Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, didn’t exactly endear himself to social media fans when he declared in his New Yorker article last year that Twitter, Facebook and other social network sites aren’t all that relevant in starting and sustaining a revolution. He said that networks formed online are essentially weak links; while they are effective in disseminating information at lightning speed, they’re not very successful in eliciting strong and sustained commitment which high-risk causes (like overthrowing a repressive government) require.
It’s one thing to retweet a news headline on the uprising in Egypt; it’s an entirely different thing to actually go out into the streets and face a very real danger of getting arrested or killed.
Another writer who’s not too excited about celebrating the crucial role of online networks in uprisings is Evgeny Morozov. Like Gladwell, he believes that strong movements are formed through structured and strategic grassroots organizing and not just through a bunch of random people tweeting and posting one-liners on their Facebook walls. In an article on the Guardian, he has this to say about social media: “Perhaps the outsize revolutionary claims for social media now circulating throughout the west are only a manifestation of western guilt for wasting so much time on social media: after all, if it helps to spread democracy in the Middle East, it can't be all that bad to while away the hours "poking" your friends and playing FarmVille.”
Angus Johnston on Huffington Post challenged Gladwell’s thesis by arguing that although grassroots organizations are built on strong ties, the collaboration of these groups that would grow into a national movement relies on the so-called weak links. “All strong ties start as weak ties, and… even weak-tie relationships can spur action within and between strong-tie communities,” he said.
Following the downfall of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, pundits on the other end of the spectrum were even quicker to point out the errors of social media doubters. Andrew Sullivan who was then writing for The Atlantic cited the strong presence of Tunisians on Facebook and the trending on Twitter as evidence for the importance of online networks in the success of the revolution. Tunisia has about 2 million Facebook users or 19 percent of the population. Egypt, incidentally, is the top African country on Facebook with almost 5 million users although that translates to only about 6 percent of the population.
It seems that the arguments revolve on how much credit should be given to online social networks in spurring revolutions in the digital age. Are they so crucial that these movements wouldn’t have happened without them? Or is the attention they’re getting grossly disproportionate to their actual contribution?
I find it helpful to look closer to home. When the 20-year dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines was overthrown during the 1986 EDSA revolution, radio was key in issuing the call for people to gather in the capital’s main highway which culminated in a peaceful uprising. In the second EDSA revolution in 2001 which toppled the presidency of Joseph Estrada, live TV coverage of the president’s impeachment trial incited the people’s outrage. The televised trial publicized blatant corruption in the presidency. Text messaging was also credited as an important medium for spreading the word on the massive street protest.
In each of these events, people used the most relevant media at the time to further their cause. Since the internet is the fastest route nowadays to share information, it is but inevitable that the biggest online networks like Facebook and Twitter would figure prominently in today’s protests. However, the prominence of mass media notwithstanding, the 1986 and 2001 events in the Philippines weren’t branded as the radio and television revolutions. In the same way, it would probably be excessive to call the Middle East uprisings as the Twitter or Facebook revolutions.
Online social media gets the information out in real time not just within national borders but throughout the rest of the world. Its strength lies in its speed and reach, which is something that we shouldn’t just arrogantly dismiss as inconsequential. But the popularity of these networks shouldn’t overshadow the rightful recognition of the power of citizens to organize themselves for a common cause, their courage in the face of mortal danger, and their struggle against strong and oppressive regimes. In the end, the message is still more powerful than the medium.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0225/Roger LeMoyne On 31 January, a boy, sitting on a man’s shoulders, uses a bullhorn to join in the chanting that is part of a mass public demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the capital. The protesters include women and men, many of whom carry signs. Others take photographs with their mobile phones. One sign (right) reads: “The people announce a civil revolt.”