A fascinating sidebar to the civil uprising in Egypt is the debate over the role of social media in the breathtaking rate of the government’s unraveling. After #jan25 happened, many enthusiasts took the opportunity to gloat over social media’s status as accelerant, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt. This revolution has not only been tweeted, it’s been hashtagged!
It seemed like a coup for those who had resisted Malcolm Gladwell’s “weak ties” thesis that social media promotes armchair activism more than high-risk action. The anti-Gladwell backlash here nearly mirrored the anti-Mubarak one there. Yet Gladwell stuck to his guns in a recent response to the digital bashing. His point is that revolutions took place long before the Internet. As he puts it, mob communication happened “through that strange, today largely unknown, instrument known as the human voice.”
Well, it’s hard to argue with that. But, it seems to me that Gladwell undervalues at least two factors here. One is the lightning speed with which social media ignites communication and amplifies its efficiency. There’s no doubt that new media, coupled with mobile communications, helped the protesters mobilize against the government. Why else would Mubarak have moved to quickly shut down the Internet?
Yet, social media evangelists oversimplify the picture. It cuts both ways. Those who glorify the new media are ignoring the obvious fact that the government has access to the same tools. The dark side of social media activism is that someone is bound to be taking names. No Twitter handle is anonymous, after all.
The other factor is more powerful in the long run, and more interesting, at least to professional communicators. Social media enabled witnesses like popular blogger and activist @sandmonkey to shape the narrative. As with the unrest in Tehran, being inside is very different from the experience of those who follow the situation via iPad. Influential witnesses, both inside and outside of Egypt, hammered away at their version of events, particularly at crucial points where the PR tide could have turned in favor of the government. Pro-Mubarak demonstrators were seen as government stooges, and terms like “unrest” and “chaos” became “uprising” and “revolution” in the mainstream media.
That story is more than just what you and I think. Its power reaches not just the Twitterati and the blogosphere, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Facebook and Twitter may, in fact, be about “weak ties,” but the narrative and images they carry transcend the medium. As every good communicator knows, it’s about the story.