Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Coup That Wasn’t Tweeted: Looking Back At Egypt’s Social Media Revolution

The Coup That Wasn’t Tweeted: Looking Back At Egypt’s Social Media Revolution

Some might say that July 3, 2013 brought the end of the Arab Spring.  The Egyptian military unseated the democratically elected, Muslim Brotherhood member President Mohamed Morsi in a coup (of sorts).  Along with Morsi’s detention, the Egyptian military and police resorted to armed violence at times in the weeks after to regain control of protests that were deemed to be out of control.   

For those that lauded the wonders of social media activism, the coup showed the weaknesses of Facebook revolutions for achieving lasting political change.  Social media may have prompted Egyptians to storm the streets in January 2011, but it did not result in Western style democracy.  Instead of the more Western and secular elements in Egypt leading change, the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratically elected leaders triumphed at the ballot boxes and further divided the country more than they unified it.  Two years later, the failure of Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution” with a return to authoritarian military rule may in fact set democracy in the Middle East back more than it ever progressed it.  This brings us to Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell on Social Media and Arab Spring

In October 2010, Malcolm Gladwell published an article at the New Yorker entitled “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted”.  The crux of Gladwell’s argument aimed at the popular notion that activism has fundamentally changed with the introduction of social media technology making it easier for the powerless to “collaborate, coordinate and give voice to their concerns.”  Gladwell argued against this assertion noting that supposed cases of social media revolutions in Moldova and Iran in 2009 were not truly the work of social media.  Instead, Gladwell posed historical examples from the 1960’s U.S. civil rights movement to demonstrate the weaknesses of social media for creating transformative activism.  Here were some of Gladwell’s primary points against social media as a change agent:

“What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.”

  • Point #2: Weak-ties (social media contacts) are only effective in supporting tasks that don’t require too much effort.  Gladwell suggests people collaborating online will perform small tasks for acquaintances they don’t know, but they are unlikely to perform tasks that require great sacrifice.  He describes how thousands of people joined to find a bone marrow match for a man named Sameer Bhatia.  

“But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise. You can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf.”

(On this point, Gladwell got some pushback during the Arab Spring.  Were Egyptians that spoke out and against the Mubarak regime on social media and those demonstrating in Tahrir square not risking their lives?)

  • Point #3: Social media builds networks, but not hierarchical organizations required to drive revolutionary change.  For this point, Gladwell describes how the civil rights movement was not a contagion but actually the result of strategic organization building. Gladwell notes many of the finer points of social media networks but claims that:

“Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” 

The future soon tested Gladwell’s theories.  Protests and uprisings spread throughout the Arab world in 2011. Within weeks, many countries saw popular uprisings broadcast and coordinated on sites like Facebook and Twitter.  While people like Wael Ghonim (before and after being detained by the Egyptian government) helped propel a social media campaign of unseen proportions, Gladwell was put on the defensive.  Social media zealots, hurt by Gladwell’s undercutting of their beloved Facebook and Twitter, rejoiced as an alleged social movement swept through the streets of Cairo, imprisoned Hosni Mubarak and paved the way for elections.  With Egypt and the Middle East seemingly transformed by social media in only a few weeks, Arab Spring champions rolled out a series of books trumpeting the revolutionary success of their new, non-violent thumb pecked war with corrupt dictators. 

Fast forward two years and the story of Arab Spring triumphs has given way to what might be the start of an Arab Winter – the return of military rule in Egypt and a bloody civil war involving chemical weapons in Syria. 

In the power vacuums left in the wake of uprisings, it’s those with strategy, resources, organization and leadership that seize the initiative, grow their power and triumph.  In Egypt, those retaining these traits before and after the fall of Mubarak were not those parked in front of their keyboards. While Wael Ghonim rapidly penned and marketed a new book, Revolution 2.0, released in January 2012, a well-resourced, highly organized grass roots Muslim Brotherhood organization mobilized its members to push its leaders into power.

I recently spoke with Shiraz Maher of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation who was in Cairo during the Tahrir Square protests of 2011.  Maher noted that social media proved effective in getting people out to protests and coordinating events in Cairo during the 2011 uprisings.  However, Maher noted that after the fall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated far more organization and easily defeated the disorganized and highly fractured, more liberal block of candidates including Egypt’s social media activists. 

In retrospect, much of Gladwell’s argument has proven true in my estimate.  Social media is highly effective, as noted James Surwiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, in solving problems of coordination.  Egypt’s 2011 protests were highly empowered by Facebook and Twitter, which could help rapidly coordinate protests.  When presented with an immediate choice via social media, Egyptians turned out in large numbers to protests. likely comforted by the demonstrable number of supporters the saw online who pledged the same action.  Seeing the volume of people willing to protest at places like Tahrir likely reduced an individual’s perceived level of risk in initiating such an activity on their own. (See Gladwell’s Point #2 above.)  While this doesn’t necessarily confirm Gladwell’s point reference “not asking too much” of social media contacts, it definitely makes it more difficult to refute as well.

Wael Ghonim

As for organization, social media revolutionaries faired poorly after Mubarak’s fall.  As predicted by Gladwell (See Gladwell’s Point #3 above), those heroes of social media so applauded for bringing about the Arab Spring failed to mobilize, organize, collaborate, devise strategy and achieve real change.  Not to disparage Wael Ghonim who did undertake great acts during Egypt’s protests, but his premature book illustrates the aura emitted by many social media ethusiasts that democracy consists of nothing more than tweets, protests and ballots.  Nothing is more emblematic of the social media generation’s challenges than the title of this New York magazine article entitled “The Lonely Battle of Wael Ghonim” which details his struggles in rallying change in Egypt – a place he spends only about half of his time.  This is not to beat up on Wael Ghonim, he did not seek to be an opposition leader nor does he really appear to want that position – which only further reinforces Gladwell’s point in some ways, no one wants to lead the change they so passionately tweet about.  Ghonim himself arrives at a similar point in the New York article.

“The DNA of the revolution was that there was no one who said, ‘Go back down the streets now’ or ‘Go back to your homes now,’” Ghonim says. For a while, he had believed categorically that this is what had given the revolution its power. Now he is more circumspect. “The lack of leadership in the revolution, we’ll see whether that was the best thing for the revolution or the worst thing. History will judge.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s temporary success in the vacuum of Egypt’s 2011 ousting of Mubarak further supports Gladwell’s argument.  The Muslim Brotherhood capitalized on its many years of building strong-ties (physical relationships) through grass roots campaigns building organizations at the local level and at times providing social services to those ignored or shunned by the government (See Gladwell Point #1 above).  While social media successfully coordinated protests, the Muslim Brotherhood actually propelled a revolution in Egypt through personal connections – a revolution that turned out to be more Islamist than democratic. 

This post seeks not to punish social media zealots (although they probably deserve a little bit of it) nor further defend or advertise for Malcolm Gladwell (I’m quite certain his literary agent has that covered). I don’t particularly care who the winner is in this inconsequential contest. Instead, I wanted to do what social media and modern society both seem to do very poorly – reflect on some of the lessons of recent history. 

For me, the first takeaway is that social media cannot be a substitute for activism, but it can be a complement.  As seen by the successes of the Obama Presidential campaign of 2008, social media really hits its activism stride when it converts weak-ties into strong-ties.  The Obama campaign didn’t only create awareness about its campaign via social media but actively used weak-tie, virtual communication to mobilize supporters to attend physical meetings (Meet-ups) where strong-tie connections could be made and organizations can be assembled.  For those seeking to advance the use of social media for peaceful activism, they will find far greater success, I believe, in connecting virtual activism to physical activism through real human organizations rather than excessively spending their energy further optimizing content for search engines or trying to increase online dissemination by seeking out more ‘friends’, ‘followers’, ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’.  The conclusion of the New York magazine article on Wael Ghonim says he is working with some friends in Cairo to create an advocacy group – a promising step in the right direction.

My second takeaway speaks more to the social media generation as a whole.  While I don’t want to pile on the Millennial generation that’s taken quite a beating in recent years, the Arab Spring’s social media shortcomings are not isolated to Egypt.  Recent Facebook and Twitter (faux) outrage over the applications of drones, allegations of NSA spying revealed by Edward Snowden, risks from natural gas extraction, abuses in the U.S. prison system or even larger issues such as the disastrous implications of climate change have periodically spurred social media activism.  Yet few if any forms of physical activism have surfaced.  Grass roots organizations protesting in mass for the change of government policy have rarely occurred and actual changes in policy resulting from activism are far scarcer.

Why? Because Revolution-From-Home and Bring-Your-Own-Device-To-Protests strategies don’t create change.  We’ve developed a society where it’s trendy and acceptable to support issues with our thumbs, but not with our feet. The only recent example of moderate activism success might be the Occupy Movement, which further emphasizes the importance of building personal connections for issue endurance (which they accomplished), but more importantly leadership, organization and objectives for actually achieving something (which they failed to accomplish, famously mocked by Stephen Colbert). For the social media generation, it turns out that if you want to actually make change on issues you are passionate about, you’ll have to take out your earphones and actually talk to the person next to you in line at Starbucks and hold off a few hours before live streaming a TV show so you can go with your friends to that rally about reducing student loan debt.  You won’t be able to simply tweet your way through a revolution, but you might be able to tweet where to meet to get it started.