The revolution will be Twitterised
The notion that one person’s status update can spark a revolution has gained momentum in recent years. The “Twitter Revolution” is now a familiar concept. Before it was applied to the current protests in Egypt, the term was used to describe the election riots in Moldova and Iran in 2009 and last year’s Tunisian street demonstrations.
As well as being an attractive media catch-word, the moniker has been regarded as apt because the political upheaval in each of these cases was organised using technological networking tools, including SMS, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Social networks are powerful instruments for connecting and uniting strangers with common objectives. The Obama 08 campaign was fought perhaps most intensely on the internet, where followers were offered intimate access to “Obama Everywhere” (or at least on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Black Planet, MiGente, LinkedIn, MyBatanga and DNC Partybuilder).
The US President’s 18,074,571 Facebook fans are not the only testament to the political potential of social media. In June 2009, after receiving a call from the US State Department, Twitter delayed a scheduled software update so as not to disrupt an “important communication tool in Iran”.
And President Mubarak’s recent decision to hit the kill switch on the Egyptian internet suggested a fear of the opportunities for mass mobilisation that online networks offer. It is not surprising, then, that when organised violence breaks out, media attention turns first to the protesters’ Twitter feeds.
Commentators on the political impact of social media can broadly be divided into two groups. On one side are the Twithusiasts, who are animated by the notion that tweets and status updates can upend power structures and chase oligarchs out of their countries.
Twithusiasts talk of paradigm shifts, of new frontiers and of deep civilisational changes caused by the opportunity to interconnect and to freely exchange user-generated content online. Bring up the Middle East and a Twithusiast can’t wait to tell you that the current unrest would never have occurred pre-Zuckerberg.
Hand-wringingly opposed to this view are the Antitwits.
Sceptics of the political potential of online tools, they shake their heads and remind us that revolutions were around long before hashtags. They point to the dearth of actual Twitter accounts registered in Tehran or Tunis or Riga as evidence that the role of the Internet in facilitating dissent has been grossly overblown.
Google “Twitter Revolution” and you’ll find no end to the heated debate on the suitability of the phrase to describe the recent riots. Commentators wave their colours as either Twithusiasts or Antitwits and, in tones of sarcasm or despair, bemoan the opposing team’s view.
There are serious logical gaps on both sides of this debate.
The Twithusiasts, for their part, overemphasise the role of technology in 21st century interactions. Social media is certainly a powerful facilitator of interconnection, organisation and mobilisation, but it is rarely the cause or catalyst of the activity that ensues.
What is happening in Egypt is only a Twitter Revolution in the sense that the violence at Cronulla was a Nokia Riot and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project was a Word-of-Mouth Rebellion.
While the tools of the trade have become increasingly sophisticated, activism should continue to be defined by its causes rather than its means. It is not hard to imagine the protesters in Cairo taking issue with their plight becoming predominantly associated with a website whose most popular topics include FIFA, Justin Bieber and Twilight.
The Antitwits, on the other hand, seem to experience head-in-sand syndrome when it comes to recognising the implications of information technology. While there is no silver bullet, access to information of high quality and quantity is a powerful antidote to oppression.
It is true that there were revolutions before there was the Internet, but it has never before been as easy to learn about the way a government operates, to discover international perspectives on a situation, to connect with like-minded individuals or to express views to a national or international audience.
A point that tends to be overlooked by Twithusiasts and Antitwits alike is that these effects stem from a much broader source than social networking alone: access to international news websites, online research publications, email, professional and personal blogs and other internet resources have been at least as important as Twitter and Facebook in creating a more informed and empowered global population.
There are substantial hurdles to be overcome, however, before social media or information technology more generally can become the equalisers that Twithusiasts perceive them to be. The ease with which President Mubarak was able to seize and shut down Egypt’s mobile networks and the Internet speaks volumes of the limitations of technology as a liberating force while its control is concentrated in the hands of a powerful few.
Access and censorship are not the only obstacles to the internet’s hero potential. The same technology that enables protesters to unite and make their voices heard also makes it easier for those activists to be identified, located and dealt with by the powers that be.
The role of Twitter in the propagation of revolutions is more nuanced than either the catchy moniker or the polarised debate would suggest. The political implications of the Internet are greater than allowed for by the Antitwits.
However, we are yet to see the dramatic flattening of power structures that the Twithusiasts claim to have observed. What is certain is that the Internet will feature increasingly in the political dissent of tomorrow.
The use and abuse of online tools in organised public protest is going to be a fascinating space to watch.
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