When revolution erupted in Egypt in January 2011, there was no denying the key role played by social media, which allowed dissidents to organize protests that eventually toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak. But revolutions can succeed or fail, and judging by the latest developments, with the Egyptian military effectively neutering the National Assembly and presidency, the revolution there is failing. So what does that mean for social media?
Of course, this question revives earlier controversy over social media’s part in the original revolution. At one (illogical) extreme, some social media evangelists may have fixated on social media to the exclusion of the real human beings who risked their lives in confrontation with the forces of the state; at the other (illogical) extreme, writers like Malcolm Gladwell insisted that social media played no significant role in the revolution, because revolutions had happened before without social media.
Both of these perspectives are exaggerated and silly, and in many cases looked suspiciously like straw men erected by critics in order to demolish them (I don’t actually know of anyone stupid enough to say “social media made the revolution all by itself,” although maybe they’re out there). A more reasonable statement might be that social media was a tool which helped ordinary Egyptians organize themselves to make the revolution, just as earlier advances in communications technology helped revolutionaries make previous revolutions.
Now the apparent failure of the Egyptian revolution illustrates the limitations of social media when the motive power -- the basic human energy -- is lacking. There is plenty of dissent in online forums, but this doesn’t seem to be leading to mass protests to oppose the constitutional coup by the Egyptian military and high court.
There are probably a number of factors at work here. First, the tide of the Arab Spring, which unleashed the revolution in January 2011, has receded somewhat, as evidenced by the bloody crackdown in Syria. Second, Egyptians are understandably exhausted after more than a year of chaos and uncertainty. Third, the Egyptian military is probably taking advantage of political divisions within Egyptian society -- between Islamists and secularists, the poor and the middle class, and so on -- to divide and conquer.
In short, none of the real drivers of the situation -- the trends historians will later identify as the structural causes of the revolution, as well as the subsequent reaction -- has much to do with social media, and everything to do with other, external realities. That’s not to diminish the role played by social media in the revolution: it’s just a reminder that it was nothing more than a tool, which was effective when used with skill and passion, but which now appears to be gathering rust.