Learning a lot about what you already know. Vol. “Arab Spring and Social Media”

Considering myself as a reasonably informed member of society, I have picked up on the notion that social media are considered a component of what is called the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Listening a bit more, I have heard that there are conflicting viewpoints on how important social media really were. As Ethan Zuckerman man points our here, well marketable pictures like the one below certainly do not tell the whole story of the role of the “Arab Spring”.

Go to full-size image 

So, from digging a bit deeper into this question, I think the one bold claim that I am willing to make is that social media was not a primary cause to the Arab Spring. When looking at Basem Fathy’s piece from August 2011, I find a pretty compelling argument for that social media was merely a newer and highly powerful way of expressing a movement that was already underway. At least for the case of Egypt, Fathy makes a compelling argument.

OK, so if that is the basic assumption we are working with, we should look for some more data to make this case? Isn’t the story of Mona El Tahawy powerful proof of how social media change the world? Yes, it is and I feel that this is one of those stories that is very well outlines the impact social media can have in individual cases as it disseminates information quicker among the networked and powerful. Of course, I am leaning here on the lessons that Zeynep Tufekci draws from the #freemona project. Also, we must not forget that there were probably a lot more Monas who were never freed and we will perhaps never find out what happened to them. Reading Tufekci’s piece closely makes it obvious that she very well differentiates between cause and effect – the opportunities and exaggerations about the role of social media.

The same is true when reading David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger whose New York Times article mentions those episodes where social media served as a catalyst for what was going on – and that distinction is critical. As Zuckerman mentions in his critique of Gladwell’s argument, for people to take to the streets, they need a compelling reason, something that really moves them. An issue they care about.

It is easy these days to not listen closely and never properly scrutinise the role of the internet in the world. I find that a position that suggests that the almighty internet is changing everything is pretty easy to take, but that does not justice to the complexity of the world. In fact, I hear Zuckerman’s point about “Slacktivism” – real engagement with difficult issues can be avoided when we feel that we stand up for a cause because we just “liked” it on facebook.

So, in keeping with the theme of my prior post, technology is certainly not THE answer for the world to go round and change to happen. As aforementioned cases suggest, it can help facilitate activist communication and actions in a revolution or help an elected official maximize his or her chances to get elected. This does not imply that a revolutionary without a society that yearns for change or a politician with the wrong platform will ever achieve the desired results just because they smartly use digital technology. 

At least I hope so. There is a (growing) place for technology in the world, but as the Arab Spring showed, what we need even more desperately is some leadership.


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