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Tunisia was first. The uprising began in the city of Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed college graduate trying to make a living selling vegetables from an unlicensed street cart, had his scale confiscated by the police. When he tried to reclaim it by offering to pay a fine, he was slapped by a policewoman. Insulted and distraught, he tried to plead his case with local officials, to no avail. Then, in an act of utter desperation and defiance, he went into the street outside provincial headquarters, cried out, “How do you expect me to make a living?” doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.
Public outrage over the incident grew quickly. Thousands took to the streets in solidarity, enduring beatings, tear gas and bullets to protest the repression and economically indifferent policies of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime. By January 14, Ben Ali was ousted and fled the country. Eleven days later, thousands upon thousands of Egyptians, emboldened by the events in Tunisia, engaged in demonstrations, strikes and violent clashes, demanding an end to their own country’s corrupt and oppressive government. After just 18 days, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was also forced to step down. By late February, barely two months after the act of ineffable despair that ended Mohamed Bouazizi’s life, similar uprisings had begun in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Algeria.
In the Arab world, the Tunisian uprising was called the “Sidi Bouzid Uprising,” and the events in Egypt were dubbed the “January 25 Revolution.” However, in the West and certainly in the media, they were known as the “social media revolutions.” In both countries, Facebook and Twitter were credited with helping protesters plan their demonstrations and providing a real-time warning and update system. Both services, along with YouTube, helped to broadcast the events to a wider world that might not otherwise have ever known about them. In Egypt, a Facebook page dedicated to Khaled Said, a young Egyptian businessman who had been beaten to death by the police, effectively became the digital version of a secret basement in which like-minded revolutionaries met and planned. The page garnered nearly half a million users and often posted invitations to join street protests across the country.
This prompted a debate among digerati, academics and journalists about the role social media had played or could play in fomenting revolution. The debate had its genesis in a New Yorker article, written the previous fall by Malcolm Gladwell, in which the author contended that social media connections were “weak ties,” ill-suited to sowing the seeds of revolution. Many seized on the events in Tunisia and Egypt as proof that Gladwell was wrong. He was not. Clearly social media did not cause the revolutions in Tunisia or Egypt or anywhere else. But just as clearly, social media had been an accelerant to the process in a way and to a degree that no previous mode of communication in history could have been.
The debate was in some ways beside the point. The interesting discussion is really less about social media than about social networks. It is the network that is essential to group action. The media through which the network forms and communicates are secondary, albeit far from unimportant. As digital media strategist Greg Satell explained, “Political movements are social phenomena governed by the laws of social networks. Social media, by facilitating connections, undeniably contribute to network density. By reducing social distance, they enable action.” In other words, social media cannot make you believe in a cause, but they can let you know you are not alone in your beliefs and give you the courage and the means to seek out like-minded people and take action.
It was this unique power of social media to enable social networks that was abundantly on display in Tunisia and Egypt. The speed and scope of their influence were stunning. It had been clear for a while that social media could engage people around common interests, but the Middle East uprisings illustrated, perhaps for the first time, the almost unimaginable velocity with which they can mobilize large populations to nontrivial, committed action.
Equally remarkable were the media’s agility and resilience. When the Egyptian government began disrupting Facebook and Twitter on January 25 and shut down the Internet two days later, many users immediately bypassed the blocks through proxy servers, third-party applications and virtual private networks. Twitter and Google actively helped protesters by producing a new service that allowed people to leave voice mail messages that would be filed as updates on Twitter.
It was also striking to realize that social media need not be pervasive to create effective social networks. About 6 percent of Egyptians and 15 percent of Tunisians use Facebook, and far less than 1 percent in either country use Twitter. Only one in three people have Internet access in Tunisia; one in five in Egypt. In light of these figures, the uprisings could be seen as evidence that the viral power of social media extends beyond even their own technologies. Or, as Gladwellians might contend, they could be seen as proof that an aggrieved and motivated populace will find a way to communicate regardless of technology.
However one interprets the role played by social media in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, their impact on events was profound and undeniable. But, “It’s a mistake to assume that social media are always and everywhere going to be a tool for democratic change,” said Laird Wilcox, a researcher specializing in political fringe movements. Group action organized through social media is not necessarily optimal, noble or even justified simply because it has been “crowd- sourced.” That is, social media do not automatically evoke what the writer James Surowiecki called the “wisdom of crowds,” his notion that diverse groups of people making independent decisions are collectively wiser than any single individual tackling the same problem. What happened in the Middle East was quite the opposite: not the alchemy of diversity, but the aggregation of commonality. Social media proved to be most powerful as a conduit of existing, like-minded passion.
It remains to be seen whether that power, so useful in enabling revolution, can be equally effective in creating lasting change. JoAnne Yates, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management whose research focuses on how technology shapes communication, looks to the organizational model for clues. “Looking at communication within organizations, we can perhaps draw the lesson that social networks might be useful for building early support and enthusiasm for a change effort,” she said. “In later stages, however, social networking may not be enough.”
What is clear, however, is that in the marketplace of ideas, where repressive regimes have always maintained competitive advantage by isolating the populace from information and from each other, social media have drastically lowered the barriers to entry.