What Twitter and Facebook meant in the Egyptian Revolution
by Josh Bernoff
We now read that Hosni Mubarak has resigned due to popular unrest in Egypt. Throughout the coverage, we've read about how Twitter and Facebook were essential to the protesters. But in a blog post on the New Yorker site, Malcolm Gladwell says that the communications tools didn't make the difference. Defending his earlier article about the "weak ties" of social networks and how they differ from the "hearts and minds" revolutions like the civil rights uprising, he says:
But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.
So which is it. Did Twitter and Facebook cause the groundswell, or didn't they?
They certainly scared the Egyptian regime sufficiently to cause them to take the disastrous steps of shutting down the Internet and mobile phone networks.
- They created rallying points -- sparks burst into flames of outrage. The New York Times says a video about Khaled Said, posted on Facebook, became a starting point for the revolutionary movement.
- They enabled people to see how many others shared their perspective.
- They enabled people to coordinate activity and get the word out about protests.
- They allowed memes about revolution to spread -- like the focus on Mohammed ElBaradei as an opposition figure.
If you want an analogy, think of "All in the Family," the sitcom that elevated the discussion about racism in America. "All in the Family" didn't create or advance the civil rights movement. Television didn't create that movement. But it was a highly efficient way to spread ideas that, eventually, caught on and changed American thinking. While racism has not ended, I would certainly say that television, and "All in the Family," made a huge difference in how America perceived it.
Malcolm Gladwell is right that without real people taking real risks, there is no revolution. Signing up for a cause on Facebook doesn't make a big difference in itself.
And there were lots of other factors, including coverage in Al Jazeera, that made a big difference.
But the Egyptian revolution took off more quickly, spread to more people, became more universal, and scared the heck out of a dictator more effectively because of social media. Social media didn't cause the revolution, but it was essential to its success.