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.