Clay Shirky, a Professor of New Media at New York University, has penned a fascinating article in the Foreign Affairs magazine about the political power of social media and its role in facilitating political change. This article is exceptionally interesting for anyone interested in the role of social media in the real world, and Prof. Shirky not only “gets” social media, but he clearly has done his research.
Shirky includes in his scope of social media the all important role of SMS text messaging, which is especially important in the developing world where access to smart phones and the Internet is less prevalent. For campaigners and social media enthusiasts, underestimating the importance of mobile phones is perilous.
On January 17, 2001, during the impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, loyalists in the Philippine Congress voted to set aside key evidence against him. Less than two hours after the decision was announced, thousands of Filipinos, angry that their corrupt president might be let off the hook, converged on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major crossroads in Manila. The protest was arranged, in part, by forwarded text messages reading, “Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.” The crowd quickly swelled, and in the next few days, over a million people arrived, choking traffic in downtown Manila.
The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response — close to seven million text messages were sent that week — so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. Estrada’s fate was sealed; by January 20, he was gone. The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader. Estrada himself blamed “the text-messaging generation” for his downfall.
Shirky takes us through a number of revolutions and coups that involved wide-scale social protests that were aided through the coordination of social media. (Not all of them were successful.)
His conclusion is that hierarchical regimes, especially totalitarian, dictatorial regimes, are threatened by social media because they allow large groups of people to coordinate their activities. Social media is dangerous precisely because its normal use is innocuous and “safe” – most people use social media to tell the world about the grilled-cheese sandwich they had for lunch or to post photos of their pets. Social media – and mobile communications – becomes ubiquitous.
And that creates risk for those regimes. Risk because any clamp down can radicalise the majority of users who are not protesting against the regime. If the regime tries to shut down those social networks, lots of people notice and get upset. It can raise awareness amongst the disinterested, disengaged citizens about the injustices or crimes of the regime. Clamping down on social media more broadly, such as blocking the Internet or turning off mobile phones, can cause significant economic damage to the regime, as industries and economic sectors no longer function as efficiently (or at all).
Despite all of this, in my view – and something that Shirky discusses – social media is not itself a catalyst for social or political change. The mere presence of Facebook or Twitter-users amongst a regime’s populace will not result in unrest or demonstrations.
The social unrest in Egypt was bubbling away for years before 2011. A recent WikiLeak suggests that the seeds of the February 2011 revolution were already sown by late 2008, by activists called the April 6 Youth Movement who wanted to unseat Mubarak prior to the scheduled September 2011 elections.
Instead, social media allows dissatisfied citizens to do what they always did – but faster. Revolutions, uprising, revolts and coups in the past have built pressure through sharing of ideas that question the regime. In Europe during the Enlightenment, the bourgeoise demanded democracy from the aristocracy. They used the printing press to spread their ideas to a much larger audience than word of mouth could have. Of course, during this time, most printing presses were used for mundane things – more Europeans were reading bawdy Chaucerian tales than Luther’s 95 Theses. A crackdown on printing presses however, raised the consciousness of people who were otherwise uninterested in the democratic cause.
Social media helps spread those ideas much faster than ever before – and because most social media operates in real time, it allows large groups of people to develop a shared situational awareness. When large groups of people come together like we saw in Egypt, social media assists in that group coming to shared group decision making – often called distributed decision making. Distributed dicision making occurs in environments where the decision makers are physically separated, and where there are multiple agents, each responsible for a portion of the decision making effort.
Social media assists these semiautonomous decision makers to share information and coordinate their activities to arrive at decision that achieve the general objectives of the group. In an interconnected world, the Internet allows this to occur in real time. By tweeting, sharing status updates and sending text messages, the distributed groups of protesters can distribute information to each other quickly and personally. A bridge between previous isolated groups or individuals is formed.
Ultimately, social media does not in itself cause social or political change. If this were the case, then we would see a lot more unrest in the developed world. But totalitarian regimes will continue to struggle to match the pace that social media allows protests and unrest to develop. Each action they take – the crackdowns, censorship, mass-arrests or killling of protesting civilians – only risks radicalising a growing portion of the populace.
The key to the success of protests involving social media is not that they involve social media. As Lucas points out, for every successful revolution or coup involving Twitter or text messaging, there is one that failed. What is key is that social media helps those groups get oxygen, build momentum and coordinate their activities. For nations without a developed civil society, social media creates a virtual town square for these ideas to be shared.
Without the individuals and groups taking action in the real world, nothing would change. Sending a tweet, updating Facebook or posting a photo to Flickr doesn’t substitute for real world action. It is only powerful to the extent it excites someone to do something real – attend the rally at Liberty Square, stand up to the secret police, engage in civil disobedience, etc.