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Limits of social media in revolutionary processes (Malcolm Gladwell was right!)

Last October Malcolm Gladwell kicked a hornet nest of social media enthusiasts, arguing that social media helped facilitate weak social ties, which are good for some things but not others. Protracted social struggle against the privileged and powerful tends to come with heavy costs, sometimes including prison, physical pain, and even death. Strong social ties are absolutely necessary for sustaining the level of commitment such struggles require, and social media doesn’t do much for cultivating such ties, Gladwell argued.

Gladwell came off as almost entirely dismissive of the value of social media, and that upset people. If he was trying to provoke a dialogue, he clearly succeeded.

Over all, I agree with Gladwell’s emphasis and I argued at the time that people who love social media may be inclined to overstate its real-change value:


From outside of Egypt, it is difficult to see which group identities, social infrastructure, and organizations are playing what roles in encouraging and emboldening such a strong collective mobilization.  But it’s really easy to read tweets.  It’s easy to latch onto the mechanisms that are within our experience.  As the saying goes, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Today, if you spend all of your time online, you might be inclined to overvalue its worth.  You might be more likely to read an article that discusses how to improve your Twitter presence than an article that explores how to talk to your family about a difficult political issue.  Social media is low-hanging fruit.  Any savvy young person can learn to text message, tweet, and update their status &#151 and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

An article by Noam Cohen in Sunday’s NY Times adds dimension to this debate on the social change value of social media:

THE mass media, including interactive social-networking tools, make you passive, can sap your initiative, leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.

Apparently even during a revolution.

Cohen is reporting on a new thesis titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest”, by Yale political science graduate student Navid Hassanpour.

Hassanpour suggests close to the opposite of what many have taken for granted about the role of social media in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak; that the disruption of the regular functioning of social media may have contributed to revolutionary organizing more than its utility. Then-President Mubarak’s decision to shutdown Internet and cellphone service may have shifted cognitive and social processes in favor of revolutionary change. From the NY Times article:

“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” [Hassanpour] writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on &#151 we are more unpredictable when we don’t &#151 on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.

I think this thesis lends an interesting layer of support to Gladwell’s arguments. When people are forced into deeper in-person interaction with each other, new potentials are more easily born; new levels of commitment, courage and individual sacrifice for the whole can be seen.

The NY Times article goes on to describe how other governments learned from Mubarak’s strategic blunder (of shutting down the Internet).

Iran, for example&#151according to technology analyst Jim Cowie&#151realized that, “you don’t turn off the Internet anywhere &#151 you make it less useful.” You slow it down, make it harder and less effective to post viral video, etc.

So governments may be well-advised to seek to keep people hooked in and logged in. Slow people down so they spend more time glued to their screens, with less social incentive (i.e. desire to connect with others) to hit the streets.

The NY Times article goes on to describe a 2009 study of western media influence on East Germans during the Cold War. The study, by Holger Lutz Kern of Yale and Jens Hainmueller of M.I.T., suggests that consumption of western media had the net effect of making people passive about their conditions. Rather than inciting people to action, western media created something of a cognitive escape. Their paper is provocatively titled “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes.”

The NY Times article concludes quoting Todd Wolfson, an assistant professor at Rutgers, who nicely strikes the nuance that this conversation about the social change value of social media needs. Wolfson says that there is “an accelerant role for social media.” Yes, communication mediums play a role in communication &#151 how about that? But social media “cannot and does not create that kind of mass motion.”

[Wolfson] cited the writer Frantz Fanon, who discussed the role of radio in the Algerian revolt against the French in the 1950s. When the French tried to block their transmissions, Fanon wrote in his 1959 book, “A Dying Colonialism,” the rebels had even more power, because the listeners were no longer passive. [my emphasis]

Whatever the value of social media in revolutionary and social change processes, can’t we also examine the costs? And can’t we all admit that it can function as an escape, that it can be a huge time-suck, and that grassroots organizing will always be about getting ourselves and others off our asses?

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