The world is quaking. Egypt and Tunisia are overthrown; Algeria, Gabon, Jordan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen are rocking. Some say this is thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Others, notably Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, say that social media are politically irrelevant and/or dangerous. China has censored “Egypt”, Syria has legalized Facebook, and the president of Sudan has declared he will use social media to crush his enemies. You couldn’t make this stuff up. What’s going on? Who to believe?
Fear not. I can explain. Everyone is right, and what’s going on is nothing more than the end of international politics and history as we know them. Welcome to our brave new world, and about time, too. The old one sure was miserable while it lasted.
Oh, it was nice enough for those few of us lucky enough to live in liberal Western democracies, where
The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.
as Gladwell put it last year. True enough, in America. But then he jumped the shark with his ill-advised post-Tunisia piece pooh-poohing the role of Twitter and Facebook:
People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other … As I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties.
The first sentence’s dismissal of all forms of communication as equivalent is breathtakingly stupid; the second drips with privileged ignorance. It does not seem to occur to Gladwell that perhaps a people who have been relentlessly brutalized, impoverished, and humiliated by a coterie of savage leeches for decades might possibly behave slightly differently than his own.
He was promptly, and rightly, ridiculed:
…but it’s a little more subtle than that. The Egyptian activists didn’t use Twitter or Facebook to organize the machinery and tactics of their protests—in fact, they explicitly warned against doing so in the manuals they distributed. Twitter and Facebook weren’t the flame of the revolution. They were its fuel.
Imagine that you are Egyptian. You are thirty years old and the same man has ruled your country since before you were born. Your world is small, not least because your government censors and monopolizes the media. Official corruption, incompetence(1), and brutality(2) are endemic. While the ruling class enriches itself, 40% of your people live on less than $2/day, and most people’s lives are steadily getting worse.
Do you rise up to fight the government? Of course you don’t. Your rage is drowned out by fear and despair, a fatalistic sense that nothing can be done, that this is just how things are and ever will be, and whoever rises or even speaks against it is doomed. Take Khaled Said, an honest man beaten to death by police he refused to bribe. Egyptians are outraged, but what can they do? Nothing. A Facebook page is created in his memory. Malcolm Gladwell can tell you how irrelevant and inconsequential an act that is.
…Six months later, that Facebook page has accumulated more than half a million followers, and has become an online gathering place for activists. After Tunisia erupts, an online group called the April 6 Movement reaches out to one of that page’s administrators, Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google executive, to ask for help organizing a day of protest. Another administrator asks the page’s followers what they should do. Ideas and plans erupt and snowball. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The great paradox of tyranny is that a very small group of people brutalizes, tortures and steals from millions who, if they rose en masse, could shake off their oppressors. Revolution is simply the realization of this fact. Why did the protestors march to Tahrir Square? To show their strength in numbers. They already knew beforehand, despite the Egyptian’s government’s ongoing attempt to divide and blindfold its people, that the numbers were on their side. They only had to look at the sidebar and comment counts of Khaled Said’s memorial page.
The Internet—in this case, though I hate to admit it, Facebook—lets oppressed people join in outrage, in shared fury and humiliation, in the sense of being part of a single mass of people with a single intent. Where else can you get that, in a blindfolded, fragmented nation? Censored television? Empty newspapers? How else can you look beyond your own life and your own cramped horizon, and realize that you’re part of a movement? It’s possible, Gladwell’s right about that much, but the Internet makes it so much more likely to happen. Simply by linking the oppressed and creating connections, Twitter and Facebook help to stoke the fires of change everywhere.
That doesn’t necessarily mean happy endings all around. In 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama wrote a famous essay called The End of History, about how the entire world would soon and forever be ruled by liberal democracies. Members of China’s Politburo doubtless pass it around for a laugh every so often. The Internet may be the end of crude dictatorships like Mubarak’s, but not in China, which maintains a Great Firewall and a vast army of censors (and where people are generally getting wealthier) or Russia, where the ruling party is far more subtle and competent (and popular.) Evgeny Morozov, born in thug-ruled Belarus, isn’t entirely wrong when he warns of deluded optimism and the danger of the Net as a tool of surveillance and oppression.
But the lesson of Egypt is that dictators can no longer rely on their victims’ fatalism and despair. Untrammeled Internet access—by which I mean, in practice, Twitter and Facebook—will make blatant tyranny impossible, by revealing the simple frailty of tyrants. Egypt has a mere 4 million Facebook users, only 5% of the population; even if the Mubarak regime survives Mubarak’s departure, imagine what happens when that number hits 50%. It will no longer be possible to convince the oppressed that they are powerless.
(1) A friend of mine worked in Egypt’s Telecom Ministry for years. He tells of the day they moved in to their brand-new headquarters, built of marble, at great expense—only to discover that it had not occurred to anyone that the Telecom Ministry might need wires. Months later workers were still drilling more holes through the magnificent marble slabs.
(2) When I flew to Cairo from Athens a few years ago, the police escorted a handcuffed man onto the flight, presumably a refugee being returned to the Mubarak regime. He was seated in the row in front of mine. I have never seen a more terrified human being. He was so frightened that, howling and trembling, he shat himself with fear. Eventually the pilot refused to fly with him, and he was removed from the plane. I wonder what happened to him; but I’d probably prefer not to know.