This Revolution Was Tweeted

Last year Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article in The New Yorker about the role of social media in generating protest movements. He argued they have always emerged without anything like the contemporary forms of social networking. The revolution will not be tweeted was the way he put it.

As is his wont, he provided an example or two in support of his argument, those that emerged well before the Facebooks and Twitters of modern day networking. Most of his discussion centered on the civil rights movement in the South that depended on well organized, well planned protests by a group of friends.

Glawell asserted these and other pre-Internet revolutions occurred “without e-mail, texting, Facebook or Twitter.” He goes on to say that, “What mattered more was an applicants degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement.” Here he is following the views of the Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam whose research suggested that strong ties among the activists are critical to the success of any protest movement.

In contrast, Gladwell argued that social networks are characterized by weak ties. “Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch.” He believes that such weak ties do not give rise to high-risk activism.

Here, as in his other works, Gladwell over-generalizes from one or two cases to a much larger population of other ones. In this respect, he ignores counter examples, ignores the fact that not all revolutions, or activist movements occur for the same reasons.

He also does not take into account that today’s world is not the world of the sixties or revolutionary France where different factors played a role and where other reasons motivated individual behavior. Martin Luther King did not need what the people of Egypt needed and he didn’t have the tools the protesters have in Egypt either. Every social protest movement is different. In this respect, they are the same as any other natural phenomena.

What is the evidence about the events in Egypt? Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was recently imprisoned there for twelve days credits Facebook for starting the revolution that resulted in the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. It was Ghonim who created a Facebook page in honor of Khaled Said, who was allegedly tortured and killed in 2010 by Egyptian policemen in Alexandria.

A comprehensive article about recent events in the Arab world by David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger in the February 13th issue of the Times takes issue with Gladwell’s claims about limits of social networks. They write that Facebook groups were “part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world.” The evidence they review leaves little doubt that Egyptian revolution was a well-organized, well-planned movement that took advantage of the enormous power of social networks. They were by no means limited by their purported weak ties.

We know that thousands of Egyptians were galvanized by it to join the revolt. As James Glanz and John Markoof put it in Wednesday’s Times, “Epitaphs for the Mubarak government all note the mobilizing power of the Internet was one of the Egyptian opposition’s most potent weapons.” We know that the movement did not spring de novo from a few people on the street, that there was a small group or organizers who were instrumental in planning and organizing the protest in Tahrir Square and elsewhere now in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya.

We also know that shutting down the Internet and access to Twitter and Facebook was one of the first steps taken by the Egyptian government to quash the revolt. And we know that similar steps are now being undertaken in other Arab countries where the protests are gathering momentum.

In the light of recent events in the Middle East I thought that Gladwell would at least qualify his views. No, he hasn’t. Earlier this month he reaffirmed them in a short note at the New Yorker online News Desk saying that “the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”

Ah, the wonders of the confirmation bias.

To be sure individuals who have for years experienced oppression and whose rights have been abrogated will find ways to communicate with one another. But that rarely leads them to revolt. The tools that make revolutions possible are just as necessary as the reasons that motivate them. In fact, the tools of social networking may, in the final analysis, lead to the restoration of human rights at a much greater pace that has historically been the case.

Note: On Wednesday’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter. He spoke about the role the online service played in the Egyptian protest and how its leaders had been using Twitter as early as 2008.