The Middle East’s latest unrest has revived once again a tired debate about the power of social media.
Recent headlines gush about the arrival of the “Facebook Revolution” or “Twitter Diplomacy.” Critics like Evgeny Morozov respond by noting that the influence of new media has been exaggerated by a press enthralled with “techno-utopianism.” Social media enables fast coordination, critics say, not the narrative or resolve necessary to sustain a movement; flashmobs do not a political organization make.
But to state the obvious — that Facebook cannot replace good old-fashioned activism — is not to say much about what Facebook actually does in a place like Egypt. What does it do?
Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent critique of cyber-activism, argued that the problem with Facebook and its kin is that social networks are only good at certain small tasks that draw on weak social ties. You can easily get a million people to sign up for a cause — but that cause is just as likely to be “Save Darfur” as it is to be the “Foundation for the Protection of Swedish Underwear Models.” Social media tools cannot supplant the kind of organizing required by, say, the civil rights movement. Social media tools, Gladwell says, “are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”
But what if revealing the status quo is enough to change it?
Psychologists have long known about a phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance — situations in which people keep their true preferences private because they believe their peers do not or will not share their beliefs. In 1975, the sociologist Hubert O’Gorman showed that pluralistic ignorance was to blame for the false perception white Southerners had that their peers overwhelmingly supported segregation.
In such situations, rapid shifts in behavior can occur with the mere introduction of information about actual peer preferences. Acting on this authority — the authority of one’s peers — is a powerful phenomenon. Studies have shown that the extent to which we are willing to litter, or to lower our energy use, is tied to our perception of what our peers are doing. Merely knowing about social dynamics changes social dynamics.
Health experts have used this insight to fight binge drinking. Studies on the Princeton campus revealed that a majority of students did not like to binge drink, but they wrongly believed themselves to be in the minority. So rather than urge students not to binge drink, health officials revealed the fact that a majority of students do not like binge drinking — and they had college students convey the message. Information about peer preferences, conveyed by peers, is a powerful influence on our behavior.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s illegitimacy has long been the family secret. Few dared to speak out for fear that their peers would not show up.
Here, then, is the power of Facebook. Not only does social networking give demonstrators a tool for quick coordination, but it reveals important information about peer preferences. It offers a platform to say “you are not alone; see you in Tahrir Square.” And tipping points can be as tiny as a tweet. That small, silly act is what in politics we call solidarity. It is the basis for all social movements.
This is not to say that a Facebook-organized street protest — even one with thousands of members demanding revolution — is enough to overthrow a government, or that Facebook deserves all the credit for doing so. Political movements still require tight organization.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which was hailed as the first great social-media campaign, and also credited with the greatest command-and-control campaign discipline in recent memory. Social networks are supposed to be good at getting people to take little steps — pledges, small donations — not national revolutions. Yet, the Obama campaign put a black man in the White House. How can this be?
The answer is that his campaign organizers managed the relationship between the vertical and the horizontal. They relied on networks for what networks are — a messy, decentralized source of small donations and online pronouncements, which their campaign headquarters then harnessed for their political value. That meant letting the network speak for itself: millions of Americans tweeting “Yes We Can.”
Of course, great movements require great leaders. That’s why the leadership vacuum in the Middle East is so politically electric, and why Tunisia is still a mess.
The crucial question, in Egypt as in Yemen and Tunisia, has little to do with Twitter’s availability. It is whether a galvanizing figure will step forward and seize this opportunity to lead, or remain in the crowd, just another decentralized node in the network.
By Andrew K. Woods, a Climenko Fellow at Harvard Law School and co-editor of the forthcoming book, Understanding Social Action, Promoting Human Rights.