Social media, tipping points and revolutions

The issue of whether — or how much — social-media tools such as Facebook and Twitter influenced the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere has been a contentious one since the first rock was thrown in Tunisia earlier this year. But as more experts have studied the events in those countries, it has become increasingly clear that social tools and networks played a fairly critical role in helping turn what had been undercurrents of dissent into open revolt. Although they didn’t cause those revolutions to happen by any means, it’s arguable that they would never have happened — or at least would have happened in very different ways — if it wasn’t for the use of Facebook and other forms of social media.

Blogger and “open data” advocate Aaron Swartz — an early employee of the link-sharing community Reddit who is facing a lawsuit over the downloading of thousands of academic documents via the MIT computer network — has summed up his view of the role that social tools played by comparing them to the functional steps required for a revolution, as described by social and political theorist Jon Elster. In Elster’s view, any revolution goes through four distinct phases, each of which is necessary for a full revolution to occur, and Swartz describes them in this way:

  • A core group of committed activists get together to “do something completely crazy.”
  • The government cracks down, and this behavior makes people who are sympathetic to the cause “rally to the support of the crazy ones.”
  • As the protests continue and it looks as though they might have some tangible effect, at some point “it seems worth it even for just normal reasonable people to start joining in.”
  • Eventually, the protests become so large that “even their opponents pretend to be part of them, so as not to be on the wrong side of history.”

In Swartz’s view, social media definitely helps with both number 1 and number 2 on that list, since it helps the core group of devoted revolutionaries find each other and share information, and form a committed community. As the former Reddit staffer puts it, the internet has “brought together groups of crazy committed people about every other topic, from Smallville slash fiction to high-energy astrophysics,” so it makes sense that it would also help revolutionaries and dissidents connect with each other and organize. The third and fourth items on the list are where traditional media typically picks up the ball, he says, and that’s usually when a revolution tips over into inevitability.

Social media helps create an “information cascade”

Although Swartz is not a sociologist, this analysis is very similar to the one that sociologist and social-media researcher Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina (also a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society) has come up with. As I described in an earlier post, Tufekci argues that social tools — and particularly Facebook, since it is much more widespread in Egypt and other Arab countries than Twitter is — have played a crucial role in creating what she calls an “collective action/information cascade” that helped transform groups of dissidents acting on their own into a widespread revolution. She described some of her views in a presentation at a recent conference in Beirut, which is embedded below:

What helped dictatorships like those in Egypt and Tunisia survive for so long, Tufekci says, is that before the internet and the social web came along, people had no way of knowing whether their own dissatisfaction or revolutionary fervor was shared by others, apart from a small group that they might know personally. That’s enough to create small pockets of resistance, but in order for a movement to break out and become a significant force, the members of that movement have to know that others are also willing to fight — and possibly die — for that cause. Social media, Tufekci says, makes it possible to see this happening in real time, and that helps create momentum.

Such a cascade doesn’t just mean that people learn about each other’s views—it’s reasonable that many knew that these regimes were unpopular. Cascades occur not just because of information, but also when people assess an opening and a reasonable chance of success — and as Pollock reports when “people realize[d] it was now or never.” There are few moments more dangerous to an autocracy.

Social tools help dissent reach a tipping point

In other words, as Swartz put it in his post, social tools like Facebook (and Twitter, and blogs and text messaging) allow the core group of crazy people to publicize what they are doing — and thereby connect with and inspire less crazy but still committed people to join them, and at some point this momentum tips over into outright revolution. As I’ve argued before, this is a fundamental aspect of the network effects that come from Facebook and Twitter, and it plays out not only in Arab revolutions but in similar events in Britain during the London riots and even in the current “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement.

The kind of “tipping point” that Tufekci and others describe is very similar to the phenomenon detailed by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name — but despite this similarity, the New Yorker writer has repeatedly dismissed or downplayed the effect of social media on what he calls “real” revolutions, saying the specific tools by which people communicate within those events aren’t all that important or interesting. As Tufekci has noted in her research, however, they are not only important but potentially crucial, and that is (or should be) very interesting indeed.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen