‘Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who has became a symbol of Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising after he launched the original Facebook page credited with sparking the initial protest, called the Egyptian upheaval, “Revolution 2.0.”
“If you want to liberate a country, give them the internet,” Ghonim said.’ (Gustin, 2011)
Up until very recently, I believed that social media was the root cause of the Arab Spring revolutions. Quite obliviously, I considered the terms ‘Twitter revolution’ and ‘Arab Spring’ to be interchangeable. However, Morosov’s 2011 Guardian article ‘Facebook and Twitter are just places revolutionaries go’ raised a number of points to prove why my prior opinions on the matter are problematic.
Rather than being the root cause of revolution, Morosov describes social media as mere communication tools. He says the importance of Facebook and Twitter in recent revolutions are overstated, resulting in the role of real-life workshops, organisations and street-activism engagement to be overlooked or entirely dismissed.
Another important point Morosov makes is that these ‘social media revolutions’ emphasise the role of tools and downplay human agency, which works in favour of Americans as it gives them something to feel proud of and feel as though they contributed to events in the Middle east. The West has widely perceived these uprisings as ‘spontaneous’ and not possible without Facebook, allowing the U.S. to feel somewhat responsible and deserving of credit to the Arab Spring. This is a troubled line of thinking, because as Morosov states, “if, of course, the uprising was not spontaneous and its leaders chose Facebook simply because that’s where everybody is, it’s a far less glamorous story.”
Evidently, communication is the point of social media, so it irks me to so blatantly obviously call Facebook and Twitter ‘just’ communication tools in the context of these revolutions. Agreeing with Popova (2010), I’d say that if something is creating awareness, it is the starting point of activism, which she defines as “any action or set of actions, be it organised, grassroots or self-initiated, that aims to resolve a problem that diminishes the quality of life of individuals, communities or society.”
There are a number of interpretations of social media’s role in revolutions, and I identify best with the ‘Idealist 2.0’. I believe that the revolutions were enabled by social media but this is not some cyber-utopian idealism, but because it is simply the result of new media allowing a new message to be spread. This is because as Mitew (2014) observes, the internet, and social media especially, works effectively for political change due it’s speed, scalable openness and ability to reach out to the masses.
While the web can breed a culture of ‘slacktivism’, I feel any attempts of activism online is an important starting point for any movement. Similarly, Popova says “we have ample evidence that the social web not only brings critical awareness to issues of humanitarian and ecological importance, but also incites action around them.”
Gustin’s (2011) response to the question “Did social media cause the revolution?” is a perfect way to sum up the debate. “No. But these tools did speed up the process by helping to organize the revolutionaries, transmit their message to the world and galvanize international support… It acts like an accelerant to conditions which already exist in the country. Twitter and YouTube serve as amplification for what’s happening on the ground.”