Commentary

Social Media Is Good for Revolutions -- But How About Governing?

It seems clear now (unless you are a totally pigheaded columnist for The New Yorker) that social media played a significant role in the revolutions which changed the face of the Middle East over the last two months. The question now is: what next? Can social media help Egypt -- the biggest country in the Arab world, which has traditionally led its neighbors by example -- make the transition to a peaceful, stable democracy?

This is a big question. There are probably few events in human history as complex and confusing as revolutions, which typically involve different groups working together, for varying periods of time, in pursuit of distinct and sometimes conflicting goals. However, we can safely draw a couple broad conclusions from the historical record: above all, history has shown that making a revolution and making a government are two very different things, and that the latter task is often just as challenging (if not more so) than the former.

Some revolutions in history ended well, with the American Revolution serving as a sort of gold standard, showing that it's possible for a society to go through violent upheaval before restoring order and constituting a new government. The revolutions which swept Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War followed similar paths. Other revolutions, well... not so much: the French Revolution started out well but then turned into a bloodbath (if your new government formulates a policy officially known as "The Terror," you made a wrong turn somewhere). In 1917 the Russian Revolution was on the right track until it was hijacked by Lenin's Bolsheviks, who went on to make the French Revolution look like the Sexual Revolution. Likewise, the Islamic Revolution in Iran began moderately but ended with a bunch of medieval reactionaries in charge.

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In fact, the odds are probably against any particular revolution turning out well, especially in a country like Egypt, which has virtually no experience with democratic institutions and a track record of failed revolutions: in 1952 the Egyptian military overthrew the monarchy with the aim of setting up a parliamentary democracy, but in 1953 Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser established one-party rule. Today there are plenty of Egyptians who want democracy, but there are also plenty who don't: Western observers are particularly worried about the possibility of radical Islamists seizing control through outright violence or intimidation of voters in the elections promised by the army -- another group which could easily derail the transition to democracy.

There's a saying that it's harder to create than destroy, and the history of revolutions definitely reflects this truth. That's why the next couple months will bring the real test of social media. Yes, online communications technologies like Facebook and Twitter helped Egyptian revolutionaries organize mass protests and stoke popular anger at the government -- but can they play a role in the equally important (and potentially far more difficult) task of building a democracy?  The results, or lack of results, will be especially telling considering that regular Egyptians should have unfettered access to the Internet now, as oppose to during the revolution, when only a handful of tech-savvy folks like Google exec Wael Ghonim were able to evade the government-imposed blackout.

And unfortunately, it's not necessarily a slam dunk: the de-centralized, almost leader-less nature of social media worked for getting masses of people into the streets, but the same qualities could work against people trying to have a calm, level-headed discussion about big issues which effect whole groups of individuals. Can you really have a national dialogue involving millions of people at once? If not, who chooses who gets to speak for their respective groups, and how do they choose them? At the end of the day is social media -- where everyone gets a voice -- really compatible with representative government, where authority resides in a small number of elected officials?

To help Egyptians succeed in creating a democracy, social media has to enable them to achieve a couple important goals:

1) First and foremost, regular Egyptians have to retain control of the process of rewriting the country's constitution, choosing interim government officials, and holding free, fair, and transparent democratic elections sometime in the next couple months. Social media can play a role here by allowing watchdogs or whistleblowers (choose your metaphor) to alert the public if, for example, the military starts backsliding or radical Islamists start intimidating voters with threats of violence. In this scenario, social media could also allow activists to instantly organize more mass protests to protect the revolution from anti-democratic forces.

2) Egyptians also have to decide how to handle important issues like civilian control of the military, women's right to vote, protection for religious minorities, the degree of state control of the economy, social welfare, and so on. Social media can provide platforms for discussing these issues and achieving a national consensus, but this would probably require choosing impartial referees to moderate discussions, which otherwise risk devolving into chaos (Ghonim has a unique opportunity to serve his country here). Online voting could be a good way of gauging the extent of support for particular proposals -- and maybe even the revised constitution itself -- but these results will only be as good as the security of the online voting system: if people doubt the integrity and accuracy of online voting, they will naturally tend to dismiss the results and gravitate to other forums.

3) Perhaps the most difficult task will be mediating between the "masses" and powerful groups like the military, big business, labor unions, Muslim clerics, and the civil service. Although it would be nice to think that ordinary Egyptians can simply will a democratic government into existence, it probably won't be that simple: any modern state relies on (and has to deal with) entrenched groups of bureaucrats, technocrats, academic experts, and military and police officials, not to mention hordes of lower-level public employees. A new democratic government would be much more durable if it had the support of these professional constituencies, which will require looking after their interests -- but at the same time not caving to unreasonable demands. While a lot of these negotiations will take place behind closed doors, social media can help the broader public register its support for (or opposition to) specific compromises or bargaining strategies with these entrenched groups.

6 comments about "Social Media Is Good for Revolutions -- But How About Governing?".
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  1. Aleeda Crawley from E-thePeople, March 8, 2011 at 4:19 p.m.

    Okay, you've made your point about Mr. Gladwell. Enough fingerpointing, already! The truth will likely end up somewhere in the middle, likely with you being proven to be more right than he is. Demonstrations doth not a revolution make, just the way it is not the hundredth blow that breaks the rock, but the 99 strikes before it. Social media will be a part of the revolution, but not the totality. Egyptian women used many of the same tools to try and organize their march, but were not successful. Do we blame social media for their inability to launch a Million Egyptian Women March? I hope not.

  2. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, March 8, 2011 at 5:14 p.m.

    re: "How about Governing?"...

    What do we learn from the shift between social media's apparent power for the Obama campaign and it's relative ineffectiveness on his behalf while governing? I think we need look no further than the Obama campaign to realize social media is a tough tool to apply to positive governance.

    Seems that social media is great for causes where passionate connection with the cause drives involvement. Governing isn't generally about causes. Hard to generate passion about the dull reality of daily life - much less the daily life of bureaucracy. (Hmmm. How about a social media site dedicated to your accounting department.)

    In fact, the impact in the US of social media on governing primarily stems from Twain's observation that "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." Sadly I don't think it's proven particularly useful.

  3. Leonard Sipes from Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, March 9, 2011 at 9:28 a.m.

    Very thoughtful article; thought I was reading the Times or Post.

  4. Dave Benefiel from Global Market Insite, March 9, 2011 at 1:16 p.m.

    All and Powerful Social Mediaites: Can you now please make my gas prices go down? Given the power of Facebook, I'm sure this should be a sinch.

    Thanks!

  5. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, March 10, 2011 at 4:55 a.m.

    English-language social media isn't reflecting how men really feel about the Cairo "women's rights" march well at all. In much of the world, International Women's Day is supposed to be a day of celebrating women, not for complaining about supposed "inequality" (that James Bond in drag video that went viral yesterday was filled with radical feminist misinformation and Sean Connery or the James Bond author Ian Fleming would never be caught dead dressing in drag for the feminist cause like Daniel Craig did).

    What isn't being said on Twitter in English, for instance, is that if Egyptian men give women the right to vote, they will need to first add constitutional elements that would prevent a majority (women + wimps) from making laws that put men at a disadvantage (in the absence of a men's rights lobby, feminism will always push past equality toward advantage). Examples of ways that American men now suffer from a lack of equality and fairness as a result of "democracy" (America is supposed to be a republic not a democracy) would be excessive, income based child support, lifetime alimony, forcing men to be background checked before meeting foreign women (IMBRA law), telling college professors and employers that they can't have mutually agreed upon relationships with the younger women around them, ruining men's lives with false date rape allegations, sting operations where men are tricked into agreeing to pay a woman which is suddenly a criminal act, effectively raising the age of consent to 21 in some communities, etc. And I mean etc, etc, etc.

    It's hard to tweet details like that in less than 140 characters. It's just too easy to tweet sound bites.

    But sound bites don't build solid, free societies.

  6. Erik Sass from none, March 10, 2011 at 8 p.m.

    @Dave Benefiel: Done and done! http://gasbuddy.com/

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