The past few months have seen such major political upheavals in the Middle East on a scale that the world has never seen before. While the events in Egypt and Iran have brought sociopolitical changes in the region, most of the success has been attributed to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
While former National Security Adviser Mark Pfeifle once broached the idea of having Twitter nominated for a “Noble Peace Prize” (Gladwell) for its role in actively empowering people to stand up for freedom and democracy, there are others such as Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov who question such superlative claims.
A careful investigation of the role that Twitter and Facebook played in past revolutions leaves its actual contribution to the cause in question. These revolutions did not happen overnight. On the contrary, these causes took years of planning and a political think tank of strategists to draw up battle plans and make the planned revolution a reality.
Those who bother to actually study the history of revolution in modern times know that although social media allows people to vent and openly discuss their political opinions, actual “revolutions will never be tweeted” (Gladwell). Well, perhaps it will never be tweeted or written on Facebook walls in English (Gladwell). This is explained by Golnaz Esfandiari to author Malcolm Gladwell in the following manner:
The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, misunderstood the situation… “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection… Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.” (Gladwell)
This particular sentiment made me think about the validity of the tweets being read to the English speaking world via CNN and BBC. We know that Egypt, Moldovia, and Iran are countries that have heavily guarded internet systems. Internet use in those countries does not include freedom of speech so their public access to social networking sites is almost non-existent.
How exactly did these people, who are not native English speakers or writers either, manage to tweet their internal revolutions to the world with social media blocks in place? It then becomes logical to think that the role of social media tends to be hyped up because of the cost benefit to the company owners in terms of publicity and traffic growth.
The reality of the situation is that real world activism is the basis for all successful or failed revolutions. Worldwide society as a whole must come to the realization that the so-called Arab Spring is not driven solely by social media networks as some cyber-utopians believe (Morozov). Instead, this revolution is based on the clamor of one society for a need for change in the way their government is being run.
Such revolutions have been going on for centuries the world over and each of those revolutions (such as the fall of the Marcos Dictatorship in the Philippines and the dissolving of the Soviet Union) all happened without the use of any sort of social media network. The collective voice of the people was heard across the world because real time social changes were occurring and everyone who wanted to be involved participated in the exercise.
I am not going to fully discount the benefit of the participation of Twitter and Facebook in the changing landscape of the Middles East. But, I am not willing to promote it as an effective tool for social change either. One may advocate change via social media while hidden behind aliases, but standing for your views in the real world is more dangerous and much trickier. Social media still has a lot to prove in terms of its effect on activism and revolution on the world stage at this point in time.
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Annals of Innovation: Small Change”. The New Yorker. The New Yorker Magazine. 4 Oct. 2011. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.
Morozov, Evgegny. “ Facebook and Twitter are Just Places Revolutionaries Go”. The Guardian. The Guardian Newspaper. 7 March 2011. Web. 1 Sept. 2011.