Role of social media in revolutions questioned

By Jacob Anderson

The role of social media in this year’s Middle East revolutions has been exaggerated, according to a panel of experts speaking at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on March 1st. Television, they said, probably played a greater role than Twitter.

The panelists addressed the question of whether events in Egypt and Tunisia constitute “Twitter revolutions.” Their general consensus seemed simple: no.

Hala Halim, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, said she finds the popular claim that media enables revolutions condescending.

“This narrative puts the cart before the horse,” Halim said, asserting that revolutions are fueled by real people, with real desires and emotions, who then utilize tools like Twitter and Facebook.

Jack Snyder, professor of International Relations at Columbia, was also skeptical of social media’s purported influence. Revolutions, he said, have occurred in a variety of technological landscapes. In France in 1848, information was communicated through newspapers and word of mouth, he said. Cassette tapes were the medium of choice for the 1979 Iranian revolution. Moreover, he added, the attempted revolution in Iran in 2009 employed social media, and yet it did not succeed.

Snyder said in some cases the tables are turned, and it is revolutions that inspire technological advancements. In the original French Revolution of 1789, there were four newspapers before the storming of the Bastille. After, there were around 500, he said.

Halim said she finds all the talk linking Twitter and Facebook with the uprisings to be egocentric, as though the revolutions in the Arab world were enabled exclusively by Western technology.

She said she sensed the same paternalism after the September 11th attacks, when the sentiment about how the terrorists used technology to organize themselves was lamented. Then, it was “woe to us, we gave them the media,” Halim said.

Three of the four panelists explicitly stated that television probably played a more significant role than social media in the uprisings. Anne Nelson, a professor of international relations at Columbia University who writes about new media, said people have not emphasized the role of Al Jazeera television enough. Muhsin al-Musawi, professor of Arabic Literature at Columbia University, recalled seeing a woman in Egypt on TV, victoriously thanking Tunisia and Al Jazeera in the same breath for inspiring her country’s revolution.

Snyder succinctly summed up the sentiment on where to give credit for the uprisings this way:

“Al Jazeera is probably the place to look.”

Leave a Reply