It is hard to turn on the news these days without hearing a discussion of the role of social media in the recent events in the Middle East. But what our research tells us, first and foremost, is that we won’t have a clear picture of this until the dust settles, and the data is collected and analyzed. Last year’s so-called Twitter Revolution in Iran ultimately proved to be neither a revolution nor twitter-driven upon careful analysis of the activity on that platform. We also know from our research that any insightful analysis of social media’s role requires disentangling the different channels (blogs, tweets, facebook, tv, print) as well as different levels of activism — individual, group, inter-group, and regime. In other words, it’s complicated and, next week in Silicon Valley, USIP is bringing together an array of some of the best researchers on the Internet and social media with the companies themselves (Facebook, YouTube, Ebay, Google etc.) to try and unpack the incredible events of the last few months.
A complicated picture
So that’s what our research has told us – don’t rush to judgment about the role of technology in anything as complex as political and social change. Undoubtedly, what we’ve seen across the last few months is a function of people and passion first and foremost, rather than any particular technology platform. At the same time, I want to call out the voices of the activists themselves – whether it’s Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was jailed for helping to organize the protests in Egypt, or Ai Wei Wei in China who was also jailed for his activism – their answer is unequivocal: the Internet is an absolutely key enabler of their efforts to drive social change. Its social networks are part of a vast web of instantaneous information lines into and out of these countries that connects the protesters to each other and to the outside world in the run-up to the street protests. And if these networks, communicating via the Internet and mobile phones, weren’t so critical, you can be sure that the government would not have hit the “kill switch” the way it did in Egypt. This was really unprecedented. In virtually every other case of new media-connected movements – Tunisia, Iran, for example – the governments were much more moderated in cutting off access, slowing things down, opening them back up, slowing them down. Egypt really was the first of its kind, in terms of near total blackout for a couple of days – raising all sorts of worrying questions.
Protesting and media coverage never stopped
But the fact remains – the protesting never stopped nor did the media coverage of events. The flow of information continued, due in some measure to these social networks, since what’s at work here is really a network of networks. Some are more vulnerable than others – especially where most people, as in Egypt, rely on the large centralized services like Gmail or Twitter which in fact are quite easy for the governments to impede. But the Internet is strikingly resilient because at its core it is, as I said, this network of networks. So activists quickly figure out innovative work-arounds. And if you followed social media across the Middle East protests you saw this happening – reports from inside Egypt delivered via third party proxies –to continually enable communication with the outside world, as well among the activists themselves. For those on the ground, trying to change history, the Internet and social media was a vital lifeline.