A Twitter revolution?

A great deal of the analysis of how social networking media are being used by activists and grassroots movements has focused on the quantitative aspects of this ' new phenomenon' – the number of tweets, how many members a Facebook page attracts and so on. Like many, I am sceptical of such simplistic quantitative approaches, though many of the activists who use Facebook and Twitter that I have spoken to, both from Europe and the Arab world, cite such figures as evidence of the social impact of these 'new weapons'. Dilair [1] from Syria claims social networking media “allowed the young activists and revolutionaries [in Syria] to make their voices heard by the whole world, which was simply not possible before now.” Books like Tweets from Tahrir give the impression that the Egyptian uprising was driven by smart phone users, that all the organising, reporting and informing was done via Twitter, and that “without the new media, the Egyptian revolution could not have happened in the way that it did,” as Ahdaf Soueif claims in the book's foreword. But could the role of social networking media in these new movements be rather exaggerated?


Limited role

Paolo Gerbaudo, an Italian journalist and sociologist who currently works at the American University in Cairo, certainly thinks so. The author of a forthcoming book entitled Tweets and the Streets, he argues that Twitter had “a very marginal impact” on the Egyptian uprising. Indeed, Twitter's penetration rate (percentage of users) in Egypt is somewhere around 0.015% of the population. Twitter, he insists, played “a very limited role internally,” in terms of organisation and dissemination of information on the ground. It was “mostly a channel for external attention,” he adds, “reporting what was happening to a Western audience.”

To this we may add another factor: the Orientalist [2] mentality that sees 'those people' either without much agency or, at best, aspiring to become like 'us'; and without 'our' technology, they would not have been able to do this. As Rabab El-Mahdi writes in a 2011 article entitled 'Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising', “the recent uprising is constructed as a youth, non-violent revolution in which social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) are champions. The underlying message here is that these 'middle-class' educated youth (read: modern) are not 'terrorists', they hold the same values as 'us' (the democratic West), and finally use the same tools (Facebook and Twitter) that 'we' invented and use in our daily lives.”[3]

In any case, Facebook seems to have played a bigger role in Egypt than Twitter. Popular Facebook pages such as Kullina Khalid Sa'id ('We are all Khalid Sa'id', the Alexandrian blogger who was killed by the Egyptian police in June 2010)[4] played a significant role in crystallising popular anger and resentment against Mubarak's regime – at least for those who had internet access. The page, set up by Google's regional marketing manager Wa'el Ghonaim, then based in Dubai, quickly attracted thousands of followers, with many using a picture of Khalid Sa'id as their profile picture. A call-out by Ghonaim for mass protests against police brutality on 25th January 2011, the Egyptian Police Day, managed to create a common focal point for an otherwise diffused movement. A rather arbitrary Facebook 'event' turned into a popular uprising that eventually brought down Mubarak and his government.

Gerbaudo insists that “it was not Zuckerberg or his technology that did that. Rather, it was the dedicated and passionate activism of people like Wa'el Ghonaim, who were working full-time organising on the streets as well as online.” These activists, he adds, managed to somehow “intercept” what he terms the “Facebook youth” - privileged, urban, middle-class youth, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, often with no previous activist experience, who started to develop a common identity on Facebook as victims of an authoritarian regime. Figures like Khalid Sa'id served as rallying points to develop this identity. “Facebook was more a platform of identification than an organising tool,” Gerbaudo explains. “It helped create an emotional impetus for these youth to participate in the protests. As such, it complemented the work done on the ground by activists and political groups, not the other way round.”

In Syria, Facebook played a similar role in helping create this initial sense of solidarity between people, especially the youth, in the absence of a public space. Omar, a Syrian activist who recently fled the country, agrees that social networking media were “important for creating an emotional connection between individualised, unpoliticised people without the need for physical proximity.” They helped create a sense of togetherness, a sense of purposefulness from a distance. Gerbaudo uses the term “emotional choreography” in his book to describe this phenomenon. However, in all the cases he has examined (Egypt, Occupy, Indignados, etc.), Facebook always lost a great deal of its importance as soon as public space had been taken.

Gerbaudo says many of his Egyptian interviewees admitted their revolution would have probably happened with or without Facebook, let alone Twitter. It only happened with them because “revolutions always use whatever means of communication are available to them at that moment in time.” At least in Egypt and Syria, a big part of this can be explained by the 'coolness effect' – middle-class, west-oriented youth, fond of the latest technological gadgets, who spend most of their time on Facebook and Twitter because it is 'cool' to do so. It is part of their 'politics of distinction', as social scientists put it. It is unsurprising, then, that social movements would attempt to tap into what is cool or fashionable and turn it into a channel of mobilisation. Gerbaudo terms this “cool-hunting mania,” which, although it may have tapped into previously inaccessible social networks, has also led to a sort of “techno-utopianism” that has come to dominate the debate about the use of social media by activists, who are painted as “armchair-bound individuals who merely organise and mobilise online.”

Spyro from Occupy London contends that, while it is true that similar mobilisations and social movements had existed before these new social networking media were invented, they did not happen so fast. “It took them years to build up,” he says. “The civil rights movement took decades to develop. Occupy, on the other hand, started and spread around the world in a matter of weeks.” Whether that is a good or a bad thing is debatable, but what is certain, Spyro insists, is that social media are “the tools of choice for new social movements like Occupy; tools that have enabled them to grow very fast.”



In Syria, where the actual presence of mainstream media throughout the uprising has been much weaker than it was in Tunisia and Egypt, social media seem to play a bigger role in disseminating news. “They basically replaced conventional media,” says Dilair, who is co-admin of a number of popular Syrian Facebook pages. “We're not only using them to coordinate,” he adds, “but also to disseminate news and information that may not otherwise get out.”

I find such claims rather exaggerated, especially when a great deal of what is circulated on Facebook and Twitter is often a reproduction of mainstream news reports. True, there are all those YouTube videos documenting the demonstrations and killings, but these have largely not been the spontaneous acts of locals filming events on their mobile phones and posting them online themselves. They are often highly coordinated operations involving established political and human rights groups, as well as mainstream media institutions such Al-Jazeera. As such, social networking sites merely serve a similar function to 'traditional' mailing lists and online groups, though the boundaries of circulation may be more fluid. Moreover, they would not have been able to play such a role without the constant, two-way interaction with mainstream media, which – whether we like it or not – continue to be a major player in forming public opinion(s).

This dialectical relation between new and traditional media is illustrated by the story of Occupy London. Inspired by the occupation of Wall Street in the US, a small group of activists in London got together with the aim of starting an Occupy campaign in the UK. Their plan was to 'occupy' the Bank of England on 17th September, so they set up a Facebook group and a Twitter account to mobilise, but these only attracted 200 or so followers in the beginning. Spyro says “the plan completely failed – there were only 60 of us there.” Two weeks later, however, as the violent repression of the Occupy Wall Street camp was reported by every newspaper and TV channel around the world, thousands of people started to follow Occupy London's Facebook and Twitter accounts for updates. “We suddenly had thousands of people following us,” says Spyro. “So we thought, OK, let's try it again.”

The moral of the story is: although a strong social media presence may allow you to bypass conventional news media unwilling to cover your story, it seems you would initially still need mainstream media to achieve that strong presence. “Now that mainstream media has almost lost interest in Occupy,” adds Spyro. “We can still get our message across and get people together, because we now have some 40,000 followers on Facebook and 35,000 on Twitter.”

Back to the so-called Arab Spring, it seems that more important than social networking media's role in disseminating information has been their role in sharing and circulating graphics, songs, videos and other creative works produced by people who may not have access to mainstream media. These, their enthusiasts argue, have not only contributed to creating a “unified counter-narrative of the revolution,” but have also helped keep up the momentum and maintain a sense of solidarity across social, political and geographical boundaries.

Dilair gives an example of a Facebook page dedicated to collecting posters about and for the Syrian uprising called 'The Syrian people knows its way' (in Arabic).[5] Here you find a good collection of well-designed posters, as well as witty placards, made by various Syrian artists and activists and bearing all sorts of political and poetic messages. Though the page has 15,203 'likes', there is no conclusive evidence of how much these posters are seen and reused by protesters on the ground, and how much of this can be attributed to social networking media, as opposed to videos and pictures seen on mainstream TV channels. In any case, one impressive aspect of the Arab uprisings has been the spontaneity of locally produced placards and banners, with simple yet powerful and honest messages. It can be argued that such attempts to streamline the messages and slogans used in the uprisings, whether this is done by independent grassroots activists or political parties, actually has a counter-productive impact on the nature and diversity of the protests.

Another good example is Facebook pages where tens of thousands of users have been voting to choose the names of the Fridays, when most of the mass protests in Syria have been taking place: 'The Friday of Dignity', 'The Friday of Anger', 'The Friday of Sheikh Saleh al-Ali', 'The Friday of Azadi', 'The Friday of No-Fly Zone', 'The Friday of If You Support God He Will Grant You Victory', to name but a few. These pages – particularly one called 'The Syrian Revolution', which is apparently moderated by the son of a notorious Muslim Brotherhood leader based in Sweden [6] – have become the site of internal power struggles, mainly between Islamists and secular leftists.[7] Nonetheless, Dilair insists, “such broad discussions and consensus would not have been possible without Facebook, because so many people could not have had a dialogue in one place without Facebook.”

Then there are the Facebook-coordinated campaigns, such as the 'Syrian Freedom Graffiti Week' in April 2012.[8] But such campaigns appear mostly to involve a limited number of people (a few thousands, at best), many of whom are expatriates or activists in exile who “wish to do something useful.” They are often confined to the margins of the uprising, especially when there is not much interaction between online activists and people on the ground. This can cast further doubt on the effectiveness of social networking media as an organising tool and, in any case, it is not clear how this is different from any other communication channel – mailing lists, say – that activists use to coordinate their activities.

Another important use of social networking media by activists, particularly Twitter, has been 'live updates' which alert people to protests, update followers on the situation during demonstrations and so on. Spyro says Twitter has been very useful in keeping people up-to-date with what's happening in the various Occupy camps. During demonstrations and actions, Occupy has often used 'live tweeting' to give people directions and instructions on where to go, how to avoid police kettles and so on. Again, this use of Twitter is similar to traditional, centralised communication systems – one centre and a mass of recipients. Indeed, one main use of Twitter by Occupy London, says Spyro, has been “as a mass, free texting service.” For instance, during the Occupy day of action on 12th May 2012, the group set up a new Twitter account called 'Occupy May', which allowed followers to send a text message to a designated number and subscribe to that account, so as to receive all tweets from this account via text messages. “This is very useful for actions,” adds Spyro, “or during evictions – we can easily alert people to come down and help resist.” I ask him how this is different from simple text or email alerts, and why they don't use phone trees, for example. “Well,” he says, “it's easier to do, and more people seem to respond that way.”

During the clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo in November 2011, Twitter was extensively used by activists to gather and spread information about the practical needs of people in Tahrir square. The hashtag #TahrirNeeds was used to coordinate needs and supplies such as medical materials used to treat the wounded.[9] Text messages could probably have played a similarly effective role, if not better. In fact, Gerbaudo argues texts were “more instrumental” in the Egyptian uprising than Twitter, not least because their penetration rate is far higher than that of Twitter and smart phones. In addition, the 'decisive moment' in the Egyptian uprising – at least its first wave – was during the communication blackout, when Mubarak pulled the 'kill switch' on the night of 27-28th January, so people had access to neither the internet nor mobile phones. “The curious thing,” says Gerbaudo, “is that, for many people I talked to, those four-five days were an exhilarating experience. Many felt privileged to be disconnected from the outside world and immersed in the life in Tahrir square, which increased their sense of solidarity and the intensity of their will to change the status quo.”

Who's shaping who?

In their 2001 book Networks and Netwars, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt argued that, with these new ways of networking and communication, social movements, as well as criminal networks, are becoming unpredictable, leaderless, with a “suppleness in their ability to come together quickly in swarming attacks.”[10] But that is hardly what social networking media are about in real life. This sort of “techno-utopianism,” argues Gerbaudo, disregards the fact that political organisation is “complex and nasty work.” The idea that there is no organisation any more, everything is automatic, and there are no leaders, just spontaneous systems, is “simply unfounded,” he adds. “Organisation is always an asymmetrical process that involves power imbalances. Even in the most libertarian and anarchist groups, where there are supposedly no leaders, you find multiple, diffused leaders – core organisers whose hard work is what keeps movements going.”

Social media do not seem to eliminate this problem of leaders. In fact, they seem to exacerbate it. “They create new forms of leadership which are less accountable,” says Gerbaudo. “A Facebook admin who moderates a page 'liked' by one million users, like Wa'el Ghnaim was, is surely a leader of some kind.” Even though they may not give direct orders, by communicating certain messages and not others, such admins influence, and even control, the ways in which these movements operate. The 'Syrian Revolution' Facebook page mentioned above is a good example of this.

Spyro seems to agree: “Occupy is, of course, a horizontal, non-hierarchical movement. But who has access to the [Facebook and Twitter] accounts does create de facto hierarchies.” And there are no easy solutions to this problem, it seems. “On the one hand, you want to be open; you want to be inclusive and allow different views to be expressed. But you also don't want these powers to be abused, both by individuals you haven't had enough time to build trust in, and by the authorities and their agents.” Spyro gives a simple example of someone using Occupy London's communication channels to advertise their own blog, and of another promoting the Labour party. “At the end of the day, you need some mechanism to control what is going out and prevent such people from abusing our channels, and such mechanisms may not always be ideal or politically correct.”

Having argued that the majority of popular Tweets and Facebook posts are actually produced by a relatively small percentage of active users, while the rest of us are mostly at the passive, receiving end, Gerbaudo delivers his final verdict: “It is politically important to dispel this pernicious myth that new media automatically eliminate the question of leadership and organisation.” But the problem of de facto hierarchy is not peculiar to social networking media; it is found in almost every activist meeting, mailing list, website and action that does not openly address how power imbalances may emerge. What interests me more here is how corporate platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are shaping, not only reflecting, how grassroots movements operate. Can consumerist concepts and values such 'like' and 'dislike' summarise our relationship with socio-political events? Can 'profile pictures' and 'following' satisfy the needs of political identification and political engagement? Of course not.

Our media?

It is no secret that the use of social media by new social movements is exploited in clever corporate PR campaigns, not only by Facebook and Twitter, but also by a growing number of social media start-ups that sell themselves as 'activist services'. For example, Vibe SN, an increasingly popular social networking site in north America, is capitalising on Facebook and Twitter users' resentment of 'data mining' and other privacy issues, marketing itself as an 'anonymous', 'activist' or 'anarchist' enterprise.

I remind my interviewees that projects like Facebook and Twitter do not actually want to become activist platforms, because that does not make money. Spyro confirms my worries: Twitter has been blocking the word 'occupy' from becoming a 'hashtag trend', despite the fact that other hashtags clearly related to Occupy, such as 'St Paul's', were among the most popular trends at the time. “During the St Paul's eviction,” he explains, “everyone was talking about it on Twitter using the #Occupy hashtag. How could it not have been a popular trend?”

I remind Spyro of what he had said earlier in the interview about bypassing mainstream media, and whether this was not exactly the form of censorship exercised by mainstream media in the West ('censorship by omission', as I like to call it, which is rather different from the more direct 'censorship by suppression'). “It is a private company providing a useful service at the end of the day,” he says, “so they don't really have to justify their actions in the same way that a public service would.” And censorship “has not yet become a big issue for [Occupy] activists,” he adds, “at least in the West.” But with the closure of the HackSpace Twitter account in May, and the subsequent reaction from 'hactivists' and the wider Twitter community, which led the company to reinstate the account, things might soon change. “There is a limit to how much they can do,” says Spyro. “If things get out of control, then I'm sure people will move away from Twitter and another service will come in to fill the gap.”

Gerbaudo compares the new social movements with the anti-gloablisation movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was the subject of his PhD thesis. He says the “media of choice” of the latter was “autonomous, independent media, created and controlled by activists themselves.” The popular slogan “our media” encompassed a wide range of grassroots media projects, from Indymedia to RiseUp. Activist tech collectives providing secure mailing lists and other web services subscribed to the idea that controlling the media is part and parcel of their struggle for social justice.

Nowadays many radical, grassroots activists do not seem to be bothered about avoiding corporate, profit-driven media. Many critics have argued that this is “unethical”, and even “hypocritical”, especially for movements like Indignados and Occupy, which are supposedly fighting the capitalist system. Defenders, on the other hand, argue that, despite this “downside”, these new corporate media have allowed them to penetrate non-activist spheres and recruit people who had not previously been politicised but shared the same sense of indignation and victimhood.

But not everyone within these movements seems to agree with social media enthusiasts that Facebook and Twitter are “the best thing we have at the moment,” as one activist puts it to me. Indeed, there have been concerted efforts to develop activist alternatives to these corporate platforms. In Spain, Indignado activists have developed a social networking site called N-1 in order to gradually move away from Facebook.[11] The site currently has just under 42,000 members. The global Occupy movement is also developing its own Facebook, called Occupii.

The risk is that such initiatives, however successful, may once again isolate activists in an 'activist bubble'. As Spyro puts it, “the problem is that we might not be able to spread the message beyond those who are already involved in the movement. Sadly, you cannot expect people who are not already involved in Occupy to, not only open an Occupii account, but to check it every day. If you really want to reach people, you need to go for the platforms that have most users.”

This is known in the social sciences as the 'network effect': the value of a product or service is dependent on the number of others using it. But is it only about numbers? As I said in the beginning, one should be sceptical of such quantitative approaches. Besides, new social movements may have broken out of traditional activist bubbles, but by relying too heavily on online networking, they seem to be trapped in another bubble, that of the internet, which effectively excludes whole sections of society, such as the less privileged, older generations and so on. Is there a way around that? I would suggest avoiding an over-reliance on any one single form of communication, which will inevitably create a bubble of some kind. After all, neither our social lives nor political organising can be reduced to any one format. They have to exist and operate on and offline, on the internet as well as on the streets.

[1] I have omitted surnames or used pseudonyms for the Syrian interviewees for security purposes.
[2] Orientalism, which derives from the word Orient, meaning the East, refers to the ways in which Western cultures in the 19th and 20th century commonly depicted Middle Eastern and East Asian cultures and societies, often as inferior and stupid, yet also romanticised as beautiful and magical. The most famous and damning critique of orientalism was by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism.
[3] Rabab El-Mahdi, 'Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising', Jadaliyya, 11 Apr 2011, www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1214/orientalising-the-egyptian-uprising.
[4] www.facebook.com/ElShaheed
[5] www.facebook.com/Syrian.Intifada
[6] www.facebook.com/SyrianRevolution2
[7] See, for example, Yazan Badran, 'Naming Friday: Debating Syria’s Day of Revolt', Al-Akhbar, 29 January 2012, http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/3743/.
[8] www.facebook.com/MAD.GRAFFITI.Week.SYRiaa
[9] See, for example, www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEnntOhRlew.
[10] John Arquilla and David F. Ronfeldt (eds.) Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, the National Defense Research Institute, RAND, 2001, p.ix.
[11] https://n-1.cc