Author Malcolm Gladwell told Fareed Zaharia on the terrific new CNN program Global Public Square (GPS) that social media role in Mideast uprisings was “overhyped.” He pointed to successful revolutions that took place pre-Facebook, in particular the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany where 1.5 million people protested without the help of the internet. Zaharia’s own perceptive analysis of the past 15 years of changes emphasized broadcast news as much as new information and networking tools.
Gladwell’s right, there have been other revolutions. But that was then and this is now. I took part in a terrific discussion organized by ICT4D last week at John Hopkins SAIS about how social media was used in Egypt that suggested Gladwell may not be looking at all the new factors.
Analyzing social media in the Mideast, “It’s not what you see, it’s what you don’t see,” said Amira Maaty of NED. She was joined by Katherine Maher of NDI and Jeff Ghannam, author of a not-to-be-missed special report on the rise of social media in this region. Ghannam rightly reminds those of us getting giddy about these events that hundreds of Egyptian social media activists were persecuted long before the January demonstrations.
From what I can see, a combination of elements produced this combustion:
- Outrageous official corruption — Mustapha Nabli, the new Tunisia Central Bank Governor, and many others have repeatedly and specifically said that this was the spark in multiple countries.
- The huge demographic shift to a youthful population — half under 24 years.
- Media transformation with widespread availability of Arabic language broadcast media such as Al Jeerza interacting with low cost social media tools that young people understood better than their authoritarian elders.
- Breathtakingly rapid events and on-line organizing post-Tunisia – hours and days and weeks not months and years.
- The scale of the communication – the sheer volume of tweets, videos, blogs, broadcasts from Al Jeerza and so on overwhelmed the police state.
- Finally, smart, dedicated activists and brave citizens who used all these factors strategically to facilitate political events that were impossible even a few years ago.
Which was the spark and which the fuel? Who knows. Who cares? I know a few of the Libyans expats working 24/7 to communicate, organize, influence and plead for a new era. And let me tell you, they are living and breathing radio, email, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and of course Al Jeezra. Did social media make all this happen? No, the people did. But does new media, including broadcast, make possible the impossible, and at an affordable price? Yes. Of course it does. For now.