Revolution + Facebook Doesn’t Equal ‘Social Media Revolution’

Maniza Azam

By Maniza AzamThe success of the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia came as a surprise to many. We watched as protesters’ toppled seemingly indestructible regimes—and more revolutions are possible in the near future. As we look upon these political upheavals, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the major role social media have played in facilitating the ousting of corrupted rulers.On the Web, some have labeled the events social media revolutions, that Facebook and Twitter have sparked new democratic fires. Others believe social media’s impact was negligible, just a tool used smartly by protesters. But what is indisputable is that social media networks served two vital functions in the revolutions: organizing mass protests, and informing an international and domestic audience of the struggles and efforts taking place in their countries—two functions for which they are incomparably well-suited.Social media has been great for disseminating information and turning domestic struggles into an international movement by pushing information past government restrictions and into the rest of the world.Social media had a subversive role in the Tunisian revolution. The Tunisian government’s strict media censorship suppressed news of the uprising, leading many to use personal videos, photos and status updates to disperse information. Taking note, the Egyptian and Iranian governments shut down Facebook and other social media sites after witnessing their organizing efficacy.Facebook empowered the revolutions by allowing citizens to quickly organize mass protests, as witnessed by the more than 1 million people who took to the streets in Cairo. Facebook also created a sort of revolutionary spirit that transcended national borders. Status updates and protests in Chicago and New York were shows of solidarity with the Egyptians. Even those that didn’t take to the streets still felt part of the cause by writing posts and joining Facebook groups. Citizens of Tunisia proudly displayed “We Love Facebook!” posters. An Egyptian man actually named his daughter Facebook after the old Egyptian regime was toppled.But social media should not to be confused for the cause of these revolutions. Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian that lit himself on fire, did not do it for the sake of Facebook or Twitter. Bouazizi, the sole supporter of his family, was thinking of the absurdity of being prevented from operating his small fruit stand without bribing government officials. It wasn’t until after his self-immolation that Tunisians began to criticize their government more openly on the web.Cyber-utopians like the idea that the revolutions depended on the Internet and social media. But those who call these events new “Twitter Revolutions” (the first being the failed Green Revolution in Iran) like the notion of social media channels being the primary agent of revolution, but the actual sources of unrest lay in grievances with their government. Cyber optimists need to take the long view and acknowledge the obvious: this is not the world’s first revolution.In an article in The American Prospect, Nancy Scola reacts to these cyber-optimists by writing, “What’s happening in Tunisia isn't a Twitter or a WikiLeaks revolution. It's just what revolution looks like these days.”In fact, the revolutionary spirit currently strengthening in neighboring Libya, under Col. Gaddafi’s regime for 41 years, is not a Facebook revolution. As one Libyan revolutionary states , “This isn’t a Facebook revolution. It’s more like Holler—people calling to each other from the other side of the street.” This doesn’t mean social media aren’t being used—but they’re just not central organizing tools.So where would the pro-democracy movements stretching across the Middle East protests be without social media? No one—neither cyber-optimists nor Luddites—can answer that question. But as more revolutions succeed in the region, the debate will continue.

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