Politicians in technologically advanced countries have already used online tools to great effect—most notably Barack Obama, who raised nearly $750 million for his 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, a lot of it online—but the revolution in Tunisia and the protests in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak show that the political uses of social media are much more powerful than previously imagined.
Revolutions are shaped by whatever tools are available, and for the Tunisians and Egyptians, a number of special conditions made social media, particularly Facebook, a weapon of choice, North African experts say.
First, citizens of both countries value the Internet as a source of uncensored information. The Tunisian government heavily monitored Internet usage and tried to limit access to numerous sites, but many people could work around the restrictions using tricks that hid their identity from officials, according to Nejib Ayachi, president of the Maghreb Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on North Africa.
In Egypt, people rely on the Internet for unfettered opinion. Although Egypt has many open, independent television channels and newspapers, there were always “red lines that you cannot go beyond,” says Dalia Wahba, managing partner and director of communications and development at CID Consulting, a Cairo-based communications and community development consultancy. But online, “there were no red lines at all,” she says. “Everybody was free to say what they want.” Not surprisingly, local news and commentary bloomed on an estimated 40,000 blogs.
In both countries, the Internet represents a mass audience. Most authorities estimate that 3.6 million of the 10.5 million Tunisians are online. In Egypt, out of 80 million people, 17 million, more than 20 percent of the population, are online. Ironically, in view of subsequent events, the Egyptian government subsidized Internet access, according to Wahba, seeing it as an important part of economic development.
Finally, social networks help give those audiences a shape. In Egypt, at least, many of the most enthusiastic Internet users are young, and like young people everywhere, take to social media in a big way. About 5 million Egyptians are on Facebook—approximately a fivefold increase in the past two years—and some 58 percent are under the age of 25, according to Spot On Public Relations of Dubai.
Facebook is also popular in Tunisia. Although the government hacked into Facebook and tried to steal passwords, the networks of people dissatisfied with the Ben Ali government still grew over time. Not only were these networks useful for information, Ayachi says, but they helped give people a sense of a collective identity.
Cell phone networks aided communications as well. In Tunisia, almost everyone has a cell phone, according to Ayachi. In Egypt, more than 56 million people, over 70 percent of the population, have cell phones, according to government figures.
With a large audience for political blogs and Facebook pages, protests became easy to organize. All it took was a single incident to set off a nearly instantaneous reaction– the self-immolation of a despairing fruit and vegetable seller in Tunisia, and for the Egyptians, the example of Tunisia’s successful rebellion. In Egypt, some of the blogs and Facebook leaders began calling for a march on January 25—the protests that have since grown into a national rebellion. “Facebook played a critical role,” says Wahba.
Could social networks play the same revolutionary role in other poor authoritarian countries? Certainly the same ingredients—vast numbers of people online, reachable by cell phone when they are offline—are now present in many countries. Jared Cohen, a former social media thinker at the U.S. State Department who now directs Google Ideas, a new enterprise Google executives describe as a “think and do” tank, has noted that today over 5 billion people have cell phones and 2 billion use the Internet.
Internet users in many developing countries also share Egypt and Tunisia’s enthusiasm for Facebook. Throughout the developing world, social media adoption rates are extremely high. Unlike earlier communication revolutions, which tended to happen first in richer countries and then later in the poorer ones, social media seems to be catching on quickly everywhere—and maybe even more quickly in the developing world. As of December 2010, Facebook’s number 2 market, after the United States, was Indonesia, with 32 million users, followed by the United Kingdom. Turkey, the Philippines, Mexico, and India were also all in the top ten.
However, other governments have already tried to neutralize the potential of social networks as a political tool. In China, for example, Facebook is blocked by the security system some wags call the Great Firewall of China, and the most popular local services, such as Renren (Chinese for “Everyone”—with 160 million subscribers), are reportedly closely monitored.
Nor is official interest in user activity restricted to nondemocratic governments, which could also have a chilling effect. In the United States, the Obama Administration is seeking authority to compel companies to turn over an individual’s Internet records without a court order if federal investigators believe it could help a terrorism investigation.
To an extent, however, the idea of a social network may now be so ingrained that access to the Internet may no longer even be required. For example, after the government shut down the Internet in Egypt, some users simply switched to a voice-activated Twitter service set up by Google.
That said, users’ concerns could constrain the value of the biggest social networks. The desires of dissidents for anonymity (currently not allowed on Facebook) may limit their usefulness as a mass organizing tool. Already, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, an important banned opposition movement in Egypt, has launched its own version of Facebook, www.ikhwanfacebook.com.
Social media companies could find themselves faced with tricky free speech issues as well, which could make it difficult for users with unpopular opinions. Facebook, for instance, has had a tough time trying to decide how far to go in meeting demands that it remove pages set up by groups that deny the Holocaust ever happened. When Facebook becomes a publicly traded company, such pressures can only grow more intense. As the tagline of the Facebook movie, “The Social Network,” has it, “You can’t make 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”
Others, particularly The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, have argued too that the kind of weak ties fostered by social media matter less to social activism than the strong ties forged by committed activists willing to die for their beliefs. “Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires,” he writes.
But Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, writing on AlterNet, says that Gladwell misunderstands the nature of social networks. “Comparing Twitter to the NAACP is like comparing a telephone to a PTA. They are not the same thing, they don't perform the same kind of functions and therefore their effectiveness or lack thereof simply can't be compared,” they write.
As for the weak tie criticism, they write, a better comparison is computer dating, they say, in that social networks can help like-minded activists find each other. In itself, it only connects potential partners “but in fact has connected many people who thereupon partnered and married.”
But even if governments, users, and investors curb the political potential of social networks, the networks do seem likely to kindle other kinds of technical and scientific revolutions, which could be just as disruptive in the long run.
“Somewhere out there, you know there will be another person interested in what you are interested in,” says Inge de Waard, e-learning coordinator/researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, who helps partner institutes in Ecuador, India, Morocco, and elsewhere set up e-learning programs. “Even in research, you do not want to wait for the next papers to come out to discuss a topic—you want to discuss it as you are engaging in the research. As such, social media offers the best possible way to connect to peers, no matter what your topic of interest is.”
People are now using social networking tools for a variety of other projects as well, she says, pointing to ushahidi, an African citizen-journalism project and Africa’s Virtual University. Networking is even changing how people manage crises: In Haiti, right after the earthquake last year, people began using social media to make their needs visible and to organize, she says.
Ultimately, de Waard argues, social media has caught on quickly because it satisfies three core human needs at once: to communicate, to learn, and to belong. With three such important drives behind its adoption, she says, it’s no wonder social media has been picked up so rapidly all over the world.
In North Africa, at least, social networks certainly seem here to stay. Cheap, convenient, and better at building virtual communities of interest than prior modes of communication, social media is likely to remain part of the cultural landscape even after the protests end. “I think they will keep using it,” the Maghreb Center’s Ayachi says. “They are addicted to it.”