Media That Moves Millions

Social media may be protesters' favorite weapon, but new research on Syria's revolution shows it can do as much harm as good.

Three years to the month since protests swept across the Middle East, the new year once again sees peaceful demonstrators facing off against hardened and sometimes violent security forces, this time in the Ukraine. And like in the Arab Spring, social media is being said to play a significant and potentially decisive role in empowering Euromaidan protesters in ways that couldn't have been imagined a decade ago.

While the world watches the Ukraine protests unfold, however, the narrative of how social media helped fuel democratic protests during the Arab Spring is undergoing a major revision. The democratic gains of early 2011 have proven largely ephemeral. Initial optimism about the future of the region's women and youth has dampened, and generalized violence plagues countries once thought to be on the cusp of a brighter future, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

So what is the role and power of digital media in movements for peace and democracy? In contrast to three years ago, we have a lot more data and evidence now that we can use in trying to answer this question. And according to our research, the importance and uniformity of social media in these uprisings has been both overstated and vastly oversimplified.

Following the violently suppressed mass protests of the 2009 "Green Revolution" in Iran, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the George Washington University's Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication began a multi-year effort to better understand the role of new media and internet communication technologies (ICTs) in protest movements, peace, and war. The resulting "Blogs and Bullets" research program has produced four reports (the previous ones can be found here, here, and here), with the latest -- which analyzes more than 38 million tweets in a study of social media in the Syrian civil war -- released Jan. 13.

In it, we found the role of technology can't be examined one-dimensionally. Rather, we applied five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention. How we think about social media's role in the Arab Spring, for instance, could depend on whether we are asking how gruesome images of a murdered Khaled Saeed mobilized individual Egyptians to join the Tahrir Square protests; or why Facebook appears to have been effective for organizing the various Egyptian social movements, but failed to do so in Yemen; or how the Syrian government and other regimes tracked protesters through their digital footprints; or whether in an era of the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine, which compels the international community to protect populations when their own governments can't or won't, Twitter's ability to spread the word about regime violence can pressure the international community to act.

Digital media, especially social media, are increasingly part of protest movements' toolkit for combating regime violence and information monopolies. That said, the initial claims of cyber-media power in these so-called "internet revolutions" appear to have been vastly overstated. Contrary to claims early on in the Arab Spring in 2011, for example, our research shows that Twitter played only a minor role in both in-country and regional mobilization -- there did not appear to be any "democracy domino" effect, as evidenced not only by our data but by the durability of autocratic regimes across the region. Somewhat ironically, arguments about the import of new media mirror similarly overstated claims about traditional media's power decades ago.

Similarly, although there is a logic to the argument of the "dictator's dilemma" -- the idea that 21st-century authoritarian regimes must embrace ICTs in order to prosper, though these same technologies can also be used by protest movements to undermine and even overthrow them -- it would be foolhardy to underplay the ability of regimes to use these same technologies to spread misinformation and target opposition figures for persecution or worse. This was as true in 2009 in Iran as it is today in Syria.

There are, however, ways in which social media serve the crowd much better than the regimes they oppose. Our data suggest that Twitter may have been particularly effective in spreading information outside the region during the early months of the Arab Spring protests. In theory, this could have important ramifications for bringing international pressure to bear on authoritarian regimes to avoid wanton violence. It could also prevent the world from turning a blind eye to genocide and mass bloodletting, especially given the international community's embrace of the R2P doctrine. Some suggest that social media's reporting of the impending annihilation of Benghazi by former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi helped prod Barack Obama's administration to spearhead the international intervention that not only prevented the massacre, but also led to Qaddafi's overthrow.

As others have noted in studies of online political discourse in the United States, we found social media -- especially Twitter, where a lot of our data come from -- to be increasingly factionalized, especially about the Syrian civil war. Like similar claims regarding traditional media in some idealized Enlightenment-inspired public sphere, arguments that new media bring ideologically diverse people together aren't entirely false but are probably overstated. In fact, these media may create self-reinforcing information bubbles. Whether these ideological cocoons exacerbate and inflame differences, serve as empowering mobilization tools, or some combination of the two, is still less clear.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of the "Blogs and Bullets" series, however, is that scholars, activists, and policymakers must avoid over-generalizing about the strengths -- and limitations -- of digital media. Not all new media have the same functions and effects, nor does one case necessarily provide lessons for the next. Perhaps the most under-looked but critical finding about these relatively young media is that their role, influence, and significance today may not be the same tomorrow -- assuming the medium in question still exists then.

Our new study on the Syrian crisis illustrates these points in many ways. For instance, Twitter's use and impact evolved tremendously from the early months of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the early stages of the Syrian crisis -- when it was an important shared site of information -- to the period after the medium began allowing Arab-language tweets and hashtags. At that point, we found, the Syria-related Twittersphere became much more factionalized, especially within the region.

The English-language Twittersphere used primarily by Western journalists became largely cut off from this vast, contested, and arguably more informative Arab-language counterpart. This has profound implications for understanding the strengths and limitations, and even myopia, of Western journalism and its potential influence on policymakers and international public opinion. 

These findings are similar to what others are finding with the current Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. New York University's Megan Metzger and her colleagues found that, prior to the violent police crackdown in early December, much of the tweeting around the protests was in English. But during and after the crackdown, tweets switched to Ukrainian and Russian as protesters began using the medium more for spreading information and organizing responses internally.

In the same way that scholars over the decades have found different functions and effects for, say, newspapers versus television, it's becoming increasingly clear that different ICTs have different effects. We have better evidence for Twitter than Facebook for a variety of reasons, but the former appears to be a better tool for spreading information and real-time surveillance, whereas the latter can be more effective for organization and collective action under the proper circumstances.

These tentative conclusions are hampered, however, by a key problem researchers have in understanding digital media's role in peace and protest (one outlined in our very first "Blogs and Bullets" report): Too often, we simply don't have access to good data, or, conversely, the tools for properly analyzing what can be an overwhelming amount of data. Facebook, in particular, has been difficult to understand because of a combination of legitimate privacy concerns and the company's proprietary control over its data.

There is also this: Punditry, policymaking, and scholarship can all suffer from the same problem of assuming the world is defined by what we happen to be looking at. If we're excited about social media, we tend to see every problem through that microscopic lens. In fact, though, whether movements are successful and whether regimes fall undoubtedly has far more to do with age-old, systemic, structural, historical, political, and socio-cultural reasons than with what media tools happen to be in vogue at that time.

Why did the regime in Egypt fall but that in Bahrain didn't? Certainly not because of social media. Will Ukraine's Euromaidan movement succeed? It's unclear, but its prospects hinge far more on, say, the opposition party's strength (or lack thereof) and the historically predicated regional divisions within the country than they do on Facebook. Will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be overthrown? The abundant research on civil wars doesn't have a definitive answer, but it does suggest that we may be in for a long, bloody haul, and that whatever happens, the next phases promise to be messy and decidedly undemocratic, as we've seen in Egypt and Libya.

Indeed, a look around the world in early 2014 might justify a skepticism bordering on pessimism about digital media's ability to spur successful movements for peace and democracy. Despite early euphoria, Egypt is not only descending back into military-backed autocracy, but recent reports rank it as the worst place in the region to be a woman. Syrian rebel groups not only use YouTube to reveal regime atrocities, but to celebrate their own. And looking back at a hopeful post from late 2011 predicting 13 social media-led revolutions by 2015, one can't help but notice that most of the authoritarian figures cited remain in power, and not one was deposed amidst a revolutionary movement.

That said, a closer, more sober look at digital media's impact reveals the value of these tools. They do, for instance, make it more difficult for regimes to hide their abuses, both from their own citizens and from the international community. Some social media, especially Facebook, seem particularly effective at various forms of organizing, including raising funds, connecting to important Diaspora communities, announcing future protests, and perhaps even engendering a sense of community and empowerment amongst followers. Scholars and activists are increasingly finding creative uses of digital ICTs, such as Ushahidi, for creating greater security and accountability in poverty-stricken areas plagued by problems like graft and police abuse.

Overall, there is no question that digital media have created a richer information environment than that provided solely by traditional media. In fact, our research and that of other scholars shows not only that new media can act as a corrective to the limitations of old media, but also that the functions, roles, and influence of the two are increasingly blurred.

In the end, media of any sort are unlikely to have the transformative power some have claimed and many have hoped for. Yet there's no question we live in a world that is more connected than ever before in human history, a fact that has enormous implications for mobilizing mass movements. It is therefore important, as we said in our first "Blogs and Bullets" report, "to find a proper balance between knee-jerk skepticism of technology's promise and the techno-utopianism that too often plagues public discourse."


National Security

America's Emaciated Army

The U.S. military is slated to shed 150,000 soldiers. Can it still go to war with so few?

The U.S. Army, already reeling from the beginning of a round of cuts that will drop from its peak of 570,000 to about 490,000, was just told that those cuts don't begin to cut it. Now the Army has begun planning to plan to shrink even more: to a force of about 420,000.

The writing was on the wall. With Iraq now a distant memory and Afghanistan winding down by the end of the year, the Army had expected to drop in size. But to some, this means "cutting into bone," as one officer observed, and that raises a question about what a smaller Army can do -- and what it can't.

The Army leadership have framed almost any cuts to end strength as draconian. Speaking before a December budget deal that softens some of the blow, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno attempted to make the case that a smaller Army couldn't do what it was supposed to do.

"If Congress does not act to mitigate the magnitude, method and speed of the reductions under the Budget Control Act with sequestration, the Army will be forced to make significant reductions in force structure and end strength, adding: "Such reductions will not allow us to execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, and will make it very difficult to conduct even one sustained major combat operation."

But that's not quite right, defense experts say. A smaller Army can conduct any kind of small operation -- training indigenous forces in Africa, say, or sending a peacekeeping force into Syria. And it can do anything big, too like conducting an "MTW" - a major theater war -- just not for long.

Budget cuts have already forced the Army to cut back on training and operations. Odierno told lawmakers last fall that there is less money to prepare deploying soldiers for combat, leaving soldiers across the Army less ready than they have ever been. Last summer, when the Army was still planning on having 490,000 soldiers, the service announced that it would cut 10 brigade combat teams, or BCTs, over four years.

For example, a smaller-sized force fighting in any larger, longer-term contingency operation would be forced to deploy its soldiers on smaller, quicker rotations before the Army could be expanded for the extended mission  - or the National Guard or Reserve can be called in. Friction between the Guard and Reserve and the active duty Army has spilled into public recently, with Odierno and Guard and Reserve leaders sniping at each other over the cuts. Many in the active Army fear the politically powerful Guard and Reserve are poised to gain as the active Army shrinks.

Under a smaller Army, one of the Army's flashiest new concepts - regionalized brigades, in which soldiers receive cultural and language training - would likely be pared back. The implications of a smaller Army may not yet be clear.

Experts say it's all in the way the service does the cutting that matters. A smaller force can achieve a lot of what it needs to if it has the right balance: If the Army has too many combat forces and not enough "enabling" forces for certain kinds of operations, it'll be incapable of performing much of what it's asked to do, said former Army officer Nate Freier. On the other hand, if it doesn't have forces at the ready to move quickly it could be left out. "One of the real risks is getting the balance inside the numbers wrong," said Freier, now a research professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "The number itself isn't nearly as important as how it's broken down inside of that."

Freier said the Army must focus more on capacity and capability -- not just raw numbers. And an institutional bias across the military, but in particular the Army, toward conventional threats animates anxiety within the service if it shrinks too much. The Defense Department still prefers to think about big wars against nation-states, arguably leaving the military vulnerable to more likely threats that emerge from dissolving regimes. In a word, it must hedge. For example, if the Army remains fixated on the possibility of a large land war, it may assume risk when it's called upon to mobilize forces for an entirely different operation for which it is not prepared. Likewise, if conducting training of indigenous forces in other countries, say in Africa, is critical, it must also maintain the proper forces to do that but also have enough capability and capacity to fight a conventional war.

"Your credibility in doing that is based on your capability to take on those missions and to maintain your hedge for other contingencies worldwide," he said.

At the moment, the political winds against another major war are gale force -- and the Obama White House has seen the value in sending small, specialized forces into conduct high-impact missions, like the raid that nabbed Osama bin Laden -- attitudes can turn on a dime. Which means the military has to keep planning for big missions with a smaller force.

"Whether or not we get involved is so dependent on the political circumstances of the day and no one can predict that in advance," said Maren Leed, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former adviser to Odierno.

But, she said, "I go back to Trotsky: We may be done with war, but war may not be done with us."

The Army has long been criticized for being too big and lumbering - qualities that perhaps suited it all right for the conventional land wars of the past decade. Calls for a lighter, nimbler one haven't made huge impacts yet on the institution.

But aside from the conventional threats in the Asia Pacific like China, most people argue that in this budgetary environment, there are few reasons to have a large, sitting Army that topped about 570,000 just a few years ago. And an Army sized at 420,000 soldiers is not exactly skeletal. In fact, it's roughly the size of the pre-war Army in 2000. And cutting it back isn't anything like the hundreds of thousands of forces cut in the early 1990s.

A smaller force may have an impact on one of the Army's cherished new concepts: regionalized brigades. The idea is to give soldiers assigned to a brigade basic language and cultural skills for a certain region. Although the brigades are not assigned to a specific part of the world, they are theoretically "on the step" to deploy there -- most typically in smaller, platoon- and company-sized units -- for training and advising or potentially more "kinetic" missions. It's an ambitious approach and one not without its critics. But for example, the Army has begun using the Army's 2-1 brigade combat team as one of the first ones trained and ready to deploy to Africa.  

"I think what we want to make sure is that they're much more culturally attuned to the area they're going to," an Army official working on the initiative, told Foreign Policy's Situation Report last year. "I think that is an important part, and it's certainly something that 12 years of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has highlighted to us, that you've got to understand the culture within which you operate. If you don't, it does come with potentially cataclysmic problems."

It's not yet clear how a smaller Army would affect a plan, but Freier said a smaller force will have fewer options.

"The smaller you get, the less you can afford to specialize," he said.

Although it's not clear how the Army has begun to plan to shrink to 420,000, it had already begun downsizing. Just this month, two Army separation boards began looking at more than 19,000 Army captains and majors.

A recent article in the Small Wars Journal by retired Army Col. Kevin Benson argued that the Army must figure out its strategy and what kind of missions it wants to do and determine its size accordingly. But Leed argues that planners have to add an interim step. The Army needs to know what role it is to play in this post-war period, but it must figure out other ways of how it can perform them before determining its proper size.

"420,000 is not skeletal, and they're not getting emaciated," Leed said. "It's a significant [cut] but it's not devastating."


The U.S. Army / Flickr