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The argument that social networking tools are a waste of time in effecting real political change is overstated.

If you are one of the many thousands of people using social networking sites - Facebook, Twitter, Maktoob, Qzone - to organise political activism, look away now. 

One of New York's premier public intellectuals thinks you are wasting your time. In an essay in The New Yorker that is, predictably, making waves online, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the usefulness of online tools such as Twitter in effecting real political change has been overrated.

Using the example of the American civil rights movement, he argues that such perseverance against social norms and concerted government action could not have come about without "strong" ties, ties based on friendship and face-to-face contact. 

He contrasts this with the type of weak ties social networking sites engender, where the person you are "following" might be a thousand miles away, on a different continent and unlikely ever to meet you. 

Such ties, he says, cannot be maintained in face of severe pressure. If the only activism were online activism there would no chance of real social change.

Is he right? First, look at what social media does well. Social media connects people and disseminates ideas and information better and quicker than almost anything else. 

It does, of course, have significant drawbacks: the people who are most connected tend to be connected to like-minded people, so the breadth of ideas and experiences they are connected to is diminished. 

But this isn't particularly a failing of social media, it's a failing of media generally - there are enough newspapers, websites and TV channels so that people don't need to confront their prejudices and can be exposed only to ideas they already agree with.

But Mr Gladwell isn't making a big argument against social media in general, no matter if some of his critics read it like that. 

He is making what seems to me an important, narrow and fairly unsurprising point: that political activism cannot be reduced solely to the virtual world. And this is intuitively obvious: politics is about organising, about deciding, about knocking on doors and talking to people. Some of that can be done virtually, but more often it requires close contact. This is one of the reasons why government activity is usually centralised geographically - the business of politics (the furious compromise, the late-night plotting) has to be done face to face.

None of that undermines the power of social networking and the role it has played in organising political activism in recent years. In fact - following Mr Gladwell's idea of weak ties - social networking can actually encourage more small connections. So you exchange brief comments with that Facebook friend you barely know and you become closer and eventually meet. You follow a writer whose work you would never seek out and get to know their ideas better. You are part of your distant cousin's Twitter feed and through that follow their ups and downs across the months, rather than just getting the big-picture update once a year.

That's where Mr Gladwell overstates the case against social media. It can help in different stages of spreading an idea - it can popularise it, it can bring in many more people, it can "firm up" weak ties, so that those only tangentially connected to an issue learn more about it, become more involved, develop weak ties into stronger ones. That is no small thing. Social networking will never be the best means to make policy, but it can sure help get out the vote.

Mr Gladwell is at his most convincing when he talks about how inconsequential an impact social media can have on changing political systems in authoritarian countries. He points out that the impact of social media on protests in Moldova and Iran was minimal. 

He is correct in stating this, this is an important corollary to much of the nonsense talked about in the media after the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, when protesters taking to the streets of Tehran were dubbed the Twitter revolutionaries. Mr Gladwell quotes a writer who in Foreign Policy debunks the myth in one sentence: "Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to co-ordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi."

In actual fact, Mr Gladwell does not go far enough. Far from not contributing much to social activism in these countries, social media actually makes it easier for the state to follow and track down its detractors. 

As much as social media has put the power to disseminate information into the hands of the masses, it has also put the power to monitor information into the hands of the state. For all the talk of the internet subverting political authority, in actual fact states, especially autocratic states, wield enormous power still. They can police people's movements; they can block websites and jam TV signals; and they have the power of legal sanctions, of the courts and prisons.

In the online age, they also wield the power of identification: governments so inclined could find no better tool to alert them to what people are saying than the internet. Here is a format that, unlike old-fashioned methods of speeches and pamphleteering, cannot vanish into air or be destroyed by fire. Tweets live forever and are easily searchable. It isn't hard for a government to figure out who the dissidents are and then see who else is following them, talking to them and connecting to them.

Social networks have made it incredibly easy for governments to identify people and - something that used to be incredibly difficult - establish the relationships in a group. 

What used to require trained agents and interrogation can now be handled by a computer program - "If you don't know this dissident," agents of the state can ask in dimly lit dungeons, "why are you writing on his Facebook wall so much? Why did you send him a happy birthday message on Twitter? Why did you and his wife attend the same event?"

Far from pushing power to the grassroots, social media has made the task of the watchers much easier. 

Just last month, Iranian courts sentenced a prominent blogger to 19 years in prison for alleged anti-state activities. Hossein Derakhshan has been a well-known blogger inside and outside Iran for years, and helped pro-democracy activists make use of the internet. Does anyone imagine that the Iranian authorities have not been keeping a close eye on those he deals with online, those who link to his blog, those who agree with his views?

In fact, what has not been well observed is that one of the anecdotes most often used to demonstrate the power of social media actually undermines its claim to be a revolutionary shift of power away from central authority. 

In the week after Iran's election last year, The Washington Post reported that the US government asked Twitter to postpone its scheduled maintenance, so that Iranian activists on Twitter could continue messaging each other. 

The story is told as a way of demonstrating the democratising power of social networking. But it also highlights one the chief problems with social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook - they are old-fashioned, hierarchical companies. If the US government could ask Twitter to change its service in a way it liked, why could it not ask them to change parts it does not like?

Power to the people works only if the state does not guard all the doors. 

Faisal al Yafai is a journalist. You can follow him at twitter.com/faisalalyafai.

Published: October 9, 2010 04:00 AM

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