Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Why Facebook Doesn’t Cause Protests

April 1, 2011
Digital Communication & Gaming

Anyone who has followed the recent spate of political unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere could be forgiven for thinking that a full-scale global revolution is underway, caused by digital social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter.  Several media commentators, at least in the western world, create a narrative where authoritarian regimes in far-off lands such as Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Libya, are dramatically undermined by the free flow of information enabled by new technologies. In this simple formula, Internet growth is equated with democratization. Technology does play a pivotal role in contemporary social protests, but its role is actually a lot more complex, and definitely not causative. It is worthwhile though to first consider why such techno-centric explanations of social change capture our imagination in the first place. 

It seems that at least some of the hype about the revolutionary power of technology in creating social change has to do with what media audiences can understand.  It is far easier, for example, to play up the role that Twitter played in the 2009 rebellion in Iran than it is to provide a lucid historical account of why there was rebellion there in the first place. Indeed, on reflection it is clear that recent unrest we have witnessed in various parts of the world has been prompted by fairly different phenomena. In Egypt, for example, food prices soared throughout 2010, and public anger about corruption significantly increased. On the other hand, at least one of the dynamics that informed recent tensions in Bahrain, a relatively wealthy country, had to do with the fact that it is a Shia majority country ruled by a Sunni monarch. In short, in order to have a social protest, one must have something to protest about

It is also easy to automatically cast the Internet and its technologies as being inherently democratic. The reasons we do this are many: For one, the sheer amount of information that digital media afford us is itself a kind of freedom. Moreover, the early pioneering days of the Internet were in fact characterized by a freewheeling, communitarian spirit. However, the growth and proliferation of digital technologies since then have been almost entirely market-driven. We need to remember that social networking tools, including Facebook and Twitter are controlled by private corporations, often American, whose first priority is to their shareholders rather than to democracy per se. It’s also worth noting that the software that governments ranging from Burma to Tunisia have used to censor the Internet has also come from large corporations. In other words, only a market fundamentalist would argue that social networking tools are inherently democratic.

And so, it is not safe to assume that digital technologies and social networking tools in particular can cause protests by virtue of their very existence. More broadly,we can not put technologies ahead of the environments in which they function. My own research has examined technology in its social context. I’ve conducted research on the flexible yet pervasive character of the digital divide in the context of global and community development. More recently, with University of California (Santa Barbara) professor Cynthia Stohl, I analyzed how activists utilize digital communication technologies as they try to effect social change. Scholars of technology and protest agree that all social protests begin with the experience of injustice, rather than with access to technology itself. When people are able to tell stories to each other in relatively safe spaces about these common experiences, they are able to engage in localized, small-scale resistance. When conditions are right or when people have the opportunities to do so, these semi-private, relatively clandestine struggles move into the public domain. Here, they become bigger and bigger, as protesters feel a growing sense of self-worth and empowerment, and are able to express their issues in terms that are sensible to large groups of people. Scholars call this phenomenon a scale shift, and it explains what has been happening in the Middle East quite well.

We know that communication technologies have played a part in this latest scale shift in contemporary activism, because they have made it much easier for people to become aware of social problems as well as organize around them. Social networking tools often form what is called a “small world network” where many strangers are connected by a mutual acquaintance.  Facebook groups, it seems, played a pivotal role in enabling Egyptian activists to both connect with each other and maintain existing relationships, which is one reason that the Egyptian government blocked it. But online mobilization was not the only reason why people from a wide range of groups attended protests in Egypt. By several accounts, protestors there represented a wide range of people, not only educated elite who have access to digital and mobile technologies, and word of mouth appeared to have been a very significant factor in ensuring attendance at protests.

More generally, research shows that the number one reason why people go to protests is because someone they know personally was also attending. It appears then, that  Facebook and Twitter are likely to have activated other “offline” and enduring friendship and solidarity networks,  and in Cairo this resulted in hundreds of thousands of people pouring into Tahrir square to challenge Hosni Mubarak. Clearly, social networking tools were effective not as forces in themselves, but because they were able to work well with other ongoing organizing efforts and supportive relationships amongst a range of marginalized groups. Core digital activists were therefore also successful offline mobilizers.

It’s also worth noting that even those core activists who tend to organize online do not endorse these technologies wholesale. Our research with global justice activists in Aotearoa New Zealand revealed that they had some widely differing views on technology. For instance, several activists were skeptical about digital technologies, others were ambivalent towards it, and still others were advocates for it. Crucially, activists continued to use technology even though they were critical of its use, and even passionate advocates for digital technology were very aware that the very same technologies offered opportunities for surveillance to their opponents. And echoing what may have happened in Egypt, they continued to reiterate the importance of genuine connection and authentic communication with people at large. As one person said: “It’s unreal to call yourself an activist and not actually meet anyone!”

It seems then, that activists who use digital technologies are much more reflective about both its potentials and limitations than commentators who observe their work. Technology is no doubt increasingly woven into the fabric of activist organizing, and can be a force for democratic social change, but it can also be a means of social and corporate control. To ensure the former rather than the latter, we need more public discussion around such key issues in digital media as online privacy and surveillance, network neutrality, and censorship, as we continue to build a digital commons. 

About the author (s)

Shiv Ganesh

Massey Univeersity