Revolutions aren’t made in 140 characters

Using social media to create a revolution only leads to chaos and disruption, argues Ghanem Nuseibeh

“Don Quixote in his imaginary adventure encounters a group of merchants, and cries out: “Let the whole world stand, if the whole world does not confess that there is not, in the whole world, a damsel more beautiful than the Empress of Mancha”. The Arab Uprising has shaken the way we understand politics, communications and public diplomacy. Social media may have played a role in the unrest, but pretending that the uprising is a social media revolution is as imaginary as the existence of the Empress of Mancha.

On the political front, what social media has contributed to is to push further the pace of our understanding of democracy. ‘Democracy’ was a swear word for over two millennia. It meant mob rule and anarchy, inevitably violent and confused. An ex post facto corroboration of ‘democracy’ is the notion that lots of people collectively deliberating can’t go wrong. You get better outcomes than you do from experts. For some things this works well, for example, stock indices, strangely enough, but the mob can’t help much on containing a nuclear leak.
Social media is supposed to improve the aggregation of opinions and the construction of collective wisdom. We need to distinguish between its success in spreading opinion, and any contribution to rational outcome. Social media is not alone in creating momentum behind the Arab Uprising. Satellite television and internet news sites have all played a massive role. One might even argue that without Al Jazeera, the YouTube footage of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi might have only resulted in another forgotten number on the decades-long Arab victims’ roll of honour.

At first sight, social media may contribute to transforming the way democracy is defined in modern terms. However, one must remember that Twitter and Facebook exist by the grace of three or four individuals, who have hitherto remained silent and have, largely, not taken sides, not because they cannot, but because they chose not to on this occasion. Not entirely though. The fact that Twitter allowed Egyptians to tweet via a phone number it dedicated for that purpose after the authorities blocked internet use during the revolution is particularly troubling. So in the grand scheme of things, and in the Arab Uprising, social media has been disruptive, putting power in the hands of even fewer than those who held it in the past. As a result, social media is highly manipulable and more subject to elite control than people seem to realise.

Social media may well lead to better representation that would, in turn, lead to a better quality of life, but not because of what it provides, but rather in spite of its highly controlled hierarchical structure. Knives make our lives comfortable, but they can also kill. So can social media.

So what role exactly has social media played in the current turmoil? Political and socio-economic tensions were brewing in much of the Arab world for decades. With or without social media, political change was likely to come. Social media might have hastened that change, but it was satellite television that set it on supersonic speed.

Evidence so far suggests that countries with higher internet penetration were not subject to the unrest seen by those with lower accessibility. If social media were the main culprit, we would see more of a direct correlation between penetration and riots.

Social media is more than a tool or channel: it is a combi-nation of the instrumental, expressive and interactive. As Lucian Hudson, the British government’s former director of e-Communications puts it, its power lies in its emergent properties. That’s why it is so challenging to those in authority: its very spontaneity produces something different. It is a technology that can be used well or badly, but it also gives a voice to a group of people who, when acting together, have more opportunity of being heard, but even they do not control the outcome. Government, no matter how powerful, depends on obedience and consent. Social media can alter power relations, but only when it develops enough momentum. That did not happen – at least yet, in the Arab Uprising.

In the Arab Uprising, we have seen some good examples of Twitter’s power. Some Arab bloggers, like the widely followed Sultan Al Qassemi or Mishaal Al Gergawi help us get a glimpse into the intricate workings of the Arab psyche. They have enriched our understanding and have become indispensable sources of opinion. But we have also seen some frightening and sinister examples. There are countless other examples where the tweeters, whether intentionally or not, have created chaos.

When social media is used to create debate and discussion, it is making a positive contribution. When it is used to create a revolution, especially without an endgame, it only causes chaos and disruption.

The merchants had little difficulty in perceiving the madness of Don Quixote, but nonetheless decided to play along and asked to see that imaginary empress. Don Quixote demanded that they “believe, confess, affirm, swear and maintain” the empress’s beauty, without seeing her, warning that a refusal meant battle. The jury is still out on the role of social media in the Arab Uprising. Social media might be more real than Don Quixote’s empress, but it is certainly not – at least yet – the Queen of Sheba.”

Ghanem Nuseibeh is a founder, partner and director at Cornerstone Global Associates



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