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The Emerging Role of Social Media in Political and Regime Change
(Released March 2012)

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  by Rita Safranek  


Key Citations



"Twitter Revolution" Critics


The importance of social media in this latest wave of political upheaval has political theorists and social scientists lining up in opposing camps. “While techno-utopians overstate the affordances of new technologies (what these technologies can give us) and understate the material conditions of their use (e.g., how factors such as gender or economics can affect access), techno-dystopians do the reverse, misinterpreting a lack of results with the impotence of technology; and also, forgetting how shifts within the realm of mediated political communication can be incremental rather than a seismic in nature” (Christensen).

One of the most vocal critics in the US has been New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point. He points out that “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Social networks are effective at increasing participation by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” He argues that these types of relationships are not conducive to the sustained, hierarchical, and high-risk behavior needed to make real social change as seen in the US civil rights movement in the 1960s (42).

There are two arguments against the idea that social media will make a difference in national politics. The first is that the tools are themselves ineffective, and the second is that they produce as much harm to democratization as good, because repressive governments are becoming better at using these tools to suppress dissent (Shirky).

“Facebook and Twitter have their place in social change, but real revolutions take place in the street. One of the biggest obstacles in using social media for political change is that people need close personal connections in order to get them to take action – especially if that action is risky and difficult. Social media always comes with a catch: It is designed to do the very thing that isn’t particularly helpful in a high-risk situation” (Rosenberg).

While the upheavals in the Middle East have cast a positive light on the use of social media to effect change, “there are, however, many examples of the activists failing, as in Belarus in March 2006, when street protests (arranged in part by e-mail) against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s alleged vote rigging swelled, then faltered, leaving Lukashenko more determined than ever to control social media. During the June 2009 uprising of the Green Movement in Iran, activists used every possible technological coordinating tool to protest the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi but were ultimately brought to heel by a violent crackdown. The Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010 followed a similar but quicker path: Protestors savvy with social media occupied downtown Bangkok until the Thai government dispersed the protestors, killing dozens” (Shirky).

2006 protest in Minsk, Belarus
A 21 March 2006 demonstration held at October Square in Minsk after the Belarus president elections

Twitter’s own internal architecture puts limits on political activism. “There are so many messages streaming through at any moment that any single entry is unlikely to break through the din, and the limit of 140 characters – part of the service’s charm and the secret of its success – militates against sustained argument and nuance” (“Reading Twitter in Tehran?”).

And then there are logistical questions that dog the “Twitter Revolution” claims. “Only 21% of Egyptians use the Internet, less than half the usage rate within Iran and below the average of the entire region. But despite the limited access to the Web, sites like Facebook generated a tremendous amount of pressure on the government from the onset of the Cairo
demonstrations. One protest fan page garnered more than 80,000 followers in a matter of days” (Carafano). In Egypt, the role of the unofficial trade unions in the protests has been downplayed - workers who participated in strikes, those bus drivers, factory workers, and Suez canal laborers, nurses and doctors, that finally broke President Hosni Mubarak (Hulaimi).

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