The Arab Spring uprisings have been characterized by many as movements driven by social media interaction, and this observation is indisputable. But what we don’t know is the degree to which social media really played a role in the uprisings, and exactly what role these resources played. The Meta-Activism Project blog has recently posted an article that seeks to answer these questions. “Arab Spring: What Did We Learn About Tech and Revolution” offers an in depth look at the role social media holds in the Arab uprisings, and offers a preliminary method for measuring its impact.
The article views social medias role in a series of progressive steps. The first step is providing people with a safer space to share their preferences. The internet presents opposition groups with a chance to easily foster collective action by sharing their preferences and gaining the capacity to communicate with others to share that preference. The internet provided greater access to information, increased freedom of speech, and increased access to others, all of which helped grow the uprisings. Now that a group has been created for collaborative action, the next step, collaborative planning, is breached. In this sense, the internet provides a vast number of tools for communication that are much safer than many other methods of organizing. Now, the group is ready to take action and will usually mobilize in a coordinated action to do so.
Once the first group has been spurred into action, information cascades come into play. This is when people observe the actions of others, and choose to follow their lead and join the cause. When these information cascades are networked using multiple types of media, a sort of contagion erupts as the public rushes to support and join the cause. Social media also meant that the leaders of the uprisings could write their own legacies in a sense, since they were able to directly communicate their accounts of the story to international media.
Now here is the real beauty of social media- it creates a kind of catch 22 for repressive regimes. Once a revolution is underway and powerful (such as those in Egypt and Tunisia) the government is powerless to stop it, however, censoring social media has been shown to foster political resistance, and thus feed a revolution of its own. So in this sense, it seems that perhaps the repressive regime, to some extent, is soon doomed to fail at the hands of social media. I bet you didn’t imagine then when you created your account of facebook or twitter…