Voice

Reactions and Responses: Twitter Devolutions

My column last week, Twitter Devolutions: How Social Media is Hurting the Arab Spring, stirred up more than the usual amount of discussion and responses.  Thanks to all of you who tweeted it, retweeted it, and offered your thoughts.  My purpose in writing Twitter Devolutions wasn't to blame the internet for all the current problems in Egypt or Syria, any more than earlier essays gave social media all the credit  It was to push for a more complete account of the specific ways in which the new internet based media impact politics for better and for worse. 

Twitter Devolutions built upon several earlier articles, some of them through the "Blogs and Bullets" program at the United States Institute for Peace with an array of co-authors including Henry Farrell, John Sides, Sean Aday, and Deen Freelon. Our initial Blogs and Bullets report, "New Media in Contentious Politics", published in 2010 - well before the Arab uprisings - had laid out five distinct levels at which social media might have observable impacts on politics: individual attitudes and competencies; intergroup relations, from civil society to sectarian or identity divides; collective action and protest organizing; regime surveillance and control; and external attention.  Our second B+B report, "New Media and Conflict after the Arab Spring", argued that social media had a greater impact on shaping international attention to the uprisings than it did on the organization of the protests themselves.   

Both of those reports highlighted many of the potential negative effects of social media on transitional politics - polarization, privileging protest over civil society and party building, transient attention, regime backlash. Those potential impacts shouldn't have been a surprise, but they often got short-changed by the more optimistic narratives or by the many detailed empirical studies focused exclusively on the moment of revolutionary change.  Almost all serious analysts recognize those realities, with the stylized debate between so-called cyber-utopians and truth-telling cyber-skeptics being mostly for show. But in practice, it seems, most research and analysis still seemed to focus on the "positive" manifestations. 

My outlining of the negative impacts of social media on the Arab uprisings shouldn't be taken too far, however.  I believe that the underlying transformation of the Arab public sphere enabled by the radical, rapid spread of new information technology represents the single most enduring and profound change of the last decade. It is one of the primary obstacles to the return of traditional Arab authoritarianism, and to the emergence of a new Islamist domination.  The effects of that structural change, like those of any structural change, are complex and unpredictable, and can't be reduced to reassuring narratives of "democratization" or frightening narratives of "state collapse."  The new information environment empowers politics, which do tend to be messy and contentious and unsatisfying.  That's good, but it doesn't guarantee any particular outcome.

One other point, which emerged at the McGill conference where I first presented the essay.  My analysis of how social media empowers activism more than it does civil society building or political party formation, and that many activists will continue to prefer street politics to democratic politics for the forseeable future, does not mean that I see no value to activism. Far from it.  Indeed, in the absence of legitimate institutional channels for political participation in places like Egypt (which still doesn't have an elected Parliament) such activism remains the primary check on state power.  The persistent, effective monitoring and publicizing of human rights abuses is a great example of a core contribution of activists (online and off) which neither depends upon nor diminishes democratic participation.  But I also don't think that such activism can substitute for democratic institutions.  The hope would be that a robust civil society would take root in support of such democratic politics, the fear is that they become rivals.

But enough from me.  I received some extremely thoughtful responses to the column. I was particularly taken by this email from Alec Ross, Senior Adviser for Innovation, U.S. Department of State and one of the key architects of the American strategy for digital diplomacy: 

"I believe that the arguments in this essay are sound and almost entirely accurate. Unfortunately, social media has proven to be more effective at tearing down leaders and institutions down than building them up. There have been notable exceptions in the USA and abroad, but they require the hard work of institution and leadership development (even if that leadership is nodal and networked vs. individual and hierarchical). The failure for that to occur to this point helps explain events as they currently stand."  

That's an important set of marching orders for those such as outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who believe that nurturing internet freedom is a key component of U.S. foreign policy.

Below, I feature some of the best responses to my column in what I hope will become a regular "responses and reactions" feature.  All are published with the permission of the authors.  Without further ado... Ethan Zuckerman on social media mechanisms, Amal Hanano on the distinctiveness of the Syrian experience, Hisham al-Miraat on Moroccan frustration, and Brian Ulrich on historical comparisons.  

 

Ethan Zuckerman (@ethanz), MIT Media Lab and author of the forthcoming Rewired: Digital Cosmopolitans in an Age of Connections:

What I found helpful about your post was the willingness to move beyond a "social media topples governments"/"social media empowers dictators" dichotomy that's unhelpfully dominated debate in this space. Social media had some positive impacts in the Arab Spring - I think it was critical in spreading stories from within Tunisia, but I think Al Jazeera was probably more powerful in reaching audiences throughout the region. And there are cases where social media was likely damaging, even as protests unfolded, tipping authorities off to protester's movement, and allowing governments to create astroturf campaigns, as in Bahrain.

Where almost everyone goes wrong in their analysis is in trying to overgeneralize positive or negative impacts of social media. At the same time, it's hard to learn from multiple takeaways. I wonder whether a formulation offered by Zeynep Tufekci is helpful. She suggests that social media amplifies preferences. When those preferences are largely in sync - it's time to oust Mubarak - we can see dramatic change. When those preferences aren't in sync - do we want an Islamist or secular leadership to replace Mubarak - what may be amplified is conflict and dissent. Like all generalizations, this one may also be overbroad, but it offers one way of thinking of a throughline connecting your helpful insights.

 

Amal Hanano (@AmalHanano), Syrian writer

Your question, "Is Twitter helping to kill the revolutions?" regarding the negative effects of social media on the Arab uprisings, two years in, is a valid one. But as we have been constantly reminded on how one Arab country differs from another Arab country, I must now remind you: Egypt is not Syria. Your description of the Egyptian opposition's pre-revolution political scene is an accurate one, the activists were organized, connected, and most of all known, not only to foreign journalists but to each other.

I'm sorry that Syrian social media activity is seen as "divisive" and "unpleasant." I also apologize that our Twitter feeds were flooded with videos of slaughtered children and tortured men instead of the inspiring chants of Yemenis and Egyptians. And of course, there's the question of credibility. Who are these unknown people who suddenly appeared on Twitter and Facebook with pseudonyms and access to up-to-the-moment news from Syria? What are these thousands videos that they post daily, that tell the same narrative over and over for two years straight? And why didn't we meet these people the last time we hung out in Damascus?

The reason why people like you didn't meet people like us before is the same reason why Egypt isn't Syria: we didn't know we existed. The Syrian uprising is about much more than toppling the Assad regime. After almost two years, we can now look back and see who we have become: a society that has found its collective voice for the first time. And after 40 years of silence, we have much to say (and thus tweet).

Over the course of the revolution, the way we use social media has changed. Many of us connect now with each other in other ways than the anonymous Twitter handle we started with. We chat on Facebook, What's App, Viber, and sometimes our cell phones.

As you say at the end of your article, empowering people's voices to counter authoritarian silence is one of the Arab uprisings' biggest achievements. Syrians are tired of the political opposition's endless and public social media bickering, and some are vexed that the Syrian National Coalition leader, Mouaz al-Khatib, announced his conditional "dialogue with the regime" plan on Facebook, one day before an official NC meeting. (Naive or brilliant? We're Syrian. We're still debating that. On Facebook!) For two years, the international community condescendingly demanded the opposition have a united voice. The world seems to be frustrated by this new, unmanageable crop of Syrians they never had heard of  - each with a different idea (and some, an agenda) for Syria's future. It's complicated. We all know, as you state in your article, regional politics of interest and not opposition fractures, is what dictates what's going on in Syria today.

Syrians have found their voice and they found each other. It was done by rebuilding their own (virtual) society and reclaiming their media. This applies to Syrians across the spectrum from loyalists to opposition. But we all owe it to the revolution. Tweeting was just a tool.

 

Hisham al-Miraat, Moroccan blogger, Global Voices Online

At the hottest hours of the Arab revolutions, social media sometimes played a distorting part. It especially magnified the role of Egypt at the expense of smaller but equally significant theaters of political and social tension. The premise was that whatever happens in Cairo it will have ripples all over the place. This drove journalists to assume that it was OK to focus almost entirely on Egypt and pay only occasional attention to what was happening elsewhere. It created an quasi addictive relationship: Tweeps and bloggers in Egypt on the one hand, realized that the more dramatic their account of the situation the more attention from international media they will get, and journalists on the other, who couldn't get enough of it. It was a bubble waiting to burst. "If a fly dies in Tahrir, CNN will certainly send someone to cover the story," one frustrated Moroccan activist once tweeted.

At the height of their own struggle against dictatorship, Moroccan members of the February 20 movement (a pro-democracy group, considered the extension of the Arab spring) were craving for half the coverage Egyptians were getting. They felt they deserved more attention and many believed that more coverage could have helped them connect with their middle classes. Once the dust of the revolution settled in Cairo, Tunis and Sanaa, revolution fatigue started setting in. Bitter, irreconcilable ideological differences started to emerge. By then the wind of the Arab revolution had ceased to blow and there was no story of peaceful change to cover.

 

Brian Ulrich, blogger and Assistant Professor of History, Shippensburg University,

The communities that develop in new communication environments tend to be simple actualizations of existing levels of identity.  Muslims might not have though much about the idea of the umma before the late 1800's, but they definitely had the sense that such a thing was out there and that they were part of it.  Similarly, media such as Nasser's Voice of the Arabs and today's al-Jazeera might have brought more people in touch with a common Arab experience, but they did not create Arab identity, and in fact built on what was already there.

So when it comes to social media, we should not be surprised if what we see is an amplification of existing identities and the potential for conflict that entails.  Such media, furthermore, is not unidirectional, but create by an array of individuals, meaning that it makes sense that it would fracture along the lines of the existing potential identities within society, and that insofar as people wind up relying on it, there develops a sense of epistemic closure similar to what some have seen in the recent American media scene, where some get their "information" entirely from e-mail forwards and social media posts.

 

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