolutionary change.

But what about President Obama’s campaign in 2008?
Yes, social media successfully elevated the Obama message and inspired others into action. But, an organized, political campaign machine complimented this social media movement resulting in increased fervor via the web achieving intermediate and long-term goals outlined by the structure. Today’s “Twitter Revolts” appear to lack that synergy.

2-Importance of commitment above participation
I’m impressed by the “Twitter Revolt” ability to gain participation from a wide swath of people. However, I estimate that a “Twitter Revolt” has no more than a week to begin achieving clear, initial objectives before the crowd begins to fade. It’s challenging to stay motivated and continue protesting much more than a week if it only leads to chaos, insecurity, and economic deprivation. That’s when vertical, physical organizations rise above “Twitter Revolts”. Friendships built from common suffering and commitment to defined goals can compel protesters to remain in the streets after the Internet momentum is gone. In Egypt for example, should the government collapse, I would guess the Muslim Brotherhood would be the victors, not because they led the “Twitter Revolt”, but because they were organized and committed.

3- Social media provides a platform for the oppressed to speak out and the government to identify resistance.

Social media is great for expressing one’s opinions. However, Iran demonstrated to the world that Internet postings and Tweets also mark dissidents. Middle East and North African governments monitor the Internet and use it as a tool for rapidly identifying and snuffing out resistance. In the end, social media brings the rapid rise and possibly the rapid fall of potential new leaders.

10 comments

  1. How about this Google guy? Big speech today, and big interview on TV. maybe he is the one that can be a formal opposition with a leader and a plan? I hope so, he seems to have reinvigorated the protests.

  2. Your argument seems more along the lines of someone who is just bitter and doesn’t understand how (1) new media [social media in this case] works, and (2) social movements work. What leader have you seen snuffed out because they were active on Twitter or Facebook? Don’t worry I know you can’t answer that, because you’d have as much empirical evidence for that as you do for your allegation that social media simply informs people. Secondly you treat the media as if it is a monolithic entity that has it’s own life. It doesn’t obviously, and where do you see people making a claim that Twitter or Facebook *cause* revolution. I think it’s novelty for mobilization and coordination are important, and you’ll not see a social movement in urban areas that won’t eventually use it. It is a not only a platform but a vehicle of contention–just like the petition. I’m sure some time in the past there was some guy who knew neither about the region they were talking about or the mechanism of petition saying how petitions don’t cause change. The reality is we don’t have much evidence that you can actually site. Using Gladwell or other popular journalists is also weak. While your writing is good, you might need to reconsider your “expertise” on the efficacy of social media in the role of all this. If you do insist on bashing it for the sake of being a naysayer, use stronger logical arguments with some facts. Hiding in assertive statements doesn’t make what you say any more legit than those who argue that it does make a difference in drive a positive movement. Secondly, people use printing press and telephones for protesting and revolutions; guess what, repressive regimes have used those same devises to counter the movements, and even tapped phones to find out who the leaders were–leaders may get caught and repressed, but what does that have to do with ANYTHING related to the efficacy of social media?

  3. Indigo,

    Thank you for your comment. I love it, I can write about a 100 different topics and I’ll get almost no response. I write anything that might imply that “Social Media and the Internet are not the greatest thing ever”, and I get all sorts of anger. I must not have been clear enough in my original post. So, I’ll rejoin here and try to address the points I think you are trying to make.

    “of someone who is just bitter and doesn’t understand how (1) new media [social media in this case] works, and (2) social movements work.”

    I don’t know how I was being bitter, I guess I’m only allowed to comment on social media if I go along with the crowd, right? The first two paragraphs I mostly showed admiration for what new media has achieved. I host a blog, I use Twitter, and social media sites. I’m pretty pro-social media.

    I heard this same story from social media zealots in 2009 with regards to Iran. And it was great, Twitter and social media got people out into the streets, elevated awareness to the outside world. And then what? What happened to the social movement for change? I’m not saying that social media is not important. I am only doubting that it is the entire social movement. My issue with Egypt was that social media has gotten everyone out into the street, inspired some initial change, but what is the next step? Where is the leadership to take Egypt to the next level? If the U.S. had not stepped in to push for a transition in Egypt, this would already have ended like Iran in 2009. After all this social media inspiration, I’m sitting here watching European BBC coverage of Egyptians outside Cairo being interviewed. Their comments are roughly, “the folks in Tahrir square made their point, but we need to get back to our lives, where are the tourists, where is our income, we are running out of food, Mubarak is a good leader.”

    There is a distinct undertone in the States that increased social media equals increased social change. I imagine a historical look back would identify the same talk about the telephone, radio, television, etc. (Television was a major factor for the civil right movement).

    My issue with social media zealots is that the emphasis for social movements has become overly focused on media and not on the leaders or intended changes of social movements. Leadership has been completely discounted. There is a belief that if we all email enough, or tweet enough, change will occur. There has to be something more; an organization to make the change. What is the next step in Egypt? What if after all this protesting and social media build up, Mubarak stays, or the Vice President takes over and never institutes democratic reform? My fear is that Twitter and social media can ramp people into a frenzy before an opposition movement can really put together the steps needed to institute real change. The concern is that social media can incite near term protest, and limit long run progress.

    “What leader have you seen snuffed out because they were active on Twitter or Facebook? Don’t worry I know you can’t answer that, because you’d have as much empirical evidence for that as you do for your allegation that social media simply informs people.”

    I can put together a study of those people that have opposed an authoritarian government via social media and then been eliminated if you need it. I don’t have the data on Egypt, but I’m sure I could get a good bit of it in open source. How do you think they found all these reporters and detained them in a day? Seriously, I think you should read the Internet Haganah and his comments here. He does the best analysis out there on Internet dealings and routinely provides explanation on how this is done. Here is a recent case from Iran.

    Social media is a great platform, but it provides so many signatures for authoritarian governments to identify the opposition. If an opposition leader wants to last long on social media, they have to reside outside the country they are opposing. Thus, the social movement is already weakened by the lack of physical, on the ground leadership that opposition person might provide if they were in the country.

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