Tahrir Square launched a thousand dissertations on how social media drove the frenetic mobilization of the Arab Spring. Egyptian activists may rage at the notion that the revolution was driven by technology rather than by their determined efforts, but there's a good case to be made that social media did matter -- at least a bit -- in shaping the uprisings across the Arab world. But the celebratory narrative about social media needs to be tempered by the reality of the struggles that have befallen most of these countries in transition. Whether or not Twitter made the Arab revolutions, is it now helping to kill them?
Don't get me wrong -- I love Twitter (that's me at @abuaardvark). I rely on it for information and the unfiltered opinions of hundreds of Arab citizens every day, and I've written often about how new media forms affect politics -- for good or for ill. The relentless spread of Internet access and social media use represents a genuine structural transformation in how political information flows in the Arab world, and it is only becoming more powerful as millions more Arab citizens come online. But if we take seriously social media's role in the revolutions, how can we avoid asking tough questions about how it might have affected their aftermath?
It's easy to understand why so many people saw "Facebook revolutions" and "Twitter revolutions" during the Iranian uprising of 2009 and the Arab uprisings of 2011. The outsized role of online activists, the reliance of many outsiders on Twitter for instant updates, and the undeniable immediacy of online information proved irresistible to academics and journalists alike. Casual observers felt an unprecedented connection with the activists they followed on Twitter. Meanwhile, academics had a multitude of good reasons to believe that new media forms were enabling radically new forms of political organization and communication that just had to matter. And it did! The effects of social media in facilitating opposition organization and shaping the coverage of protests in the mainstream media may have been at the margins. But much of politics is often waged in those margins.
But even then, many of us saw the potential problems. What should we think about social media today, when the early enthusiasm for the "Facebook revolutions" feels somewhat quaint? What about the difficult politics that followed the rapid fall of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak? What about the complaints that the world was fooled by the prominence of seemingly liberal, Westernized "Facebook youth" in revolutions that actually empowered very different forces? Should social media take some of the blame for the political disasters that have followed? If the Internet can claim partial credit for the timing and nature of the Arab uprisings, should it also take partial blame for some of the more negative trends of the last two years?
I wouldn't want to take this too far, since there are plenty of completely ordinary, offline political explanations for the ongoing political turbulence in the transitional Arab countries, and plenty of examples of similar struggles in transitional countries long before the Internet allegedly changed everything. But a case can be made that new Internet-based social media has played a role in the post-uprising struggles in many Arab countries. With all those caveats in mind, here are a few ways in which social media has stumbled -- and sometimes done more harm than good.
First, there's the general tendency toward exaggeration and hyperbole, which has arguably cost Egyptian activists (in particular) a certain amount of credibility. There's a reason why the catchphrases "it's never as bad as it seems on Twitter" and "the Tahrir bubble" caught on. I still remember the first time I was driving around a perfectly calm, absolutely normal Cairo while reading a Twitter feed describing apocalyptic clashes and mayhem. So do a lot of others. Social media loves a crisis, and it loves morality tales with a clear good guy and bad guy -- preferably identifiable in 140 characters. Don't forget: The boy who cried wolf did actually end up watching his sheep eaten by wolves -- he just couldn't get anyone to believe him because he had exaggerated once too often.