Did Social Media Cause The Egyptian Revolution?
I was recently asked (by otherwise sensible people), “Dr. Peterson, how would you assess the predominant media narrative that the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions—nicknamed ‘Facebook revolutions’ at the time—were caused by social media?”
This was my answer:
Much depends on what you mean by causality.
A few years ago I sat in on a senior capstone course on international policy. The idea was to assess a particular problem in US policy and make recommendations. One of the student projects recommended that the US could start a revolution in the particular country about which they were advising simply by promoting Internet access in the country. Apparently they had read Wael Ghonim’s maxim ” if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet” as policy rather than exuberant hyperbole.
I had to explain to them just a few of the complexities of the so-called Internet revolution in Egypt, not least of which was the decades of labor movements, protests, political blogging and other elements that allowed the 18 days in Jan and Feb 2011 to become a tipping point.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Director of International Freedom of Expression Jillian C. York has a good paper on “The Arab Digital Vanguard” that points out how long it took for social media to develop to the point that it could be part of the tipping point that ousted the regime.
So if causality means that the technology itself provided all the necessary impetus for revolution, then no. The contention is absurd.
At the same time, it is reasonable to say that the Egyptian revolution would not have happened as it did, in the way it did, at the time it did, without digital technology.
This is due in a large extent, though, to the Mubarak regime’s relative indifference to social media. The regime promoted access to social media throughout the country because numbers of people on line is a measure of national development for USAID, World Bank, IMF, UNESCO and so forth. The regime sought to please these masters.
But the regime ignored social media as having any actual significance compared to radio, television and print, over which they exerted considerable control. This approach by the regime allowed anti-regime activists to make use of social media in ways that would be much more difficult in places where governments attend to social media as part of their security systems (and Egypt is now one of these kinds of states).
There is an impressive body of scholarship that wants to endorse the techno-utopian position that social media are inherently democratic, and hence they played a significant causal role in the Arab Spring. This position is given cover by some leaders of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings like Wael Ghonim, who has indicated that simply allowing people to have social media inevitably produces large-scale anti-authoritarian movements.
There is a smaller body of techno-dystopians (led by Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World) who point out that while Western media, NGOs and government institutions love stories about people empowered to resist statist oppression by social media, social media are also used by the state to strengthen their power, and to put activists under surveillance. Moreover, social media is also used by extreme nationalists, terrorists, racists and other antidemocratic groups to mobilize and spread their values, and to organize people to act on them.
A better take comes, perhaps, from activist Hossam al-Hamalawy, who has insisted that social media was just a powerful tool that the revolutionaries used because the regime had a monopoly on many other tools, including the tools of physical force and mass media.
One of the important implications of Hossam’s point is that were another revolution to arise today, to overturn al-Sisi, it would certainly use social media–but not in the same ways it used them last time. The regime has learned many of the uses that were effective last time and would be on guard against them. Now tools, and new uses for old tools, would be required.
So in the end, I do not think anyone can make a plausible case that social media caused the revolution, but we can credibly say the revolution would not have occurred as it did without social media.