Social Media and Unfolding Revolutions
As a historian, I am struck by how often changes in the information environment appear in explanations for revolutions. What I know of the French Revolution comes from basic reading and conversations with a colleague in order to teach my world history survey, but there is definitely the idea that in the mid-1700's a critical mass of literate urban dwellers began reading and spreading information contained in pamphlets, a culture which took an increasingly political turn in the aftermath of the debacle of the Seven Years' War, and that King Louis XVI was simply unable to effectively engage with or manage the newfangled "public opinion." Juan Cole wrote of something similar in Egypt's 1881 Urabi Revolt. When I think of Iran's Tobacco Revolt and Constitutional Revolution, I think in part of the telegraph and the spread of ideas and information via labor migration. I have no idea if similar developments figure in the contemporary developments in China, Russia, and Mexico. None of these situations, however, led quickly and easily to a happy and united community under a new political framework, an expectation much of the public has had of the Arab Spring that probably owes more to memories of the transitions of the fall of communism than the longer history of popular uprisings.
A second point I want to bring to the discussion is that, while I often say that our sense of community comes from our zone of communication, it might be equally important to note that the communities that develop in new communication environments tend to be simple actualizations of existing levels of identity. Muslims might not have though much about the idea of the umma before the late 1800's, but they definitely had the sense that such a thing was out there and that they were part of it. Similarly, media such as Nasser's Voice of the Arabs and today's al-Jazeera might have brought more people in touch with a common Arab experience, but they did not create Arab identity, and in fact built on what was already there.
So when it comes to social media, we should not be surprised if what we see is an amplification of existing identities and the potential for conflict that entails. Such media, furthermore, is not unidirectional, but created by an array of individuals, meaning that it makes sense that it would fracture along the lines of the existing potential identities within society, and that insofar as people wind up relying on it, there develops a sense of epistemic closure similar to what some have seen in the recent American media scene, where some get their "information" entirely from e-mail forwards and social media posts.
The two points I thus relate to in Lynch's column are thus, first, that increasing state responsiveness in the social media realm can deflect its revolutionary potential, as when he says, "Bahrain most famously pioneered the active destruction of online discourse, becoming a model for how to pollute and destroy an online public sphere." What matters isn't the existence or otherwise of a specific media form, but the overall information environment and the existence therein of political penetration or outright control, with the latter being a variable that can definitely change over time.
The other is the fact that the sectarian identities which have blunted the mass appeal of the Arab Spring in Bahrain and Syria are a fairly natural development we might have expected to see in those countries when we didn't see parallel religious differences in Tunisia or Egypt. This, then, becomes the old idea that it is easier to have a mass movement in a united country than a divided one. As for poisonous ideas also spreading through social media, we have at least one clear case of that in the May 2011 Imbaba riots, which are even more the outgrowth of social media than the Tahrir protests earlier that year.
Social media empowers individuals, but it empowers their flaws as much as their virtues, and it's much easier to avoid and demonize unwelcome perspectives there than it is on the streets and in national political arenas.