On Twitter in #Egypt

By February 4, 2011

It has been called the “Twitter Revolution.” The recent unrest throughout the Middle East and Africa has resulted, so far, in two toppled regimes, a number of deaths, and a lot of attention on the role that social media plays in politics and political change. It is easy to understand all the hullabaloo over social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, as well as organizations like Wikileaks. The reasoning is simple: in rapidly-changing environments, social media offer a nimble, democratic forum in which individuals can broadcast events from a “boots on the ground” perspective much quicker than traditional broadcast or “dead-tree” media can.

Last year’s protests in Iran were something of a case in point for why social media utilities are good, and why governments should be afraid. Be very afraid. On the one hand, social media outlets allow users to update the world on developing news stories, and do so directly. There are no filtering, editorial or censorship mechanisms on these utilities. On the other hand, the question, “Yeah, well how effective are social media in gathering people together and making change?”

In an essay published last year in the New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell cites Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam’s research on high-risk social activism. Basically, the argument goes, probability of engaging in high-risk activism is a function of one’s real-world social ties and community cohesion. Thus, Gladwell and McAdam argue, Twitter, Facebook and a gaggle of other social media tools played a relatively small role in organizing protests which brought down Mubarak.

Twitter does not have a large user base in either Tunisia or Egypt. According to market research firm Sysomos neither of those countries comes close to the top-20 Twitter using countries. This puts Twitter behind number 20, New Zealand’s paltry 0.47% share of Twitter’s user base in 2010. With so few social media users in Egypt and Tunisia, the only argument in favor of social media’s role hinges on Gladwell’s “strong tie” model. Let’s assume that these protests were organized through social media. (Here’s the Facebook page for one of the protests) Given the disparity between the number of people in the streets and the number of social media users, one must conclude that social media users convinced their friends and families to join them in protest. Still, though, that’s a very shaky hypothesis.

The question is, then, “If McAdam and Gladwell are right, and we’re still all talking about Twitter and Facebook, what makes that narrative—that of subversive, citizen-activist cyber-rumblings about anarchic malfeasance—so compelling?” In short, what role do social media tools play in modern political unrest?

From my perspective, behind my computer screen devouring information on the crisis, I’ve noticed a distinct difference between the analysis of American news outlets and their counterparts in Europe. Whereas many American news outlets are hailing the transformative, integrative force that is Social Media, many European news outlets are more tepid in their analysis. What social media provide their users in volatile political situations is, yes, a sense of community and a rapidly-updating forum where news are posted, but I believe that social media—Twitter chief among them—provide a much more conventional, banal service… albeit one with a twist.

Twitter creates citizen-journalists. Anyone with a phone, ideally one with a camera, can capture thoughts, individual moments, compelling developing news stories as they happen. They are agents of transparency; these citizen-journalists report what traditional news media can’t or won’t. Yes, the images and text captured can galvanize whole movements (take, for example, the video of Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot and killed in 2009), but they only do so with the help of more traditional broadcast media. The opportunity to reach out to the world, to shout from inside the echo chamber during a political crisis is the primary value of social media. Unfortunately, though, one is likely to be shouted down, their thoughts drowned in the din of everyone trying to do the same.