Since the 2009 Moldovan Twitter Revolution (also known as the “Grape Revolution,” in reference to the Color Revolutions that occurred across the Commonwealth of Independent States and Balkan states in the 2000s) and Iranian Green Revolution, Twitter and other Internet sites have been featured as catalysts for political change. Individuals use these sites for a variety of purposes: to coordinate meetings and other plans (e.g. through hashtags or Facebook pages), to express national and international solidarity (e.g. supporters who changed their Twitter avatars to include a green overlay),[1] and for information sharing (e.g. personal narratives, journalism co-created by professionals and activists,[2]and live updates). Although participation on such sites is undeniable—for example, the Egyptian protest page “We Are All Khaled Said” garnered over 500,000 supporters, and in the most recent Occupy movement, there were over 1 million Facebook posts between September and October 2011 alone—detractors claim that the role of the Internet has been overblown. In this post, I hope to investigate such claims and come to preliminary conclusions about revolutions and online information sharing.

It was a co-founder of Twitter who himself best summarized the arguments against the “Twitter Revolution” moniker: When asked if he thought that Twitter overthrew the Egyptian government, he answered, “No. People did that.”[3] A number of others agree. In these individuals’ opinion, Twitter was a useful tool for spreading awareness of ongoing events, but it did little to actually catalyze change. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell best summarizes this argument in his article “Small Change.” He points out that Moldova had few, if any, major Twitter users, that people discussing the Iranian uprising were predominately from the West—in short, that any online activism was the work of inconsequential outsiders. As Gladwell quotes from an article in Foreign Policy, “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection…Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.” Moreover, any social networking activism relies on the strength of weak ties, which are inherently ineffective at creating coherent goals. People join groups willingly but have no incentive to support the cause in question. For example: I, Lawren Tilney, can join over 100 Facebook groups claiming to “Save Darfur,” but the page creators ask nothing of me in return. Gladwell finds the same of every online movement. As he states, “[Social networking] makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”[4] Thus, we can all make our Twitter avatars and Facebook profiles green in support of Iran—but it does not mean that these actions have a real effect.

In many ways, Gladwell has a point (indeed, there is a term for it: “slacktivism”), but he ignores the sea change brought about by the Internet age. First, international awareness generates a public opinion about issues that they would otherwise ignore. Take Biz Stone, mentioned above, who explained when asked about Twitter’s role in the Grape Revolution that “the truth of the matter is, I had to actually look up what was going on in Moldova. So there are things happening all around the world at any given point in time, and we find it incredibly meaningful work to foster this open exchange of information and to watch as people around the world do their thing and make the world a better place.”[5] Such awareness of Moldova would not have existed in the pre-Internet era—and awareness is key to action, both unofficial and offical/governmental.

Additionally, Twitter has become increasingly important since the Moldovan and Iranian revolutions. The website played a large role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings of 2011 (although less of a role in the other movements of the Arab Spring)—not only in fostering awareness, but also in allowing people to organize on the ground. Indeed, when the Egyptian government shut down access to the Internet to hinder protesters, Google created a voice-to-tweet service that allowed citizens to relay messages from their phones. Twitter had become the tool of choice for organization, mobilization, and information-sharing, whether one was internal or external to the movement. Please see this link for further discussion of recent movements powered by the Internet: http://www.zeemaps.com/338054. At this page, I have created a map of “Twitter Revolutions” and “Facebook Revolutions”that have occurred since 2009.

Thus, I must argue that the Internet does more than foster mere “slacktivism” or “small change.” Of course, real-world action is necessary for political change, but real-world action often would not (or could not) occur without virtual planning. Yes: It is easy to support causes with a mere click of a button. Yes: It is difficult to reach the next step, to do something. However, these statements do not imply that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and similar sites are useless. Rather, they illustrate the importance of coupling virtual calls to action with physical meetings, rallies, and decision-making. The Occupy movement has exemplified this fact. Although protesters use the Internet in ways that resemble the tactics of their Arab Spring predecessors, they also rely heavily on real-world consensus building (e.g. the General Assembly). We will see how, and if, future movements do the same. Will there ever be a revolution that occurs only online?

Original Post Date April 2, 2012

I definitely agree that organization and communication may be roles that the digital can play in the proliferation of social movements. However, I don’t think this refutes the point that the extremely low threshold of “participation” can actually be meaningless, if not potentially harmful, towards a cause. As I noted in a previous post, I think one danger in using digital technologies, whether it’s games or social media, to bring awareness to a cause is that these technologies may actually abstract too far or even act as a distraction for the real issue at hand.

On a slightly different point, I think in terms of publicity alone, people often argue that all awareness is good awareness. This was an argument that was employed often in defense of the KONY 2012, even in light of the Russell public masturbation scandal. On one hand, I am inclined to see the merit in this statement. In a political climate that seems to be defined by bipartisanship and general civil apathy, it is heartening to see that a campaign for human rights can gain such momentum. It is in particular inspiring because this is a movement that has originated and gained traction in the web and given its medium, has presumably ignited a contingency of people, particularly young ones, transcending geographical boundaries. The internet is a powerful medium for social change and I wholeheartedly hope that we can continue to come up with creative ways to engage and inspire for important causes.

The hesitation I have with social movements that generate a lot of internet hype is with the occasional lapses in discernment that people have when seized with a cause. It’s hard to argue that any publicity for human rights campaigns can be harmful; yet there are ways in which non-profit organizations can exploit the same people they presumably aim to serve. I’m thinking particularly of the Central Asia Institute, a non-profit founded and run by Greg Mortenson, who was so successful in generating support for their cause (building schools in Central Asia) that Barack Obama himself donated his prize money from the Nobel Peace Prize to the organization. Unfortunately, investigations have revealed gross mismanagement of funds including personal embezzlement from founder Greg Mortenson. Also, while schools have indeed been built, many remain unused because of impracticalities which could have been avoided by communicating with the populations they actually intended to serve.

While it is unequivocally a positive thing to get people engaged in social movements, it is also important to be informed about the organizations you support and hold them accountable. Even non-profit organizations can betray their supporters. Yes, digital technologies have lowered the threshold for participation in social movements but I want to argue that it has also lowered our standards of fact-checking and accountability. When you can support something with the click of a button, the inclination to research and confirm the legitimacy of what you’re supporting is much lower. While we should all feel free to support whatever causes we believe in, I think that this is a decision we should make and encourage others to make with eyes wide open.