As the New York Times reports, a recent paper by Navid Hassanpour, a political science student at Yale, casts new light on the role of social and mass media in revolutions like those of the Arab Spring. The chattering classes, from the State Department to Silicon Valley, have assumed that social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter (despite their very low rates of adoption in the Arab world) played an integral role in the movements which have now toppled three governments. The Obama State Department has enthusiastically embraced this theory, placing it at the center of its policies in unstable places like the Middle East.
The paper, however, hypothesizes that less social media access catalyzes more effective cooperation and face-to-face interactions, from which revolutions draw strength. The paper argues that, on a macro level, media distribution is correlated quite strongly with low rates of dissent (even after controlling for per capita income and type of regime).
This and other dynamics suggest that a significant disruption in the distribution of media may spark significant levels of dissent, possibly enough to topple a regime. Using this spring’s Egyptian uprising as a natural experiment, Hassanpour argues that a sudden shutdown of digital communication contributed to the overwhelming protests that forced Mubarak to step down.
The paper, of course, does not suggest that social media cannot contribute positively to the organization of rebellions; Hassanpour’s conclusions are nuanced (and well worth reading). But it does add to the growing skepticism of techno-progressive commandments: for instance, that cyber-freedom is a crucial tool in modern diplomacy. Arguably the most impressive accomplishment of the Arab Spring has been the victory of a disorganized and heterogeneous group of rebels in Libya, which succeeded thanks to Western military expertise and impressive tribal cohesion. A mere 5.5 percent of Libya’s population has access to the internet, and the regime shut off internet access completely in early March (notably, just before protest escalations and the beginning of Western military intervention.) The tactical victory that freed Libya hardly seems to have been won by digital democracy.
During the uprisings in Iran in the summer of 2009, U.S. State Department official Jared Cohen (now a Google executive) asked Twitter’s management to delay network maintenance in order to allow protestors to continue communicating through the service. It is unlikely this had any effect, positive or negative, given that just .02% of Iran’s population had Twitter accounts at the time. However, Hassanpour’s work suggests that such intervention by the techno-elite may be no more likely to help revolutionary movements than to harm them. The components of successful revolutions remain effective dissent and determined crowds, neither of which is obviously connected to the rise of digital and social media.
Hassanpour’s paper, along with other lines of dissent (e.g., Evgeny Morozov), provides an important reminder that modern media may not be nearly as essential or beneficial on the ground in the world’s most chaotic places as the Obama administration and the technological élite may like to think.