The Arab Spring, social media and lessons for future revolutionaries

By MHP

“The longer you can look back, the further you can look forward”. So said Winston Churchill, explaining the practical application of history to forecasting. That is why those seeking to understand the causes as well as possible implications of the Arab Spring and Egyptian revolution of 2011 can learn much from the previous Egyptian revolution – that of 1919.

Technology played a key inspirational and mobilising role in both. In 2011 it was rolling TV, especially Al Jazeera, and the internet. In 1919 it was the telegram, distributing widely around the world US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech which inspired claims to national self-determination. The pace of technology may have been slower but the spreading of hope from events outside Egypt was the same.

Being newer, Facebook got more of the limelight than Al Jazeera, perhaps thankfully so given the politics of Al Jazeera’s enthusiasm for reporting the Arab Spring’s Tunisian origins, a country whose government had a hostile approach to the station. How much was its coverage motivated by impartial journalism or commercial grudges? The answer in this case matters little, save as a reminder that questions of media power and agenda setting apply just as much when being exercised on behalf of the unquestionably virtuous as when in more questionable circumstances.

Aside from inspiration, would-be protests also need a reassuring answer to the question “if I turn out to protest tomorrow, will I be picked on for repression?” As Clay Shirky has pointed out this can become a chicken and egg trap – if only you turn up, then the changes of being the victim of a crackdown are much higher than if a million turn up, but the one million will only turn up if they know that they won’t be the only one.

Successful protests often beat this trap by using a cover which makes initial crackdowns hard or unlikely, gaining breathing space to grow.  In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky gave the example of the East German protestors who ended Communist rule. They initially used the cover of events such as music festivals, forcing on the dictatorship a choice between the high political cost of cracking down on popular, highly attended events or letting a small number of protestors protest. It was a lose-lose choice: either you increase unrest or you give space for it to grow. (The Communists chose the latter, and lost.)

Social media is particularly good at providing the virtual equivalent of space for protest that the music festivals gave. Ethan Zuckerman calls it the ‘cute cat theory of censorship’.  It is relatively low cost for a dictatorship to crack down on a small number of dissidents. But there is a much higher cost to restricting popular social networks. So if political dissent and cute cat photos are both featuring on the same technology platforms, it pushes dictators towards that same lose-lose choice.

Of course, protests predate not only social media but the internet itself, so the technology is not itself the full story. There are some cases where social media almost certainly was the determining factor, as in the fall of Philippines President Joseph Estrada in 2001 in the face of mass protests organised via text messaging.

But predictions and counter-factuals are an uncertain business. Tunisia was not an obvious pick ahead of neighbouring countries before its revolution happened. It is therefore both wiser to stick to broad tendencies, saying that social media makes the successful toppling of dictatorships more likely, even if only rarely on its own.

Nor is it a certain process, as the cases of Iran, Belarus and (so far at least) Syria tragically demonstrate. Moreover, as Evgeny Mozorov has pointed out, technology can be used not only by dissidents but also by governments. Mozorov has particularly highlighted the case of Russia, a flawed democracy where the state deals with the cute cat problem in the main not by trying to block but instead by trying to flood the online world with astroturfed loyalist content.

What matters too is not only how the government uses social media, but how united it is. One crucial difference between Egypt and Syria, for example, has been the respective roles of the military – in the former deciding its future lay in backing change (as they did with Estrada’s ousting too), in the latter in deciding its future lies with the status quo. The views of the generals matter more than Twitter.

So too with foreign governments, where the difference between examples such as Libya and the Ivory Coast compared to Darfur and Rwanda lies in the willingness of foreign governments to support meaningful military intervention. The views of China and its ability to veto UN Security Council resolutions matters more than Flickr.

Yet social media can play an important role in helping pose those questions to generals and foreign governments to which they then have to choose their answers.

And of course context matters too: what mattered most in the year running up to the Arab Spring was not the growth of social media usage but the one third increase in food prices across the Middle East.

That mixed picture is epitomised by the brave, inventive and smart Tunisian activist Astrubal. He made wonderful use of social media to crowdsource, document and map the extravagant use of an official government jet to take Tunisia’s First Lady on expensive shopping trips around Europe. Shared photos from plane spotters in many different companies were added to Google Earth to produce an effective and plausible video that turned abstract complaints about indulgent waste at the top into specific evidence.

And yet … this was done in 2007. Ben Ali did not fall until 2011. Did the work of Astrubal and others make Ben Ali more vulnerable? Almost certainly. Was it enough on its own? Certainly not.

This piece first appeared in the February edition of Total Politics magazine.