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Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s role in Arab Spring (Middle East uprisings) [UPDATED 7/7/13]

Flickr photo of Tunisian protests by marcovdz

Democracy has finally come to parts of the mid-East and Northern Africa. What has been the role of social media and the Internet in these uprisings?

First the facts and then some discussion of the role of social media:

Background: The “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Mid-East heavily relied on the Internet, social media and technologies like Twitter, TwitPic, Facebook and YouTube in the early stages to accelerate social protest. There are even allegations that the CIA was blindsided about the Egypt uprising by failing to follow developments on Twitter. There is less evidence that social media played a strong a role in places like Yemen (where Internet penetration is low) or Libya (where the government controlled Internet means of distribution and cracked down more effectively).

In Syria, where the “Arab Fall” and “Second Arab Spring” is still underway and the fighting has intensified and spread to Damascus’ suburbs. The role of social media was originally more limited in Syria, out of fear that the government is monitoring online behavior and because the government learned from Egypt and Tunisia and cracked down heavily on social media, but there is some evidence that activists  was starting to figure out how to use social media more  when the Syrian government temporarily shut down the Internet on May 7, 2013.  The Free Syrian Army [Arabic FSA actual site is here] is threatening civil war in Syria and claims to represent 10,000 defected soldiers operating in small bands across Syria; FSA has posted a YouTube video and claimed responsibility on Facebook for the 11/16/11 assault on the Air Force Intelligence building.  Disappointingly, Twitter and Google have also agreed to help the Syrian government and other oppressive regimes by enforcing rules that censor tweets or blog posts in Syria by blocking them out within-country.  There have not been large-scale protests in Syria, making it hard to gauge the level of anti-government support, since large number of critics of the Assad regime may be refusing to demonstrate out of fear of being injured or killed.  Because of the media blackout, it is hard to assess the role of social media currently in Syria, but this Google Hangout hosted by the Syrian American Council in DC held a conference video with activists in and outside the country, discusses their use of social media like Facebook, Skype or YouTube.

Tunisia:

The first domino was Tunisia where the underlying source of the uprising lay in government corruption, inequality, censorship and joblessness (even among the well educated youth).   The protests began in December 2010 with a college-educated street vendor’s (Mohamed Bouazizi’s) self-immolation in the coastal town of Sidi Bouzid in despair at the corruption and joblessness.  He died from the burns, but his protest, despite Tunisia’s strict web censorship laws, was rapidly fanned by online Internet tools.

“Because the protests came together largely through informal online networks, their success has also raised questions about whether a new opposition movement has formed that could challenge whatever new government takes shape.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close ally from the president’s hometown, announced on state television that he was taking power as interim president. But that step violated the Tunisian Constitution, which provides for a succession by the head of Parliament, something that Mr. Ghannouchi tried to gloss over by describing Mr. Ben Ali as “temporarily” unable to serve.

Yet by late Friday night [1/7/11], Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt’s slogan, “Ben Ali, Out,” had made way for the name of the interim president. “Ghannouchi Out,” they declared…. And the protesters relied heavily on social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter to circulate videos of each demonstration and issue calls for the next one.    [“President of Tunisia Flees“, NY Times, 1/14/11)

“By many accounts, the new arsenal of social networking helped accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, driving the country’s ruler of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking speed. It was an apt symbol that a dissident blogger with thousands of followers on Twitter, Slim Amamou, was catapulted in a matter of days from the interrogation chambers of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime to a new government post as minister for youth and sports. It was a marker of the uncertainty in Tunis that he had stepped down from the government by Thursday.” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

“Other social media aspects of the revolution included Twitter updates with stories of state oppression, police brutality and unrest, and tweet feeds of imminent street protests….  Over 30,000 videos have now been placed on YouTube tagged “Sidi Bouzid.” [Online Social Media, 1/18/11 story]

Egypt:

Emboldened by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the protests spread to Egypt on January 25, 2011 where opposition leaders declared it a “Day of Rage” on which protesters would take to the street against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The protesters included secularists, Islamists and Communists/ultra-left-wingers–a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian opposition.

While exact numbers of protesters could not be estimated, a flood of internet photographs and videos showed a massive presence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities.  These protests lasted 18 days and Internet-savvy protesters used Twitpic, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate videos and photographs and called on Egyptians to protest.  Protesters provided minute-by-minute tweets concerning where to assemble in an effort to outwit police.

“More than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the Tuesday [Jan. 25] protests, framed by the organizers as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. But the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement, said it would not officially participate, though some of its members joined the protesters in Cairo.”  (NY Times, “Broad Protests Across Egypt Focus Fury on Mubarak“, 1/25/11)

The Egyptian government originally engaged in episodic censorship. One video posted to YouTube and then shared on Facebook claimed to show Egyptian riot police being assaulted and seriously injured by protesters. However, the video was taken offline for a Terms of Service violation. There were also reports of YouTube censorship of protest videos. “[D]uring protests on Tuesday [Jan. 25, 2011] and again on Wednesday [Jan. 26], many reported trouble accessing Facebook and Twitter, the social networking sites that helped organize and spread news of the protests.” [NY Times]

The Internet crackdown began in earnest on January 28 when the government, amidst extremely large-scale demonstrations moved to fully restrict the Internet and cellular forms of mobilizing demonstrators.  “Internet and cellphone connections had been disrupted or restricted in Cairo, Alexandria and other places, cutting off social-media Web sites that had been used to organize protests and complicating efforts by news media to report on events on the ground. Some reports said journalists had been singled out by police who used batons to beat and charge protesters. One cell phone operator, Vodafone, said on Friday that Egypt had told all mobile operators to suspend services in selected areas of the country The British company said it would comply with the order, Reuters reported.” [New York Times, “Clashes in Cairo Extend Arab World’s Days of Unrest“, 1/28/2011]

Tahrir Square protest in Egpyt, posted on Facebook page

Slate has a brief description of how, despite the Internet and cellphone limits, some one million protesters were mobilized for the 2/1/11 protest in Tahrir Square using old-school tactics:

“Three young men from the ElBaradei Association for Change, a group that had been working to mobilize people and have them sign a petition to reform constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007 that prevented an independent candidate from running for president, decided to take matters into their own hands. They would go into other neighborhoods and convince people to come to the square. “We’re going to go out on the streets and start screaming, ‘Down with Mubarak,’ and asking people to join us. Once we get about 1,000 or 2,000, we will move toward downtown,” Tawfik Gamal told me, as we walked briskly toward the subway.

A little while after we set out, word came that other activists had the same idea, so Tawfik and his friends headed to a different neighborhood. I decided to stick with our original meeting point. As I waited in front of a major Cairo mosque in a wealthy neighborhood, I watched about 100 people walk by.

In front of the mosque, carrying home-made banners and bottles of soda, a small group of friends had congregated. They were the affluent upper-middle-class on the march. One of them is Ahmed El-Diwany. An IT manager at the American University in Cairo, he had moved back into his parents’ home to be closer to the protests. He’s not sure when Mubarak will fall, but he is sure that he will. “Mubarak is a Taurus, and so he is stubborn. He doesn’t like looking weak—and he’s a general. Put it all in a blender, and it’s a lethal combination,” he tells me, totally serious.” [Slate]

Mubarak’s unsubtle crackdown on the Internet and cellphones, not only imposed great cost on the economy, but had the ironic consequence of actually radicalizing many  rural Egyptians into opposing the Mubarak regime. In any event, Mubarak’s countermove occurred after the dissension genie had already escaped the bottle and the revolution successfully ousted Mubarak.

“[With the internet crackdown,] President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime.  There was reason for Mr. Mubarak to be shaken. ” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

On February 10, amidst unrelenting protests, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had ceded power. Egyptians have now voted meaningfully for the first time ever, although doubts remain about whether the protesters’ gains are being eroded.  And on May 23, 2012, Egyptians, in a historic election, for the first time  voted for a replacement for Mubarak (one year after his departure).

The Second Revolution: The situation in Egypt in mid-2013 is highly unstable.  It appears that Egypt’s second revolution has ousted Mohammed Morsi, but the situation there remains highly unstable and there are assertions that Morsi is corralling the military to put down protest, even after he has agreed to step down.  There is evidence that Facebook was used much more prominently in the second revolution than the first.

Libya: In Libya, while the revolution was ultimately successful in ousting Muammar Gaddafi, social media played a minor role.  Libya’s government maintained strong control of the Internet infrastructure, and Gaddafi as an ego-maniacal autocrat responded only to insurgent militia, once they were aided by NATO.

Syria/Jordan/Yemen/others: Other middle-Eastern nations fear the shadow of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and fear that youth uprisings spurred by social networking mobilization or more traditional mobilization are taking hold.  On Monday, January 31, 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unsuccessfully announced efforts to try to get ahead of a possible revolution there (in a WSJ interview).  Jordan pre-emptively tried to avoid the Tunisian or Egyptian result with somewhat limited success. (AP) The Yemeni leader agreed not to run again or hand the reins to his son. [Here is a great graphic showing the spread of the Tunisian uprising to at least 18 other middle East countries (through April 11, 2011), with four other countries having overthrown their leader (Egypt, Libya, Ivory Coast and Yemen[?]) and another (Syria) at a tipping point.  And this is the current state of play by country.]

Although the role of social media is much lower in Syria’s protest actions than countries like Tunisia or Egypt, individuals have risked their lives to use cellphones and small cameras to film atrocities of President Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown on the protesters and upload these images to Facebook or YouTube, fanning international pressure on Assad to back down.  Assad has also used propogandistic websites like Bashar al-Assad and used social media to assert that protest videos are fake and that he has hundreds of thousands of loyal supporters.  Although only 15% of Syrians are online, activist LeShaque claims that without social media, the Syrian revolution would have been successfully repressed at an earlier stage, and notes that the government complains more about the media than the protests.

What was the role of social media?

Social media must work hand-in-hand with an ability to mobilize citizens.  It is far too easy to simply “Friend” or “Like” a movement on Facebook and a retweet is never enough. The challenge is to put boots on the street, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya know only too well.

Everyone agrees that social media add new arrows to the quivers of social activists.  These social media can be helpful in: a) mobilizing protesters rapidly; b) undermining a regime’s legitimacy; or c) increasing national and international exposure to a regime’s atrocities.   Any use of these social media is likely to be more successful in a country that has some form of democracy; so far, the exit of Tunisia’s Ben Ali is the only example we have of social media non-violently ousting an autocrat.

Malcolm Gladwell observes in “The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” that successful social movements long pre-dated social media.  In an May 2011 interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS (Global Public Square), he disputes the importance of social media in the mid-east uprisings and asserts that protesters could have organized in other ways, noting that East Germany overturned a government when only 13% had landline phones. Moreover, Arab Spring uprisings are occurring in places like Yemen with low rates of Internet penetration. Journalist Anthony Shadid comments on Syria that: “It’s not a Twitter or Facebook revolution. The revolution is in the streets, and it smells of blood.”

Advocates of the new technology point out that the fact that there were successful revolutions before the telephone, doesn’t mean that the telephone (or social media) might not enhance social protest or enable some protests to succeed where otherwise they would not have.

Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky, “From Innovation to Revolution”, Foreign Affairs, Response, March/April 2011  have an interesting brief exchange of their differing thoughts on the role of social media in revolutions.  Zeynep Tufekci, Why the ‘how’ of social organizing matters and how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short and David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, “Gladwell proves too much” had quite thoughtful blog posts on this topic, criticizing Gladwell for his dismissal of the importance of social media.

Philip N. Howard, assoc. professor of communication at the Univ. of Washington, and other scholars have analyzed the millions of tweets, YouTube videos and blog posts and concluded that “social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring…[The evidence] suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”

Wael Abbas (a prominent Egyptian blogger), when questioned on the role of  social media in the Egyptian revolution, said: “Social media is a tool. But revolution is the decision of many people. Once we decided to have a revolution, once people decided to stay in the square, social media was a helpful tool to call for support, ask lawyers for help. I will not give social media all the credit, nor will I take away all the credit from social media.”  He noted that the revolution is not yet over: “We’re not beyond the revolution. We now have a military junta, and people are being shot by armed officers, defending their interests. The army is protecting American, Israeli, Saudi interests in the country. They are protecting their own interests: the military aid from the US. The army is building factories and roads, and they’re not paying taxes, electricity or water. The labor for these projects are soldiers acting as slave labor.”

Wael Ghonim, who anonymously founded the Facebook site Kullena Khaled Said (“We Are All Khaled Said”) in sympathy with a 28-year old brutalized by police and called for the critical Tahrir Square Jan. 25, 2011 day of protest, wrote Revolution 2.0 to chronicle the role of social media in Egypt’s uprising and the suspenseful tale of trying to stay ahead of the police.  Hear Wael, a 30-year old Google marketing executive, talk with Terri Gross of Fresh Air here about the power of social media.  [Interestingly, he made real efforts with his Facebook site to make this interactive and build individual investments and commitment in this, by asking those who affiliated electronically with the website to post videos of them carrying placards reading “We Are All Khaled Said” and answer electronic surveys about their thoughts, and by indicating that if 100,000 took to the streets to protest on Jan. 25, they couldn’t be stopped.]

It’s very hard to prove whether a revolution would or would not have happened barring the existence of social media [countries rarely offer themselves up for experimentation], but there may be some learnable lessons about some important dimensions in understanding how successful social media may be.

1) The underlying strength of civil society: Clay Shirky has an interesting piece “The Political Power of Social Media” in the January/February 2011 Foreign Affairs journal where he acknowledges the key role of civil society:

“The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the environmental view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

2) Whether government is a democracy or autocracy.  Thus far in the Middle East, Tunisia is the one example where a social-media-tinged uprising has successfully ousted an autocrat.  This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be useful in bringing democracy, but if an autocratic leader is willing to brutally suppress dissent (as in Syria) and if outside countries don’t intervene (as they did in Libya), social media may have less impact than one would expect in bringing democracy to the Middle East.

3) The degree of Internet penetration and whether government controls the Internet infrastructure: Obviously in countries with low internet penetration it is far more difficult to use the Internet to mobilize local masses, although it may still be a tool to garner international support. In Libya, where the state controlled the Internet and telephony, it was far easier to block use of these social media than in a country where telecommunications were privatized. In Egypt, the government secured Vodaphone’s cooperation in blocking mobile communications, but foreign companies in the future may be less cooperative.

4) Sophistication in Internet censorship or misinformation campaigns: We are in the early stages of social media and the cat-and-mouse interplay between protesters and repressive regimes.  In second-generation revolutions, the state is becoming more sophisticated about Internet controls, making it look like the Internet is active, but slowing speeds dramatically so  video is ineffective or blocking certain words from appearing on trending lists or in search queries.  Repressive governments have alas learned from Egypt’s inept full-frontal blocking of the Internet. Regarding the use of misinformation, Gaddafi’s attempt to claim that a protest rally video circulating was actually a pro-government rally looked foolish.  Would other more sophisticated misinformation campaigns succeed?  Will there be fake groups that form in an effort to flush out activists for persecution?  Will government become more active in the Internet to try to direct protesters to incorrect locations where police are waiting?

5) Unintended consequences from state action:  Related to point #4, we are also in the early days of understanding what types of government crackdowns succeed and which backfire and wind up bolstering the opposition (as Mubarak did in his shutting down of the Internet).    Until we have a better handle on those dynamics we will be unsure of what the net-net impact of social media will be.

6) How intertwined social media is in everyday life:  To the extent that a society uses social media mundanely but deeply in everyday commerce and social interaction, it will be much harder for countries to effectively dismantle these without huge economic and social costs.

Beyond any initial revolution, Thomas Friedman pointed out in the NY Times on April 13 that starting the revolution may be the easier part. “In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers — except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities. So removing the lid off these countries may potentially unleash civil war, not civil society.

Friedman concludes: “That is why, for now, the relatively peaceful Arab democracy revolutions are probably over. They [first] happened in the two countries where they were most able to happen because the whole society in Tunisia and Egypt could pull together as a family and oust the evil ‘dad’ — the dictator. From here forward, we have to hope for ‘Arab evolutions’ or we’re going to get Arab civil wars.”

++++

Other links:

Tunisia:

Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in terms of social media.

– “Tunisia Protesters Use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Organize And Report” (LA Times Blog, 1/14/11).

– See New Yorker, “Letter from Tunis: The Casbah Coalition” (4/4/11 by Steve Coll)

– See “The Use of Social Media Made Arab Spring Possible

Egypt:

– See earlier Social Capital Blog post on role of Facebook in earlier Egyptian uprising.

– As noted under the Tunisia section, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Egypt in terms of social media.

Fast Company urged those interested in monitoring events to follow Egyptian journalist Mona el-Tahawy’s Twitter feed and the wall of the Egyptian opposition el-Shaheed’s Facebook account, which posted minute-by-minute updates from hundreds of Egyptian Facebook users including photos and news of the latest events. They also commended Blogsofwar’s Egypt Twitter aggregator for those who can read Arabic.

– See “How Social Media Accelerated the Uprising in Egypt“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

– Read also “Facebook treads carefully after its vital role in Egypt’s anti-Mubarak protests” (Wash. Post, 2/2/2011).

– see, “Twitter’s Role in Arab Spring exaggerated, experts find” (The National, 5/1/12) [Citing Arab Media Outlook Study (2011-2015), commissioned by the Dubai Press Club.]

Syria:

See “Will Syria’s Revolution be Organized… on Facebook?“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

Radwan Ziadeh explains why use of social media is much lower in Syria in “The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media” (7/11/2011)

Social Media and Syria’s Revolution” by Namo Abdulla (12/20/11)

Syria Interview: Activist “LeShaque” on Social Media and the Syrian Revolution (1/15/2012)

Arab Spring generally:

– Clay Shirky did an interesting short interview for the Annenberg “Eye on the Middle East” program (Nov. 10, 2011) on the use of social media in the Arab Spring.

For a broader description of just how game-changing the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East may be, see Thomas Friedman’s “B.E., Before Egypt, A.E., After Egypt” (2/1/11 NYT Op-Ed) [likening the impact to Israel as being similar to the impact on the U.S. if Canada and Mexico were both going through revolutions at the moment]

– See also “Five Reasons why Arab regimes are falling” (Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2011 Op-Ed by Moataz Fattah) citing the fact that countries like Egypt have not leveraged physical capital (i.e., oil) into social capital for its residents.

– See also, Rory O’Connor (Huffington Post, 1/26/12), “#january25 One Year Later: Social Media & Politics 3.0”

Libya:

– See “Libya: How authorities have blocked the story” (BBC, 2/25/2011)

– See Deborah Amos (NPR) talking about the role of social media: “Revolution in the Age of Social Media, Deborah Amos

– Doug Saunders has a very interesting Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail discussing social networks in Libya and Egypt in 2004 and 2011 and contrasting the difference.  Excerpt:

Certainly, the Libya I visited in 2004 was low on social capital. It was the only Arab country I’ve ever visited where men didn’t gather in large crowds at street-side cafés to smoke and talk politics. This was illegal, and dangerous. Next door in Egypt, life for many was (and remains) a lonely oscillation between home, mosque and workplace, with nothing to bind people in a way that could change the country or its society.

Or so it seemed. But on that visit seven years ago, I noticed something else: Everyone I met under 20, even in fairly poor communities, spent their spare time at the Internet café. In the freedom of those places, in detailed conversations, I found teenagers forming intimate communities online, discussing cars and rap lyrics and sex and especially restrictions on Internet freedoms in neighbouring countries (Libya’s Net was wide open then), and often coalescing in physical meet-ups. And that was Libya, one of the least free countries in the region.

Those teens are now around 24 – and half of all Egyptians and Libyans are 24 or under. In the past months, we have seen them form extraordinarily resilient and tightly linked voluntary communities using those Internet connections.

A fifth of Egyptians and more than a third of Tunisians have broadband at home, and the Internet cafés and cellphone web services mean that almost everyone under 24 has daily access.

Dictators and Islamists also use the Internet. But the young opponents keep showing that their social capital is more robust than we’d ever imagined: In the past seven weeks, we have seen Facebook-organized rallies drive out the old-regime prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt and replace them with movement-associated figures. The towns and villages of Tunisia and Egypt, as I reported this week, are being transformed by local democracy committees, which have become an unstoppable force.

That’s not to say that the Arab world’s connected generation are going to have an easy time building a democratic society. But they certainly aren’t bowling alone.

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Can slacktivism work?

Flickr photo by CodeMartial

I was quoted last month in a Philadelphia Inquirer piece on “slacktivism”.

“The easier it is to show support for the cause, the more easily [the action] is dismissed,” says Harvard University’s Tom Sander, who studies civic engagement as executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

When Sander worked in Washington for Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, it was common lore among legislative staffers that e-petitions “signed” online were not taken as seriously as ones that bore actual signatures. The same was true for letters in which writers cut and pasted their messages from a master copy on the Internet, he says.

Obviously the label “slacktivism” already has the conclusion embedded within: i.e., that slacktivism is lazy activism that implicitly can’t work.  I noted, which Davis did not quote me on, that social change typically is fighting against  self-interests that are deeply vested for a reason — those individuals are benefiting strongly financially from the status quo, they care passionately about the status quo, etc.  It’s hard to fathom that anything as important as civil rights or women’s suffrage could have been obtained by Americans’ signaling on their Facebook face that they liked civil rights or liked the idea of women voting.  I noted that typically social change, as Weber noted, requires “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

I think the interesting question is when can change occur without serious effort and how can technology be used in that process.  There are examples, like the Jody Williams’ initial work on the International Land Mine Ban, or Kate Hanni’s electronic organizing for the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, that were organized without large-scale public marches or rallies (things that typically signify just how importantly people care about an issue because it takes a lot of people’s time and expense to come, say to Washington, to rally).  I think the electronic phase of a movement may be helpful in identifying at some level how widespread support is for an issue and help leaders who are willing to devote serious time to lobbying Congress or organizing a boycott, whether “there is a there there.” But in the case of the land mine or the passengers’ bill of rights, it still took tireless advocacy on the part of Jody Williams or Kate Hanni, although internet organizing was a useful tool in informing their followers and rallying them.

Certainly groups like MoveOn and more recent political campaigns are also testament that the internet is a ripe source for raising money that may be critical to sustaining an organized campaign.  [While I certainly differ from what I see as Clay Shirky’s over-optimistic tone in Here Comes Everybody, the book is instructive in helping us to rethink ways in which technology might enable new forms of civic engagement and new forms of protest.]

In any event,  I don’t want to be categorized in the group that believes that internet activism can’t play an important role (for sure it has and will), but I think the danger is to think that cheap action (e.g., putting a cartoon character on your Facebook page to show opposition to animal cruelty) is sufficient in and of itself to bring about meaningful change.

As I noted to Carolyn Davis, it’s a similar danger to corporate volunteer days where individuals may feel at the end of the day that they’ve satisfied their yearly dose of volunteering rather than spurring them to deepen their civic and social engagement during the rest of the year.

I welcome your thoughts.

See “Slacktivism emerges as questionable online way to support causes” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 27, 2010, Carolyn Davis).

Why the revolution won’t be tweeted

Twitter Revolution - Flickr Photo by FrauleinSchiller

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting column in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker called “Small Change.”

Gladwell asserts that claims of Twitter’s role in various uprisings in developing countries (like Moldova or Iran) have been exaggerated.  He cited Evgeny Morozov, a Stanford-based scholar who notes that “Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist.” And he cites Anne Applebaum who suggested in the Washington Post that the protest “may well have been a bit of stage-craft cooked up by the government.”  Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy wrote in Summer 2010 about Iran: “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events of Iran right…Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

What’s more interesting about the article is Gladwell’s dissection of various events during the Civil Rights (The sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in February, 1960, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Summer Campaigns).

Gladwell notes that social change and protest requires huge sacrifice and understandably one only engages in such sacrifice for one’s close friends (strong ties).

What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.

So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.

Twitter’s strength is in weak ties (which as Mark Granovetter showed are good for things like job search, and as Clay Shirky observes in Here Comes Everybody, the Internet can be great for engaging thousands of friends to track down one’s stolen Sidekick phone).  Gladwell also cites The Dragonfly Effect to show how these week internet ties can be great for finding a bone-marrow transplant.  But are these weak Internet ties useful in recruiting compatriots for the revolution: are we willing to be put in jail and protest just because we got a tweet?

Gladwell concludes:

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.

Gladwell’s conclusions generally resonate with our research on social capital.  We’ve speculated before about whether Facebook, for example, cheapens the currency of friendship, and whether you’ll bring chicken soup to your Facebook friends to say nothing of joining Justin Timberlake’s revolution just because you are following his tweets.

Where I may disagree with Gladwell is whether Twitter can’t have value in changing the calculus of getting involved.  Undoubtedly, you are typically recruited through strong friendships but whether to participate is a mix of loyalty to one’s friends, loyalty to the cause, and some sense of the chances of success.  Imagine that these potential recruits are arrayed in their willingness to take risks, from those most willing to take a risk to those least:  think of the bigger risk takers as being further out on a tree limb.  But how far out one thinks one is out on this limb is not dictated by God but by one’s perception of where others are.  This is so because the risks of taking action (protesting) vary inversely to the number of people involved.  If one or two people break the law, the government will imprison them.  If a million people are breaking the law, the government lacks the power and resources to prosecute and imprison them and will have to give up. We often have imperfect information about the size of the movement.  Seeing massive protest crowds (from prior demonstrations or a current one) can change the calculus but I think tweets might too. Tweets might provide would-be protesters with more information about whether government is able to respond, how they are responding, where else people are protesting, how many are protesting, etc.  And all this information can induce would-be fence sitters to get off the fence and protest.  But I agree that they are most likely to be recruited through trusted compatriots.

Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change” article.  [Gladwell in the article also focuses on how some protests require a hierarchy, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and how the Internet does not make it easier to organize such a hierarchy.]

Interesting “Us Now” film on intersection of technology and community

“Us Now” is a provocative, but bit breathy, film on the connection between technology and community, and glosses lightly over some of the challenges of building community over the Internet. Nonetheless, it is still an interesting watch.  The examples are heavily  UK-based, perhaps because there has been more innovation in the tech-community space on that side of the Atlantic.

The film has a number of talking heads (including Clay Shirky) and highlights some interesting experiments in building community over the web, such as:

  • The School of Everything: a UK website where would-be teachers on any topic can meet locals who want to learn.  It’s like a virtual Center for Adult Education.
  • Ebbsfleet United Football Club: a UK soccer club teach where 30,000 fans “own” the team and decide on what players should start various games and on various policies for the club.  [The film shows them advancing to and winning the finals at Wembley.]
  • Couchsurfing: a website where travelers can find someone in another town who is willing to let them sleep on a couch (or maybe an extra bed).
  • Wikipedia:  known to almost everyone, but a demonstration that millions of volunteers can create something arguably as strong as a commercial encyclopedia, and certainly more vibrant and up-to-date.
  • Mumsnet: an Internet-based community of moms where they exchange advice, concerns, and sometimes friendship.
  • Linux: open-source software that is generally less bug-ridden, produced faster and better performing than commercial software like Microsoft.  And the software is all written by thousands of volunteers over the Internet.
  • Zopa: like an ebay bank, Zopa enables individual-to-individual loans.  Individuals note what their loans are for, like “funding driving lessons” or “buying a cow.”  Those wishing to lend can bid on what interest rate they’ll charge. And a lender can wind up getting funding from scores or hundreds of individual funders for a project.
  • Slice The Pie: Musicians can upload their tracks and have them rated by “slice the pie” participants.  The top rated bands get showcased and the best get 15,000 pounds to make a record from the participating individuals, who share in the record’s proceeds.
  • Governance:  examples range from a participatory budgeting experience in Morcambe, to TheyWorkForYou.com, to The Point, to the Canadian Green Party developing their platform online through a collaborative wiki.
  • Directionless:  a number where cellphone users can call in the UK and get hooked up with a volunteer who is physically proximate who can answer their questions (where is a nearby ATM?  What bars are open late?  etc.)

The film raises important points about the potential of the internet: in increasing transparency and participation, in “disintermediating” (putting more individuals on the front-lines of decision making), in its ability to reach great scale through organizations with a small number of employees, in how it might change our attitudes towards trust, or our willingness to contribute to the gift economy (where we ultimately can gain a lot by giving a little), and in how the Internet is spreading an expectation of participation which may be irreversible, regardless of whether this typically leads to better outcomes.

See “Us Now”.

Individual clips here.