Given that demonstrators in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East have used Twitter and Facebook during the current popular uprisings and protests, it is no surprise that the role of social media (SM) in such turbulent settings is the subject of an extensive debate and discussion among bloggers, pundits and scholars. Indeed, do a Google search for the terms "social media" and "Egypt" and you will see how many words have been written on this topic. At bottom, all of this writing explores three central issues: Are SM important to how contemporary protesters attempt and carry out political change? Do they change how we view revolutionary processes? And lastly, do Facebook, Twitter, cell phone technology and the like cause these recent attempts at political change?
By themselves, SM do not cause popular uprisings, demonstrations and revolutions. After all, this technology is to be found everywhere (though certainly with restrictions in some places), but we do not live in a world of constant global revolt. The current political upheavals are confined to particular nation-states with their own set of domestic political, economic and cultural problems, which are usually created and exacerbated by elites and leaders. But SM are important tools used by protesters to help reach specific desired political outcomes (such as open elections, minority rights and economic reform).
Certainly, new technology, with its unprecedented speed of transferring information to an enormous number of people, can hasten revolutionary processes by compacting events – from initial stirrings of mass frustration and dissent to political change – into ever shorter periods of time. Look at the January 25 movement in Egypt. But the new SM tools can do more than that. Let us look at some examples, many of which might be familiar to you.
1. SM can be used to inform followers on, among other things, the failures of the state, as well as on the economic and political alternatives to those currently in place.
2. SM can be a tool to inspire supporters into action. The Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said," created by Wael Ghonim, the now-famous Google marketing executive, is one example. Dedicated to preserving the legacy of Khaled Said and detailing the excesses of the Egyptian police force that killed him, the page has served to motivate civilians to stand up against perceived injustices and abuses of power committed by the Egyptian state.
3. SM can be employed as a nifty mechanism to recruit like-minded people. As Facebook and Twitter posts and cell phone texts are spread from current followers and supporters to their friends, family and various acquaintances, who then forward those messages to others, political opposition movements expand their bases of support.
4. As people use Facebook and Twitter to find sets of issues that resonate with their political sensibilities and to cultivate affiliations with groups that embrace similar interests and grievances, SM can help develop a sense of political identity.
5. SM are useful in coordinating subversive political activities. One quick public post, or one quick text message, can give thousands, if not millions, of people with sufficient information on what to do, and when and where to go to act. Egyptian activists, who used SM tools in this way, have joked that their activities marked the first publicly preannounced revolution in recorded history. The problem, though, is that governments are learning from events in Egypt and Tunisia and now cracking down on internet and cell phone service.
6. SM can be used for collaborative purposes, with disparate groups sharing information on a variety of topics. The New York Times recently published an excellent article on how the linkages between political activists in Egypt and Tunisia impacted the recent revolutions. So tight were these linkages that the activists "brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades." Of particular interest is that these collaborative efforts have spread to other places in the region (including Morocco, Iran, Algeria, Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria).
7. Above all, SM are important in overcoming collective action problems, a point that has been rarely addressed in this debate. Protest movements against ruthless regimes (like those in Syria, Iran, and Egypt under Mubarak) often struggle in getting substantial numbers of people to leave their homes and workplaces and schools to protest in the streets, squares and other public forums. People fear that most of their opposition compatriots will fail to join them in public, leaving them isolated and vulnerable to arrest, imprisonment, and torture by state security forces. No one wants to bear that burden alone. The end result, then, is that protests, in this type of environment, often do not make much of an impact and opposition movements are effectively stillborn.
SM tools can be crucial because they enable the opposition to determine loosely how many others will join them in their efforts. Put simply, they make the previously unknown (who intends to challenge state authority) a bit (though not by any means completely) clearer. Opposition leaders can build Facebook and Twitter pages devoted to special events, such as mass sit-ins, strikes, marches, and so on. And on these pages, evident for all to see, is a tally of those who plan to attend the event. Undoubtedly, not everyone who pledges to participate in these types of events will actually show up. But if mass numbers sign on, there is a good chance that quite a few will join the event. And if protest movements access significant numbers of people, for any opposition event, they can somewhat confidently act on their political motivations and challenge the state. (For instance, on one of his Facebook pages, Ghonim used 50,000 as threshold before moving to the streets; and he eventually waited until his page hit 100,000 people who committed to action.)
Why? The key is that once opposition members figure out that many of their colleagues will pour into the streets, each individual person is likely to feel more (even if only a little more) secure, since they possess greater safety in numbers. For if thousands of people demonstrate and security forces begin assaulting them, sure, some will get hurt and some may perish, unfortunately. But in probabilistic terms, the likelihood of each individual demonstrator getting hurt declines as the number of protestors rises. The most experienced and brutal security forces might be able to deter a throng of opposition members from executing their tactics (say, camping out in public areas, holding marches and rallies), but they cannot round up and harm a high percentage of such people. Hence, under these conditions, some of the fear attached to confronting the state is eased.
The writer has a Ph.D. in political science from The Ohio State University. He is President and Co-Founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a think tank with offices in Columbus, OH (USA) and Jakarta, Indonesia.