Some thoughts about the Twitter revolution debate


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The following are notes from a presentation I recently gave during a panel discussion entitled, “Twittering the Revolution: Causes and Prospects of the North African Upheaval” at John Cabot University. These thoughts are largely sketches to fit into a ten-minute frame.

The problem is that everything I have to say comes from the media: media have become very self-referential and often reports on themselves. The important point is that what I say comes from inside a very complex media ecology that combines twitter, Facebook, blogs, Al Jazeera, hybrid print media, live blogs and email. As an indication, most of what follows came from following various discussions via Twitter.

Competing narratives:

1) Digital Utopians with implicit ethnocentrism that it’s West’s technological tools that enabled revolution and a hint of technological determinism, i.e. Tim Conner (writing in incomplete sentences like ad copy):

“Facebook and Twitter are great apps for inciting a riot to start a revolution. We need the next app. The app that lets the People gather together to quickly establish government of the people, by the people, for the people. The app that prevents extremists from taking advantage of a power vacuum. The app that enables quick restoration of the rule of law. And allows folks to quickly get back to work.”

In response David Smith writes:

“If the digital punters out there are to be believed, it is the power of some corporates in California that is setting the Arab world free. It is the venture capitalists, the CEOs, the boardroom visionaries of Palo Alto that are to be thanked for the groundswell we are seeing in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. According to the social-media posse, we must bow our heads and give praise to Mr Mark Zuckerberg and Mr Jack Dorsey for sponsoring the Middle-East revolution.

Yup, Twitter and Facebook. They have both been pronounced as the cornerstones that one builds a revolution on. Got a regime you need to overthrow? Hashtag it, bag it, and throw it on the scrapheap, job done.”

Then there’s the tempered but optimistic view:

Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?): “Today, it occurs to me that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur? Of course, curmudgeons, they could. Without people and their passion, could revolutions occur? Of course not, curmudgeons. But why are these revolutions occurring now? No, curmudgeons, we’ll never be able to answer that question.”

On the other hand, from those who were there:

Wael Ghonim, a Google executive, calls it Revolution 2.0 and likens it to Wikipedia where you have no clear structure or leaders and it is done collectively.

2) Digital dystopians and the “debunking cycle” (Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom) who argue a) revolutions happened without Twitter and Facebook, so we can’t attribute social networks as causes (Gladwell: “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.”); b) clicktivism is false sense of empowerment with weak ties, and is without deep organizing that builds strong ties; c) social networks are also tools of repression that help authorities crackdown and find who the rebells are (as was the case in Iran).

Reinforcing this view:

* Remember how quickly Wikleaks was shut down by corporations on the Internet.

* Facebook deactivated an Egypt group because it used pseudonyms. Gawker’s Adrian Chen argued that Facebook was timid and cowardly by not actively helping Egyptians protestors.

3) The Third Way. This sees the situation as a “media ecology” that has all these elements. Missing is the role of Al Jazeera, which has spurned a pan-Arab neo-nationalism, and its English version which has inspired those in the West to solidarity. You can’t argue “what if” because it is impossible to speculate what would happen without the current media ecology. For example, Jay Rosen’s “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” polemic argues, “factors are not causes.”

I’m interested in the reversal of roles of the traditional media model. For us in Europe and the US, Africa is normally the “periphery” and we depend on our own technicians and experts to report back to us. During these events, we became the periphery. News was “crowd sourced”— Al Jazeera depended upon people on the ground with cell phones and Twitter. Live news blogging, like the Guardian UK mixed its reporting with sources from all over the world. Twitter was an amazing way to track what was happening on the ground. Al Jazeera does not exist in isolation of social media. It is a hybrid.

Israel and the neocons could not control the narrative on the ground. This is the biggest change. 85% of Americans said they sympathized with Egyptian revolution. Now there is increased transparency, and those who did biz with dictators are being discredited. Artists like Boyance, Usher and 50 Cent who performed for the Gaddafi clan were called out and embarrassed by their actions. You can be sure people will think twice about enabling dictators.

There is a far more heightened morality in the global public sphere.

Other thoughts:

* Can you believe this slight against US media from the US State Dept.? This is a pole shift. Sec. State Hillary Clinton: “Like it or hate it, it is really effective. In fact, viewership of Al-Jazeera is going up in the United States because it is real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news that is not providing information to us, let alone foreigners.”

* Did American media fail because of its celebrity/parachute journalism, so we have the spectacle of Anderson Cooper’s attack or the unfortunate assault on Lara Logan?

* Was Wikileaks the catalyst that the started the whole process? Impossible to answer, but it seemed to have had the effect of the Emperor’s New Clothes fable.

Again, there is too much complexity for simple answers. Fear factor broken. The field of action changed.