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.