Social Media. Good for Revolution. Bad for Democracy?

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Prior to the MENA uprisings, Clay Shirky wrote an article published in Foreign Affairs titled “The Political Power of Social Media.” This piece although significantly shorter than either of his two books Here Comes Everybody or Cognitive Surplus, explains Shirky’s thinking on the role of social media in relation to democracy, and/or the possibility of people powered revolutions which leverage this technology for change. Unlike *Here Comes Everybody *in this article Shirky strikes a more cautious tone, while arguing that social media technologies are transformative and ultimately a net gain for those seeking social change, there is a recognition that digital media can also be used for ill, and might pose its own set of problems as a means to restructure power.

Shirky’s claim is still that digital technologies fundamentally alter a society which uses them, a claim I agree with (indeed I agree with Deen Freelon’s grouping and characterization of positions). Social media allow people to synchronize beliefs and coordinate actions in a way and on a scale not previously possible. What interests me about this article though is not necessarily its central claim that social media pose a unique set of problems for abusive hierarchical power structures, and that increasingly it will be harder to both censor these technologies in an effort to resist change and participate in the global economy, but rather a question that arises out of this proposition. As part of its coverage of the MENA uprisings, the Wall Street Journal conducted a short conversation with Shirky asking him to elaborate on this article and his thinking about the ongoing revolutions. This interview is particularly informative because the interviewer, Alan Murray, is skeptical of Shirky’s claims and presses him on a few central propositions and ideas.

The most interesting moment though comes at 14 minutes and 30 seconds into the video and lasts for about six minutes. At this point Murray accepts that social media can empower revolutions and instead shifts his questioning to whether or not social media can produce stability. That is, while social media might be good at yielding uprisings, is it good at producing a stable democratic power structure? At the first take, Shirky sidesteps the question responding that the real question is whether of not democracies are stable, but eventually they get back to this point. So, if we accept that social media (even if just for the sake of argument) empowers revolutionary or resistance movements, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they enable the installation of stable power structures. It could be the case that a social movement which empowered by the use of social media actually hinders the formation of stable power structures. It isn’t really a matter of does democracy produce stability, rather a question of whether or not social media enables the construction of a democracy, or slightly different even if revolutions which utilize social media perhaps yield a different form of governance and power distribution. It is entirely possible that one could get an unstable democracy.

In the Egyptian case this is often framed around the terms of the Muslim Brotherhood. While it is clear that the protests were not led by the brotherhood there is a significant concern that the Egypt revolution would yield a power vacuum allowing another autocratic regime to take power. While these technologies might be very effective at altering power dynamics or accelerating social unrest, long lasting social stability is by no means a given. One can see how this fear is warranted when we look at the characterization of the Egypt revolution as leaderless, or people led. As Shirky points out during the early days of the Egyptian revolution ElBaredi returns to Egypt and tries unsuccessfully to instill himself as the leader of the movement. This is not to suggest that there were not leaders of the revolution (this is a debate that I think will need more analysis) but rather there were not leaders in place as we typically recognize them. This became even more clear when the regime wanted to try and negotiate with the protestors-there was no leader with whom to negotiate.

This is also one of the central concerns surrounding the debate about the timing of the elections. Many Egyptians feared that a quick election would favor The Muslim Brotherhood or civic institutions which already possessed at least a small amount of organization and ability to mobilize, while harming the more fractioned less developed groups. Without established political parties it is perhaps difficult to have a democracy operate as we currently understand it.

Indeed this was a question that came up during the Theorizing the Web panel I was on last April. Both Henry Farell and Marc Lynch mentioned something about this concern, the lack of preexisting political or civic groups which could help to shape the public sphere/discussion in a way that it is important for a functioning democracy and election. I opined at the time that while some groups (like the Muslim Brotherhood) might have wanted a short term horizon for the election, believing it favored them, and others might have wanted a longer horizon in order to organize, that there might have been another response from the loosely organized groups (the ones that relied on social media) and that would be to push for an even shorter term election, where the ability to organize on Facebook and via other social media might serve as a serious advantage. (I’m not sure this is at all the case, but I definitely think it is worth considering.)

While generally I am a cautious optimist when it comes to the question of does social media enable people to resist and coordinate against oppressive regimes (more on the side of Shirky on this, less on the side of Morozov), I am far more skeptical on the question of whether or not social media powered revolutions yield stability. They might be really good in the short term, but the attributes which make social media powerful in the short term, might also be a hindrance in the long term, not so good at long lasting stability.

One way to frame this problem is to think of it in terms of counter-power versus anti-power (not my frame I have borrowed this from several authors I have been reading lately). Counter-power is a way of resisting and overcoming a current power structure by opposing it with another sort of power. These power relations might be symmetrical or asymmetrical but what is at stake in this type of conflict is replacing one power structure with another. I think in the majority of revolutionary conflicts we can see this type of resistance, where another group, not the one currently holding power attempts to replace or unseat the current one. This type of power alignment doesn’t even necessarily constitute itself through violent resistance, one can thing of the Democrats versus Republicans, legal battles, or revolutionary conflicts. The notion of anti-power though is slightly different, where the effort is to resist the current power structure not through some sort of affirmative replacement, destroy this with that, replace this with that, but rather an effort to just undo the current system. Anti-power is a little easier to build a coalition around, the framing issue is resistance to the current structure as opposed to counter power whereby a group not only shares the idea that the current power ought to be replaced but a shared agenda of what ought to replace it.

As Joss Hands points out in @ is for Activism the oft cited example of the “People Power Protest II” in the Philippines, the one coordinated and fostered by text message, was actually an example of counter power as it was supported by, enabled by, and encouraged by anti-Estrada members of government. In this case the movement had a clear organizational structure, not only to remove Estrada but to replace him with Arroyo. (I realize the history and story here is more complicated, but I am more interested in the framing that Hands provides.) The point here is that one power structure was replaced by another which had a clear sense of how to fill the power vacuum.

In the case of Egypt the movement seems to me more constituted by anti-power, get rid of the current regime, and less around any other institution replacing the existing one. In other words there was no part of the movement ready to take power once Mubarak was ousted. In the late stages of the protest this struck me as one of the issues, no one person or group or even diverse group of people had the ability to negotiate with the government. The protestors were clearly saying no to Mubarak but what kind of power they were saying yes to was less than clear. Now this kind of frame for thinking about protests is not particular to social media, indeed you could have counter power or anti power via a range of media. But I do think that the speed and organizational structure of social media probably lends itself to being easily used as a force for anti-power, an easy way to organize a massive “no,” but deciding on the next step might be the more tricky part. And again I think this next part, what power comes next, isn’t a unique problem to this media landscape, but I do think it is worth considering the possibility that while social media might be particularly useful for organizing and coordinating people to resist power, acting as a destabilizing force, the very factors that make it so useful in this regard might make it less useful, indeed counter productive to (or at least it might require conscious reworking/re-engineering, for example how to resist the accelerating forces which are good for resistance but an anathema to slow deliberative democracy) democratic organization.

Clearly there are a lot of forces in play now in Egypt, and reducing the current power vacuum and political power struggle to an effect of social media would be ridiculous. But, I do think it is worth considering the ways in which an anti-power resistance movement struggles to reconstitute itself as power. And in the case of Egypt I think we are seeing how this plays out. At the Theorizing the Web panel Mark Lynch made the counter point to this, suggesting that because the younger generation had practice in organizing and utilizing social media tools that in the long term it might actually lead to greater participation and a healthier public sphere. That the young individuals who compromised a significant piece of the revolutionary anti-power might in the first election prove less than organized, without a leader, in the second election cycle they would clearly use the tools, techniques, civic institutions and political awareness to shape that election.

The answers to these questions will only come after the power struggles have played out, and what is happening in Egypt is different from Tunisia. From listening to protestors and the citizens of Egypt there is evidence to suggest that the people are moving away from anti-power and towards forming a stable government, resisting attempts of other autocrats to consolidate power, maintaining the strong political engagement of Tahrir Square.

I do however think it is important to separate these two parts of the question, social media as power resisting platform and social media as power consolidating platform. My suspicion is that social media itself is heterogenous to the way that governments and bureaucratic institutions organize power, thus making it difficult for social media enabled revolutions to fill a power vacuum that they are so good at creating.