When the authoritarian regime of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fell in mid-January, many in the news media dubbed it the "Twitter Revolution." In the words of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, "Facebook gave young protesters [in Tunisia] the connective muscle to oust an Arab dictator." This led Cohen to conclude, "The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation -- and it's powerful."
Twitter and other social media networks are certainly powerful. But do they actually cause revolutions? The seed of nearly all revolutions is dissatisfaction, especially discontent brought on by gross injustice. The advent of new forms of communication will not alter this fact of life.
To suggest that the Tunisian transformation was a "Twivolution" -- and that there are more social media upheavals to come -- is a bit misleading. As Parvez Sharma maintains about the on-going protests in Egypt, the majority of demonstrators "are not 'twittering' or 'Facebooking' or 'emailing' or even watching the landmark live coverage that Al-Jazeera is providing. They are out on the streets -- and yes, without phone access -- risking their lives and giving vent to three decades, and perhaps more, of anger."
Techno-optimism seems to get the best of us. As Evgeny Morozov's new book The Net Delusion nevertheless argues, we are often too quick to give social media credit for social change without fully understanding the limits of the Internet to liberate and foment democratization.
So what exactly does Internet networking contribute to political change? Looking at not just this past month's events in North Africa, but at other uprisings in places like Ukraine, Moldova, and Iran, we can identify four ways that social media serve dissension:
- Social media help potential activists learn of events abroad, which in turn can inspire similar behavior at home;
- Social media facilitate the organization and coordination of protests;
- Social media allow demonstrators to express their dissent -- to fellow citizens as well as to foreign sympathizers; and
- Social media, in what is perhaps the most overlooked yet arguably most important function, give protestors hope and courage from the mere words of encouragement and virtual solidarity they receive from sympathizers through such outlets.
One other important role is actually something that is not tied directly to the actions of demonstrators: social media allow the web savvy abroad in liberal democracies to place uniform pressure on their respective governments to act, which at a minimum gives an issue salience.
Salience however does not necessarily translate into foreign policy deeds. Often times, world leaders will issue statements in reaction to protests. Case in point: President Barack Obama's reaction to the challenges to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule. But diplomatic words alone will almost never topple a regime. Case in point: President Barack Obama's reaction to the challenges to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's rule.
Without action from abroad, change will always be principally dependent on internal dynamics. Still, sometimes the knowledge that world leaders stand behind activists can serve the psychological function of sustaining a movement long enough to prevail. And to the extent that the web can provoke such support, social media deserve a hat tip.
Social media obviously have some important supporting roles to play in popular uprisings. But despite some recent news media proclamations to the contrary, Twitter will not likely be the primary force behind political upheaval.
No revolutionary manifesto has ever been written in 140 characters or less. And events in Tunisia and Egypt offer no evidence that this will change.