Memo to Gladwell: Social media helps activism, and here’s how

Ever since the first rock was thrown in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, there has been a debate about how much social media such as Twitter and Facebook had to do with the events that took place there, and the downfall of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Author Malcolm Gladwell in particular has dismissed the impact of these tools several times, saying they are effectively irrelevant in the larger scheme of things when it comes to social activism. But sociologist Zeynep Tufekci disagrees, and she makes a persuasive case in a piece for MIT’s Technology Review that Facebook in particular played a key role in the revolutionary events that have taken place in Egypt and elsewhere.

In Gladwell’s original dismissal of social media’s effects, in a piece in The New Yorker last October, the author contrasted the kind of “real” social activism that occurred during the civil-rights protests over U.S. segregation in the 1960s with the kind of lightweight social impact that Twitter and Facebook have. According to Gladwell, people might be willing to change their location status on Twitter to Tehran in solidarity with dissidents there, or join a Facebook group to raise money for someone needing a bone-marrow transplant, but this is simply “slacktivism” (although he didn’t use that word) and therefore isn’t as meaningful as real-world activism. In the end, Gladwell says:

Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

There is no “online world” vs. “real world”

Gladwell’s central point was that the kind of “weak ties” (as sociologist Mark Granovetter called them) that are developed through social media are not significant enough or powerful enough to affect things in the “real” world — and that Twitter and Facebook are effectively consumed by ephemera and trivialities. But Zeynep Tufekci has made the point before that drawing a distinction between online activity and “real-world” behavior makes less and less sense today, when our online lives are becoming inextricably linked with our offline ones, and that social networks can impact real change.

In Egypt, for example, the seemingly simple (and for Gladwell, effectively meaningless) act of joining a Facebook group devoted to Khaled Said, the Egyptian programmer who was killed by that country’s police forces, helped to turn what was an online protest into a real-world phenomenon that eventually toppled a dictator (something described in a feature in the Technology Review based on interviews with dissidents in Tunisia and Egypt). Did Facebook do this all by itself? Hardly. But Tufekci argues that it clearly played a crucial role in creating what she calls a “collective action/information cascade” that drove the protests out of the online world and into the “real” one.

How did it do this? According to Tufekci, who has made a study of dissident activity in countries like Egypt, there is often a kind of sociological logjam that prevents real revolution from occurring in such societies, where any kind of political action could be met by detainment or even death. Because the costs of dissent are so large, there is a “collective action problem” that is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory — no one wants to take action by themselves because of the consequences, but since there is no way to be sure that anyone else is going to join them, revolution becomes a stalemate. As she puts it:

Collective action problems are hardest to crack if it’s difficult for citizens to coordinate and communicate. Indeed, game-theorists have long known that communication between participants dramatically alters the dynamics of these “dilemmas” which appear rigged against the interests of the individuals.

Social media helps build social momentum

What social media such as Facebook does, Tufekci argues, is to create a sense of a larger community around such issues (something we have argued is the power of real-time social networks). If thousands of people join a Facebook page for Khaled Said, in other words — something that is far from a meaningless act in a country like Egypt, thanks in part to Facebook’s “real name” policies and the fact that police forces can and do track dissidents through such networks — it shows others that there is a groundswell of revolutionary feeling, and that can help tip things over from simple online community-building into “real world” activism.

It is in this context Facebook “likes” of dissident pages such as “We are All Khaled Said,” sharing of videos of regime brutality, online expressions of political anger, and acceptances of Facebook “invitations” to protest all matter as they help build a visible momentum which, itself, is a condition of success.

What’s always been surprising to me, ever since Malcolm Gladwell started trying to minimize the impact of social media on revolution, is that what Tufekci and others have described fits almost exactly with the concept of a “tipping point,” which the New Yorker writer so famously laid out in his book of the same name. If anyone is equipped to grasp the idea of collective action occurring based on a build-up of small events and seemingly innocuous connections, shouldn’t it be Gladwell?

For whatever reason, however, the author has continued to downplay the idea that social-media activity can be a necessary part — or even an important part — of real revolution or social activism. But Tufekci makes a strong case that what she calls the “new media ecology” created by Facebook and Twitter and other real-time information networks is a game-changer for social activism. And not only that, she notes that understanding how collective action works in such situations is important because “the most crucial problems humanity faces are collective action problems [ranging from] from the health of our democracies to global warming, from financial and asset bubbles to social unrest.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Richard Engel, NBC and Flickr user Petteri Sulonen