Revolutions via Facebook?
Article published in “AUL University Journal” – March issue 2011
Leila Nicolas Rahbani
The role of Internet in protests and revolutions has increased in recent years. This was realized especially after what happened in Iran 2009, Tunisia and Egypt 2011. However, an important question should be asked: did the latest developments and incidents in the Arab world reveal that internet can usher in a new wave of democratization around the globe?
In fact, internet proved itself as a useful tool in increasing awareness, promoting democracy and human rights, and facilitating revolutionary groups’ abilities to lower the costs of participation, organization, recruitment and training through the social media networks like facebook, twitter and others. But like any other tool of communication, social media networks have inherent weaknesses and strengths, and their effectiveness depends on how can leaders use them effectively, how accessible they are, and the percentage of people who know how to use them.
Lately, situations in Tunisia and Egypt have both shown an increased use of social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter to help organize, communicate and ultimately initiate civil-disobedience campaigns and street actions. The Iranian “Green Revolution” in 2009, also, was closely followed by the Western media via YouTube and Twitter, and the latter even gave Moldova’s 2009 revolution its name, the “Twitter Revolution.” In general, The Internet offered revolutionary groups worldwide to widely spread not just their ideological messages but also their training programs and operational plans. The social media, specifically, broadened their exposure, increased its speed, and lowered costs through networks of friends and associates sharing the information instantly and rapidly. Lowering the costs of communication through usage of internet and social media networks in revolutionary acts seems to be a double edged sword:
a- With lower organizational and communications costs, a movement can depend less on outside funding, which also allows it to create the perception of being a purely national movement without foreign supporters. But at the same time, it diminishes operational security. Facebook messages can be open for all to see, and even private messages can be viewed by authorities through search warrants in more open countries or pressure on the Internet social media firms in more closed ones. Indeed, social media can quickly turn into a valuable intelligence-collection tool.
b- A reliance on social media can be exploited by a regime willing to cut the country off from Internet or domestic text messaging networks altogether, as has been the case in Egypt. Even though the shutting down of Internet did not reduce the numbers of Egyptian protesters in the streets. In fact, the protests only grew bigger as websites were shut down and the Internet was turned off.
c- Regimes can use social media also. One counter-protest tactic may be used by regimes is to spread disinformation, whether to scare protestors or lure them all to one location where the police wait for them.
d- The most obvious obstacle the revolutions face is the access rate to internet. Eventually, a successful revolutionary movement has to appeal to the middle class, the working class, retirees and rural segments of the population, groups that are unlikely to have Internet access in most developing countries. In most Arab countries, the access to internet among population is below 35 percent, so if a movement wants to grow large enough to make effective change, it will have to use traditional media like TV and radio.
Social media represent only one tool among many for an opposition group to employ. It should use other means for mobilization like face to face communications, phone calls and other means of direct communications, not through social networking only. No one can deny that social media (facebook) offers advantages in circulating messages quickly and broadly, allowing organizers of protests to involve like-minded people in a movement at a very low cost. However, we should not overestimate the role of social media in breaking up the revolutions. Facebook messages alone did not prove to make Egyptian and Tunisian people move to the streets to protest and join the street actions. Social and economic conditions were the basic motives to revolutions, and social media just facilitated protests. Social media do not create protest movements; they only allow members of such movements to communicate more easily.
Eventually, the role and presence of charismatic leaders in revolutionary groups should not be ignored. Protest movements are rarely successful if led from somebody’s basement in a virtual arena or unknown person communicating with supporters through internet or facebook specifically. Any revolutionary group is usually inspired by a leader, who does the most part of mobilization. Besides the internet, it has to use different means for interest aggregation, motivation, recruitment and communication.
In this sense, internet or social media networks can be seen as a part of the overall strategy, but it cannot be the sole strategy.