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<nettime> New Media and the People-Powered Uprisings
nettime's avid reader on Thu, 1 Sep 2011 19:58:44 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> New Media and the People-Powered Uprisings

New Media and the People-Powered Uprisings

Social media is a potent tool for change, one that upends the collective 
action dynamics that, until now, have constrained Arab citizens.

Zeynep Tufekci 08/30/2011


[Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of 
Maryland, Baltimore County. Her main research interests are the social 
impacts of technology, theorizing the web, gender, research methods, 
inequality, and social media. Her blog: technosociology.]

Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years while Muammar Gaddafi dominated 
Libya for nearly 42 years. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali reigned Tunisia for 24 
years, and the ousted, but not-yet-out Yemen leader Ali Abdullah Saleh has 
been in power since 1978â36 years and counting. Bashar al-Assad has ruled 
Syria since 2000, when he took over from his father's 30 year reign, making 
it 41 years of Assad rule.

By all accounts, these regimes are/were deeply unpopular. While we have no 
reliable polls from when these autocrats were in power (because they did 
not allow them), a post-Mubarak poll, for example, finds, that 66 percent 
of Egyptians want him executed if convicted. When asked to describe his 
regime, the top choice of Egyptians is "Dictator" (48 percent) followed by 
"Corrupt" (46 percent). The real question, then, is not why Mubarak or the 
others faced a revolt; rather, how did these tyrants succeed in holding on 
to power for so long? How can one man or a very small group hold on to 
power over millions for decade after decade?

It's certainly not for lack of bravery on the part of the citizens. As we 
witnessed, many people are willing to take a stand for freedom and dignity 
at considerable risk. And, as John Pollock's article, Streetbook, 
discusses, there had been demonstrations and even large labor strikes in 
the region-the April 6th youth movement in Egypt derives its name from the 
strike it was founded to support, and the Gafsa labor unrest in Tunisia was 
sizeable, but it lacked the national vision later protests would have. What 
are the mechanisms which allow for decades of "durable authoritarianism"? 
How does the new media ecology alter this equation?

The short answer is that these regimes survive mainly by creating a 
"collective action" problem for their citizenry and by playing "whack-a-
protest" to prevent cascades of action. (The long answer also includes 
networks of patronage, international power relations, sometimes natural 
resource wealth, and often ethnic and religious divisions).

"Collective action problems" arise when a problem can be solved only 
through cooperation by many, but when there are strong disincentives for 
any one individual to participate, especially if victory is not guaranteed. 
These problems can be seen as a society-level version of the "prisoner's 
dilemma," a well-studied model in game theory where two criminals in 
custody are told they will be allowed to go free if they confess and their 
partner doesn't or if neither confesses; however, they will be punished 
severely if their partner confesses and they don't. The logical option 
would be for both to "defect" and confess for fear the other one would; 
this seemingly logical outcome is actually to the detriment of both, who 
would have been better off if neither confessed.

A society-level collective action problem arises under an autocracy when 
costs of dissent are high for individuals and the means of organizing to 
overcome the dilemma are stifled. Thus, under autocracies, torture and 
arbitrary and lengthy prison sentences are not just expressions of 
capricious cruelty, but key mechanisms which allow these regimes to 
survive. When even a whiff of dissent is met with disproportionate 
response, this creates a strong disincentive for any individual to be among 
the first. And as Pollock's article demonstrates, "whack-a-protest," as 
exemplified by the Gafsa strike in Tunisia, 2008, allows these regimes to 
isolate and repress regions of unrest. Ben Ali's regime might have been 
cruel, but, like all states, it is a resource-constrained actor: it cannot 
be everywhere at once; it cannot arrest hundreds of thousands of people, 
and it cannot easily crush a mass uprising. Even if such an uprising can be 
crushed, often at great cost, tyrants certainly prefer a stable situation 
with a population that remains repressed and quiet while they plunder the 
country to a civil war. Thus, censorship and isolation of protests is a key 
mechanism of survival.

Collective action problems are hardest to crack if it's difficult for 
citizens to coordinate and communicate. Indeed, game-theorists have long 
known that communication between participants dramatically alters the 
dynamics of these "dilemmas" which appear rigged against the interests of 
the individuals. Indeed, "united we stand, divided we fall" is not just a 
corny motto, it's what arises from game theory calculations.

Another key dynamic is what's known as "preference falsification" to 
political scientists and "pluralistic ignorance" to social psychologists: 
when people privately hold a particular view but do not share it in fear of 
reprisal, punishment, or violating a social norm. In autocracies, this can 
cause a "spiral of silence" in which many wish for regime change, but are 
afraid to speak up outside of few trusted ties. Indeed, when I was in post-
Mubarak Cairo, my hosts kept pointing in amazement to various street 
corners where fierce political discussions were being held and often 
whispered, before remembering they could now speak up and adjusting their 
voice, "You never saw this. Nobody ever discussed politics openly, ever." 
Then they would pause and add, "Well, except online, of course. We all 
discussed politics online." And this is exactly what these autocrats had 
been able to stifle for many decades: an oppositional information/action 

Such a cascade doesn't just mean that people learn about each other's views
âit's reasonable that many knew that these regimes were unpopular. Cascades 
occur not just because of information, but also when people assess an 
opening and a reasonable chance of successâand as Pollock reports when 
"people realize[d] it was now or never." There are few moments more 
dangerous to an autocracy.

It is in this context Facebook "likes" of dissident pages such as "We are 
All Khaled Said," sharing of videos of regime brutality, online expressions 
of political anger, and acceptances of Facebook "invitations" to protest 
all matter as they help build a visible momentum which, itself, is a 
condition of success. A public is not created just because everyone 
individually holds an opinion but because there is multi-level awareness of 
other people's views leading to a spiral of action and protest. (I know 
that you know that I know that you know that we know ...).

That is why the new media ecology is a game-changer and that is exactly the 
process John Pollock's extensive on-the-ground reporting unravels. The new 
media ecology is not just the Internet but a potent combination of a 
politicized pan-Arab broadcast network, Al-Jazeera, mass diffusion of video 
and picture-capable cell phones, as well as social mediaâand all this in 
just a few years. Facebook in Arabic was introduced in March of 2009 and 
taken up quickly with about five million users in Egypt by the time the 
protests rolled around. As Pollock notes, there were only 28,000 Facebook 
users in Tunisia at the time of the Gafsa protests but there were more than 
a million when Bouazzizi committed his desperate act of self-immolation.

The very features of Facebook we sometimes gripe aboutâthat it does not 
make it easy to segment audiences; that it seems to be brimming with the 
trivial and the mundane (see Ethan Zuckerman's "Cute Cat Theory"); and that 
it enforces/fosters a norm of real identitiesâmade it an ideal platform for 
dissident politics under an autocracy (although, it increased risks for 
individual activists at times as in the case of Wael Ghonim). In Tunisia, 
Ben Ali censored all other platforms making Facebook even more potent as it 
became the de facto video sharing platformâand many people in the region 
tend to have large social networks online and offline. In fact, during my 
discussions in the region, I was repeatedly told that the norm was to 
"Facebook friend" all your cousins, people you met at work, people you met 
in weddings, outings, and elsewhere.

What more could a political activist wish for? Indeed, that is the ideal 
infrastructure to create the information/action cascade that Pollock's 
article so eloquently documentsâespecially since these regimes seemed 
unable to develop potent ways to deal with the political consequences of 
digitally enabled social networking (even at the end, all Mubarak could do 
was clumsily unplug the whole Internet which certainly was of fairly little 
importance by then: the uprising was well underway; the die was cast).

There has been a false debate. Was it social media or the people? Was it 
social media or the labor movements? Was it social media or anti-
imperialist movement? Was it social media or youth? These questions are 
wrong and the answer is yes. The correct question is how.

These categories are not logical equivalents: people, youth, labor, and 
other movements can and do use social media. These uprisings are an 
impressive demonstration of that very fact. Social media is not a movement, 
it's a tool and it certainly did not jump out of the screen and cause Ben 
Ali to flee. However, as Pollock's extensive reporting demonstrates, it can 
be a potent tool for social change and as I tried to summarize here, there 
are strong theoretical reasons to think it alters collective action 

Contrary to Malcolm Gladwell's flip assertion, repeated in the article that 
"surely the least interesting thing about [the protests] is that some of 
the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some 
of the tools of new media," the emergent media ecology is among the most 
important issues thrown up by this amazing wave of people-powered 
uprisings. This is not because the courage demonstrated by millions of 
people or the persistent efforts of activists for decades are unimportant. 
On the contrary, that will surely be remembered as among the most moving, 
amazing stories of the 21st century.

The new media question is interesting and important not just because this 
is an intellectual curiosity (which I'll admit to finding fascinating) and 
not because academics (which I'll admit to being ) need a subject to study, 
and not just because many authoritarian regimes remain in the world (which 
I'll admit to believing are threatened by digitally enabled political 
activism), but because the most complex, the most crucial problems humanity 
faces are collective action problems. These range from the health of our 
democracies to global warming, from financial and asset bubbles to social 
unrest. The very survival of our species may depend on finding a way to 
organize our way out of situations in which there is a strong conflict 
between individual incentives and collective goods within our 
hierarchically organized societies. I think that qualifies as important, 
and I believe the new media ecology will be an inevitable part of the 
solution; that is, if there is one, and our fragile species manages to find 

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