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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/12/12

Politics 3.0

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"The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution," Gladwell had written. "The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns." Like Morozov, Gladwell was convinced that those he derided as "digital evangelists" had, at the very least, vastly overstated the impact of social media on the new wave of political activism.

As evidence he cited reaction to the protests in both Iran and Moldova in 2009. When thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Moldova against their country's government, Gladwell noted, "The action was dubbed the Twitter Revolution, because of the means by which the demonstrators had been brought together." And when protests later erupted in Tehran, the U.S. State Department asked Twitter executives to suspend previously scheduled maintenance of the service so it could still be used as an organizing tool during the demonstrations.

Gladwell remembered derisively that former U.S. national-security adviser Mark Pfeifle had called for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and had said, "Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy." He also recalled former U.S. State Department official James K. Glassman telling a crowd of activists that sites like Facebook "give the U.S. a significant competitive advantage over terrorists. Some time ago, I said that Al Qaeda was "eating our lunch on the Internet.' That is no longer the case. Al Qaeda is stuck in Web 1.0. The Internet is now about interactivity and conversation."

These were "strong, and puzzling, claims," Gladwell said. After all, "Why does it matter who is eating whose lunch on the Internet?" Like Morozov, Gladwell believed "Moldova's so-called Twitter Revolution" was impossible since very few Twitter accounts exist there. As for Iran, the people "tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West."

Writing in Foreign Policy, Radio Free Europe correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari supported Gladwell's conclusion. "Simply put: there was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran," Esfandiari stated forthrightly. Twitter's impact inside Iran was nil, she believed, as did the manager of one of the Internet's most popular Farsi-language websites, Mehdi Yahyanejad, whom Esfandiari quoted as saying, "Here [in the United States,] there is lots of buzz. But once you look, you see most of it is Americans tweeting among themselves." Those who disagreed, Esfandiari continued, were lazy and uninformed. "Western journalists who couldn't reach--or didn't bother reaching?--people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection," she wrote. "Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi."

Grandiose claims for new media forms were only to be expected, Gladwell concluded. "Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model." But there was something else at work, as well: "in the outsized enthusiasm for social media"we seem to have forgotten what activism is."

Two months after Bouazizi's death, amid a new spate of claims that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt were also Twitter or alternately, Facebook-inspired, Evgeny Morozov decried as "cyber-utopians" those who believe "the Arab spring has been driven by social networks." In a post for the UK Guardian, Morozov argued that they "ignore the real-world activism underpinning them."

Morozov began his argument by restating theirs, reductio ad absurdum: "Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = democracy. QED." He found it sad but entertaining, he said, to watch as "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." He also complained about what he called "the ongoing persecution of Malcolm Gladwell."

Like Gladwell, Morozov is convinced, "The current fascination with technology-driven accounts of political change in the Middle East is likely to subside, for a number of reasons." First, he said, accounts of the revolutions that emphasize the liberating role of social media tools function mostly to "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."

Second, he suggested that social media "by the very virtue of being "social'--lends itself to glib, pundit-style overestimations of its own importance." He then added, with no small degree of snark, "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."

Morozov, Gladwell and their allies cloak their argument in academic terms often used to describe different types of social capital within networks. They believe what they call "high-risk, real world activism," such as that demonstrated during the Arab Spring, to be a "strong-tie" phenomenon.

 "The kind of activism associated with social media isn't like this at all," Gladwell wrote. "The platforms of social media are built around weak ties."

Social networks are "simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger," he said, making it "easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.

"There is strength in weak ties". Our acquaintances--not our friends--are our greatest source of new ideas and information," Gladwell conceded. But those same weak ties, "seldom lead to high-risk activism," he concluded. "The evangelists of social media don't understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend."

Social networks, these naysayers claim, are ill-suited to real-world activism and high-risk strategies such as those employed during Arab Spring--"boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations"--because they are messy, non-hierarchical, and cannot provide the necessary discipline and strategy. When taking on a powerful and organized establishment, Gladwell declared, "You have to be a hierarchy." 

The explanation for why Mohamed Bouazizi's death uncorked such a fury of change, however, is more nuanced than either of the dueling cyber-camps is willing to admit, as a closer examination of the protests in Tunisia and later in Tahrir Square in Cairo as well as the various Occupy demonstrations that followed in other parts of the world, seems to suggest. In the North Africa/Middle East region, a pan-Arab collaboration of young activists skilled in the use of technology did in fact given birth to a new movement dedicated to spreading democracy. They were strategic and disciplined, even as they shied from hierarchy. They relied not only on tactics of nonviolent resistance but also those of marketing borrowed from Silicon Valley. Tunisians and Egyptians did share expertise and experiences with similar youth movements in Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Iran. "Tunis is the force that pushed Egypt, but what Egypt did will be the force that will push the world," Walid Rachid, one of the members of the April 6 Youth Movement, which helped organize the protests that set off the Arab Spring, explained to the New York Times.

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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at www.roryoconnor.org.
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