The discussion of the role of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites both in the recent protests across the Arab world and earlier in Iran has often seemed overblown. Similarly, the black-and-white put-downs written by skeptics are usually just as easily dismissed.
Communication is important during protest and rebellion. New and instantaneous modes of communicating seem sure to have altered the dynamics of protest and self-organisation. But how, and to what extent? While far too short for a full discussion of the topic, an article by Peter Beaumont for the Guardian, The truth about Twitter, Facebook and the uprisings in the Arab world, has some interesting research and perspectives on this subject.
And when I began researching this subject I too started out as a sceptic. But what I witnessed on the ground in Tunisia and Egypt challenged my preconceptions, as did the evidence that has emerged from both Libya and Bahrain. For neither the notion of the “Twitter Revolutions” or their un-Twitterness, accurately reflects the reality. Often, the contribution of social networks to the Arab uprisings has been as important as it also has been complex, contradictory and misunderstood.
Related to this is Lisa Goldman’s article in the New York Times, Signs of a Democratic Spring, on the organisation of the protesters themselves:
One of the most prominent and fascinating aspects of the current Middle Eastern uprisings is the lack of opposition leaders – a charismatic figure to rally around. The Tunisian and Egyptian people organized their revolutions and overthrew their dictators without a single leader, and now the Libyan people are doing the same.
It’s hard to believe that the aid in enabling greater self-organisation that social networking can provide isn’t a part of this. But equally, communication tools do not create dissent, so there are obviously many other forces at work. The spread of information enabled by the old-school standard internet, even in the face of aggressive censorship, stands prime amongst these forces in its ability to allow people to see the alternatives available to them.
In the coming years I hope there is effort put into understanding the overall picture of how recent technological developments and new services have affected how protest happens, but right now we’re too close to the action to allow for more complete understanding.