Just how much did Facebook and Twitter contribute to changes in Egypt?

With the resignation of Hosni Mubarek, there is more talk about how the Internet, specifically social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, helped bring down a dictator in Egypt:

Dictators are toppled by people, not by media platforms. But Egyptian activists, especially the young, clearly harnessed the power and potential of social media, leading to the mass mobilizations in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt. The Mubarak regime recognized early on that social media could loosen its grip on power. The government began disrupting Facebook and Twitter as protesters hit the streets on Jan. 25 before shutting down the Internet two days later.

In addition to organizing, Egyptian activists used Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to share information and videos. Many of these digital offerings made the rounds online but were later amplified by Al Jazeera and news outlets around the world. “This revolution started online,” Ghonim told Blitzer. “This revolution started on Facebook.”

Egypt’s uprising followed on the heels of Tunisia’s. In each case, protestors employed social media to help oust an authoritarian government–a role some Western commentators expected Twitter to play in Iran during the election protests of 2009.

This article, and others, seem to want it both ways. On one hand, it seems like social media played a role. But when considering whether they were the main factor, the articles back away. Here is how this same article concludes:

It’s true that tweeting alone–especially from safe environs in the West–will not cause a revolution in the Middle East. But as Egypt and Tunisia have proven, social media tools can play a significant role as as activists battle authoritarian regimes, particularly given the tight control dictators typically wield over the official media. Tomorrow’s revolution, as Ghonim would likely attest, may be taking shape on Facebook today.

Or it may not. Ultimately, we need more data. For example, we could match Facebook or Twitter activity regarding Egypt with the level of protests on specific days – did more online traffic or activity lead to bigger protests? This would at least establish a correlation. Why can’t we match GPS information from people using Facebook or Twitter while they were protesting on the streets? This would require more private data, primarily from cell phone companies, but it would be fascinating to look for patterns in this data. And how exactly do these cases from Egypt and Tunisia help us understand what didn’t happen in Iran?

These questions about the role of social media need some answers and perhaps some innovative insights into data collection. And a thought from another commentator are helpful to keep in mind:

Evgeny Morozov writes in his new book, “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” that only a small minority of Iranians were actually Twitter users. Presumably, many tweeting about revolution were doing so far from the streets of Tehran.

“Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor,” Morozov wrote, according to a recent Slate review. In his book, Morozov writes how authoritarian regimes can use the Internet and social media to oppress people rather than such platforms only working the other way around.

Perhaps we only want it to be true that social media use can lead to revolution. If there are enough articles written suggesting that social media helped in Egypt and Tunisia, does it make it likely that in the future social media will play a pivotal and even decisive role in social movements? Morozov seems to suggest this is a Western idea, probably rooted in Enlightenment ideals where information can (and should?) disrupt tradition and authoritarianism.

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