Why social media isn’t the revolutionary tool it appears to be

The technology provides activists with ways to organise like never before, but it also makes them much easier to track, fuels misinformation and copycat revolutions that are doomed to fail

Erica Chenoweth
Wednesday 23 November 2016 14:57 GMT
A march in Lviv, Ukraine in 2014: many protests during the country’s Euromaidan revolution were promoted by activists on social media
A march in Lviv, Ukraine in 2014: many protests during the country’s Euromaidan revolution were promoted by activists on social media

Many people think that social media has been a boon for grassroots social and political movements, and it’s easy to understand why. The rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other technologies since the mid-2000s has coincided with an explosive increase in popular uprisings during the same period. Whether it's organising revolutions in Egypt and Iran, tracking Russian troop movements in Ukraine, or providing real-time information to protesters in Sudan, social media is supposed to give activists an edge.

It's a reasonable assumption - and there are indeed many ways in which these new technologies can help. Perhaps most obviously, social media can lower the costs of communicating the crucial “where, when, how, and why” of protests to large numbers of people, as Twitter did during the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine. Other platforms, such as YouTube, can help popularise basic knowledge about how to protest effectively, helping movements build organisational capacity. When physical gatherings are prohibited, digital venues such as Facebook or Reddit can create forums for new, virtual public spheres that are difficult to shut down.

Internet optimists also argue that online venues create space for dialogue in the midst of conflict, presenting policy options to the public and to elites in spite of government censorship. And, of course, the internet allows activists to promote their own narrative, which is particularly important when the mainstream media is controlled by the government.

Yet in spite of this optimism, what is sometimes known as “liberation technology” is not, in fact, making pro-democracy movements more effective. It’s true that we've seen more episodes of mass mobilisation since the rise of digital communications than we did before. But we should note that the stunning rise of nonviolent resistance came long before the internet. The technique has enjoyed widespread use since Gandhi popularised the method in the 1930s. And in fact, nonviolent resistance has actually become less successful compared to earlier, pre-internet times. Whereas nearly 70 per cent of civil resistance campaigns succeeded during the 1990s, only 30 per cent have succeeded since 2010. Why might this be?

There are a few possible reasons. First, as political scientist Anita Gohdes has carefully documented, governments are simply better at manipulating social media than activists. Despite early promises of anonymity online, commercial and government surveillance has made internet privacy a thing of the past. The Russian government, for example, has successfully infiltrated activists’ communications to anticipate and crush even the smallest protests. These practices are common in democracies too. In the United States, the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping programme, or Yahoo’s collaboration with the US government in harvesting information from its users, are probably just the beginning. Recent reports indicate that local police departments (including in my own city of Denver) monitor social media to harvest data about their districts. While in the past, governments had to devote significant resources to detecting dissidents, today's digital climate encourages people to proudly announce their political, social, and religious beliefs and identities – data that allows law enforcement and security services to target them that much more effectively. Of course, there are ways for people to protect their privacy, but few of these techniques will hold up against a dedicated adversary.

Second, the turn to social media among popular movements has degraded the experience of participating. Activists and “clicktivists” might connect and pay attention to an issue for a short amount of time, but they often fail to engage fully in the struggle. Building trust in marginalised or oppressed communities takes time, effort, and sustained interactions, and this requires routine face-to-face contact over a long period. When movements mobilise without having earned this sense of trust and internal unity, they may be more likely to succumb under pressure. Participating in digital activism can give the impression that one is making a difference, but as internet sceptic Evgeny Morozov argues, creating real change requires far greater dedication and sacrifice.

Third, social media can have a demobilising effect by enabling armed actors to threaten or even coordinate direct violence against activists. For instance, in the midst of the Libyan uprising in 2011, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime used the country’s mobile phone network to send text messages that ordered people to go back to work. It was a chilling warning that the government was watching – and that failing to comply would have consequences. Political scientists Florian Hollenbach and Jan Pierskalla have found that greater availability of mobile phones in Africa is associated with an increase in violence.

Egyptian’s demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s rule at a protest in Cairo in 2011

Conversely, if activists use social media to report violence by security forces, would-be protesters may not show up to the big demonstration the next day. Such reports can therefore carry unintended consequences. Instead of drawing outraged crowds, they may repel many risk-averse participants, leaving the movement’s hardliners and risk-takers on their own.

This relates to a final important disadvantage: misinformation can spread on social media just as fast (or faster) than reliable information. Reports of Russian trolls manipulating a polarised information environment to influence the recent US elections are a case in point. And misinformation is only compounded by peoples’ tendency to select news sources that confirm their prior beliefs. The echo chambers so prevalent in social media serve to further divide societies instead of uniting them behind a common cause.

Even those who are well-intentioned and diligent about reading reliable and credentialed news sources can inadvertently cause problems. Seeing the downfall of a tyrant through social media can encourage dissidents in a neighbouring country to rise up in identical fashion. In fact, they may try to prematurely “import” the tactics and methods they see used successfully elsewhere into their own situation – with disastrous consequences. One need look no further than Libya or Syria to see the danger of this effect. It was easy for activists in those countries to watch the Arab Spring unfold in Tunisia and Egypt and conclude that, if they assembled masses of people in public squares, they too could topple their dictators in a matter of days. This conclusion neglected the years-long mobilisations that preceded the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and led Libyans and Syrians to be overconfident in the ability of improvised uprisings to succeed nonviolently.

Kurt Weyland’s study of the 1848 revolutions found that dissidents have been learning the wrong lessons from yesterday’s revolution for centuries. But social media almost certainly exacerbates this dilemma by encouraging the diffusion of simplistic snapshots in 140-character doses rather than through studied and methodical analysis.

“Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools,” wrote journalist Malcolm Gladwell in 2010. And that’s a bad thing when it comes to building and sustaining resilient popular campaigns. But instead of seeing the more recent failures as a failure of nonviolent mobilisations, we should adopt a more complex and realistic understanding of the ways in which increased reliance on social media has undermined the success of mass mobilisation. It’s not the technique that’s broken, necessarily. It’s the tools.

© The Washington Post

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