How Much Did Social Media contribute to Revolution in the Middle East?

Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = democracy. QED. Sadly, this is the level of nuance in most popular accounts of the Internet’s contribution to the recent unrest in the Middle East.

Consider, for example, the quite representative testimony of Chris Taylor, Mashable.com’s San Francisco’s bureau chief, who, after a few disclaimers about the real-world organizing that preceded the Egypt revolt, delivers this breathless estimation how Facebook’s revolutionary power has transformed the very foundation for conceiving of social change. Never before have we “created a club that’s half a billion people strong and growing faster than ever,” Taylor writes, “a club with room in it for literally any point of view. And we’ve certainly never carried that club in our pockets, around the world.” This, in Taylor’s view, makes the social-networking site nothing less than “democracy in action.” The only reason not to dub the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak a Facebook revolution, Taylor enthuses, is that “the real Facebook revolution is global, and it’s only just getting geared up.”

It’s been extremely entertaining to watch cyber-utopians—adherents of the view that digital tools of social networking such as Facebook and Twitter can summon up social revolutions out of the ether—trip over one another in an effort to put another nail in the coffin of cyber-realism, the position I’ve recently advanced in my book, The Net Delusion, which argues that these digital tools are simply, well, tools, and social change continues to involve many painstaking, longer-term efforts to engage with political institutions and reform movements.

Since the Internet’s cheerleaders can’t inter cyber-realism any more than they can secede from history, they’ve had to design their own straw-man interpretation of the cyber-realist position, equating it with a view that the Internet doesn't matter. This is a caricature of the cyber-realist worldview that doesn't really square with parts of my book that very explicitly state—here is just one example—that “the Internet is more important and disruptive than [its greatest advocates] have previously theorized”. Will anti-anti-cyber-utopian bashing ever stop being vulgar, banal and blatantly uninformed?

Or take the ongoing persecution of Malcolm Gladwell, who is painted as some kind of a neo-Luddite. In an online chat that Gladwell did for the New Yorker’s website shortly after his infamous attack on the notion of “Twitter Revolution” was published last October, he explicitly stated (no less than three times!) that the Internet can be an effective tool for political change when used by grassroots organizations (as opposed to atomized individuals). Thus, simply showing that the Internet was used to publicize and even organize protests in the Middle East does nothing to counter his argument (which, by the way, I do not entirely endorse). To refute it, cyber-utopians would need to establish that there was no coordination of these protests by networks of grassroots activists—with leaders and hierarchies—who have forged strong ties (online or offline or both) prior to the protests.

What we have seen so far suggests otherwise. True, the principal organizers of Egypt’s Facebook movement may not be revolutionary leaders in the conventional understanding of the term. (And how could they be, given the grim track record that former president Hosni Mubarak compiled—with Washington’s complicity—in dispatching such leaders?) However, they did exercise leadership and acted strategically—even going into hiding a few days before the actual protests—just as leaders of a revolutionary cell would.

The collaborations between Tunisian and Egyptian cyber-activists—so widely celebrated in the press—were not virtual, either. In the space of a week in May 2009, I crashed two (independently organized) workshops in Cairo, where bloggers, techies, and activists from both countries were present in person, sharing tips on how to engage in advocacy and circumvent censorship; one of the attendees was the Tunisian blogger Slim Amamou, who went on to become Tunisia’s minister of sport and youth. One of these events was funded by the US government and the other by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (with which I’m affiliated).

There were many more events like this—not just in Cairo, but also in Beirut and Dubai. Most of them were never publicized, since the security of many participants was at risk—but they effectively belie the idea that the recent protests were organized by random people doing random things online. Those who believe that these networks were purely virtual and spontaneous are ignorant of the recent history of cyber-activism in the Middle East—to say nothing of the support that it’s received, sometimes successful but most often not, from Western governments, foundations, and corporations. In September 2010, to take just one recent example, Google brought a dozen bloggers from the region to the freedom of expression conference the company convened in Budapest.

Tracing the evolution of these activist networks would require more than just studying their Facebook profiles; it would demand painstaking investigative work—on the phone and in the archives—that cannot happen overnight. One reason we keep talking about the role of Twitter and Facebook is that the immediate aftermath of the Middle Eastern spring has left us so little else to talk about; thoroughgoing political analysis of the causes of these revolutions won’t be available for a few years.

This points us to the real reason why so many cyber-utopians got angry with Gladwell: In a follow-up blog post to his article that appeared as the crowds were still occupying Tahrir Square, he dared to suggest that the grievances that pushed protesters into the streets deserve far more attention than the tools by which they chose to organize. This was akin to spitting in the faces of the digerati—or, perhaps worse still, on their iPads—and they reacted accordingly.

And yet Gladwell was probably right: Today, the role of the telegraph in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution—just like the role of the tape recorder in the 1979 Iranian revolution and of the fax machine in the 1989 revolutions—is of interest to a handful of academics and virtually no one else. The fetishism of technology is at its strongest immediately after a revolution but tends to subside shortly afterward. In his 1993 best seller The Magic Lantern, Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most acute observers of the 1989 revolutions, proclaimed that “in Europe at the end of the twentieth century all revolutions are telerevolutions”—but in retrospect, the role of television in those events seems like a very minor point.

Will history consign Twitter and Facebook to much the same fate twenty years down the road? In all likelihood, yes. The current fascination with technology-driven accounts of political change in the Middle East is likely to subside, for a number of reasons. First of all, while the recent round of uprisings may seem spontaneous to Western observers—and therefore as magically disruptive as a rush-hour flash mob in San Francisco—the actual history of popular regime change tends to diminish the central role commonly ascribed to technology. By emphasizing the liberating role of the tools and downplaying the role of human agency, such accounts make Americans feel proud of their own contribution to events in the Middle East. After all, the argument goes, such a spontaneous uprising wouldn’t have succeeded before Facebook was around—so Silicon Valley deserves a lion’s share of the credit. If, of course, the uprising was not spontaneous and its leaders chose Facebook simply because that’s where everybody is, it’s a far less glamorous story.

Second, social media—by the very virtue of being “social”—lends itself to glib, pundit-style overestimations of its own importance. In 1989, the fax-machine industry didn’t employ an army of lobbyists—and fax users didn’t feel the same level of attachment to these clunky machines as today’s Facebook users feel toward their all-powerful social network. Perhaps the outsize revolutionary claims for social media now circulating throughout the West are only a manifestation of Western guilt for wasting so much time on social media: After all, if it helps to spread democracy in the Middle East, it can’t be all that bad to while away the hours “poking” your friends and playing FarmVille. But the recent history of technology strongly suggests that today’s vogue for Facebook and Twitter will fade as online audiences migrate to new services. Already, tech enthusiasts are blushing at the memory of the serious academic conferences once devoted to the MySpace revolution.

Third, people who serve as our immediate sources about the protests may simply be too excited to provide a balanced view. Could it be that the Google sales executive Wael Ghonim—probably the first revolutionary with an MBA, who has emerged as the public face of Egypt’s uprising, vowing to publish his own book about “Revolution 2.0”—is slightly overstating the role of technology, while also downplaying his own role in the lead-up to the protests? After all, the world has yet to meet a Soviet dissident who doesn’t think it was the fax machine that toppled the Politburo—or a former employee of Radio Free Europe or Voice of America who doesn’t think it was Western radio broadcasting that brought down the Berlin Wall.

This is not to suggest that neither of these communications devices played a role in these decades-old uprisings—but it is to note that the people directly involved may not have the most dispassionate appraisals of how these watershed events occurred. If they don’t want to condemn themselves to a future of tedious barroom arguments with the grizzled and somewhat cranky holdouts from the 1989 fax glory days, or the true believers of the Radio Free Europe Revolution, then today’s cyber-utopians need to log off their Facebook accounts and try a little harder.

Evgeny Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion (PublicAffairs, 2011).