Marc Lynch

Twitter Devolutions

How social media is hurting the Arab Spring.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Tahrir Square launched a thousand dissertations on how social media drove the frenetic mobilization of the Arab Spring. Egyptian activists may rage at the notion that the revolution was driven by technology rather than by their determined efforts, but there’s a good case to be made that social media did matter — at least a bit — in shaping the uprisings across the Arab world. But the celebratory narrative about social media needs to be tempered by the reality of the struggles that have befallen most of these countries in transition. Whether or not Twitter made the Arab revolutions, is it now helping to kill them?

Don’t get me wrong — I love Twitter (that’s me at @abuaardvark). I rely on it for information and the unfiltered opinions of hundreds of Arab citizens every day, and I’ve written often about how new media forms affect politics — for good or for ill. The relentless spread of Internet access and social media use represents a genuine structural transformation in how political information flows in the Arab world, and it is only becoming more powerful as millions more Arab citizens come online. But if we take seriously social media’s role in the revolutions, how can we avoid asking tough questions about how it might have affected their aftermath?

It’s easy to understand why so many people saw "Facebook revolutions" and "Twitter revolutions" during the Iranian uprising of 2009 and the Arab uprisings of 2011. The outsized role of online activists, the reliance of many outsiders on Twitter for instant updates, and the undeniable immediacy of online information proved irresistible to academics and journalists alike. Casual observers felt an unprecedented connection with the activists they followed on Twitter. Meanwhile, academics had a multitude of good reasons to believe that new media forms were enabling radically new forms of political organization and communication that just had to matter. And it did! The effects of social media in facilitating opposition organization and shaping the coverage of protests in the mainstream media may have been at the margins. But much of politics is often waged in those margins.

But even then, many of us saw the potential problems. What should we think about social media today, when the early enthusiasm for the "Facebook revolutions" feels somewhat quaint? What about the difficult politics that followed the rapid fall of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak? What about the complaints that the world was fooled by the prominence of seemingly liberal, Westernized "Facebook youth" in revolutions that actually empowered very different forces? Should social media take some of the blame for the political disasters that have followed? If the Internet can claim partial credit for the timing and nature of the Arab uprisings, should it also take partial blame for some of the more negative trends of the last two years?

I wouldn’t want to take this too far, since there are plenty of completely ordinary, offline political explanations for the ongoing political turbulence in the transitional Arab countries, and plenty of examples of similar struggles in transitional countries long before the Internet allegedly changed everything. But a case can be made that new Internet-based social media has played a role in the post-uprising struggles in many Arab countries. With all those caveats in mind, here are a few ways in which social media has stumbled — and sometimes done more harm than good.

First, there’s the general tendency toward exaggeration and hyperbole, which has arguably cost Egyptian activists (in particular) a certain amount of credibility. There’s a reason why the catchphrases "it’s never as bad as it seems on Twitter" and "the Tahrir bubble" caught on. I still remember the first time I was driving around a perfectly calm, absolutely normal Cairo while reading a Twitter feed describing apocalyptic clashes and mayhem. So do a lot of others. Social media loves a crisis, and it loves morality tales with a clear good guy and bad guy — preferably identifiable in 140 characters. Don’t forget: The boy who cried wolf did actually end up watching his sheep eaten by wolves — he just couldn’t get anyone to believe him because he had exaggerated once too often.

Second, social media has proved more useful for mobilizing protesters than organizing civil society or political parties. The advantages conferred by new media are skewed toward action, enthusiasm, and loose, issue-oriented networks, not toward the hard, patient work of building organizations. Leaderless movements are great for surviving regime repression and binding together loose coalitions, but less well adapted to formulating a coherent political strategy or mobilizing millions of voters.

In places like Egypt, many of the protesters viewed themselves as the authentic voice of the street, imbued with the legitimacy of revolution and skeptical of anything short of radical change. Many had little interest in democracy, which inevitably requires compromise and empowered leaders who they quickly came to despise. The grind of preparing an election campaign lacked the thrill of street fighting — and elections tended to reveal that, despite having tens of thousands of Twitter followers, they in fact represented only small minorities of their society. The reality is that many of the protesters will be going to Tahrir five years from now, regardless of whether Egypt consolidates its democracy or the Muslim Brotherhood remains in power.

Third, a strong case can be made that the Internet has contributed to the dangerous polarization that now besets so much of the Arab world. Again, political conflict is driven more by real ideological differences, institutional uncertainty, genuine abuses, and reckless behavior than by anything that happens online. But those pressures seem to be reinforced by the tendency toward polarization and informational bubbles so commonly observed in online environments.

The interactions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online activists in Egypt could become the model case study for such dynamics. If you follow Egyptian activists on Twitter or on Facebook, you see every story that reflects badly upon the Brotherhood rapidly and uncritically shared, augmented, and disseminated; Islamists do the same to their rivals. While social media boosters envisioned the creation of a new public sphere based on dialogue and mutual respect, the reality is that Islamists and their adversaries retreat to their respective camps, reinforcing each others’ prejudices while throwing the occasional rhetorical bomb across the no-man’s land that the center has become. This becomes even more dangerous when outside policy analysts follow and take their cues from only one side of that polarized debate.

Fourth, one of the signal achievements of the dizzying first months of the Arab Spring — the unification of the Arab political space into a single narrative of popular revolt — has largely been reversed. In those first months, the entire Arab world was tweeting and sharing stories about Egypt, Yemenis borrowed slogans and signs from Tunisia, Jordanians anxiously watched Libya. Over the last year, this pan-Arab unity has palpably broken down. Part of this fragmentation was simply driven by the real stagnation in many of the local struggles: As revolution gave way to political trench warfare, people got bored. Many turned inward as Egyptian activists worried about the health of their own revolution rather than, say, Yemen’s.

Just as social media can encourage users to retreat to their ideological camps, it can also encourage a narrow geographic focus. Twitter enabled the integration of the narratives — but it didn’t demand it in the way that Al Jazeera once did by virtue of its commanding presence in the pan-Arab media. Facebook groups, even more than Twitter, tend to be national or even more local, fragmenting rather than unifying. That could be a positive trend, of course, if it leads to focused engagement with local political debates, relentless transparency, and demands for accountability, which democracy requires. But it comes at a cost to regional unity.

Fifth, negatives such as sectarianism, fear, and hatred spread as rapidly on social media as do more positive ideas. The success of the Tunisian revolution inspired Arabs everywhere to believe that victory was possible, and Egypt’s success convinced many that victory was inevitable. But the reverse also proved true. The bloodbath in Syria, like the horrors of Iraq in the mid-2000s, had a chilling effect on popular mobilization. By midway through 2011, it was already clear that the end of the story did not have to be partying in Tahrir Square — it might be butchered women and children littering the streets and massive dispossession and grief. The sectarian hatred and division fueled by the Syrian bloodshed flowed through social media just as effectively as the unifying message of the early Arab Spring.

Sixth, threatened regimes actively pushed back against these independent new public arenas. Bahrain most famously pioneered the active destruction of online discourse, becoming a model for how to pollute and destroy an online public sphere. At the height of its campaign of sectarian repression, Bahrain’s regime suddenly found thousands of online defenders, known as "eggs" (anonymous Twitter accounts with few followers and no clear identity), which hurled abuse at anyone who dared tweet about the country. At a certain point, many people simply stopped tweeting about Bahrain simply to avoid the trolls. Other challenged regimes took alternative measures, with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait all recently arresting and harassing citizens posting critical tweets.

Seventh, Syria really changed the online experience of the Arab Spring. Egyptian social media, even before the revolution, was populated by well-known individuals whose agenda had been clear for many years. This bred a certain level of trust inside the network, while outsiders new to the issues reveled in this newfound community (journalists, for their part, found social media an irresistible way to decide who to interview when they visited). Few had the same experience with the online Syrian activist community. Many Syrian activists were often anonymous, whether by necessity or choice. Some campaigned from the start for international military intervention, a politically divisive strategy.

Above all, Syria’s revolution has proved divisive, where Egypt’s and other uprisings tended to unify, at least at first. The experience of engaging on Syria on social media was more like engaging on famously unpleasant issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Lebanese politics than it was a warm community of shared interest that so many originally found in the Egyptian or Yemeni online communities.

Syrian activists also circulated extremely graphic videos of violence and warfare. There is something very different about scrolling through pictures and videos of unified, chanting Yemeni or Egyptian crowds demanding democratic change and waking up to a gory image of a headless 6-year-old girl on your Facebook news feed. Again, this reflected Syria’s reality — but that reality was amplified by social media. What’s more, for many months, the difficulty journalists faced getting access to Syria meant that these videos became the primary source of information about events for the mainstream media — but often with little disclosure or scrutiny about where those videos originated or what they really showed. Serious questions of credibility and verification have dogged these activist networks all along, despite their best efforts. Have they been concealing sectarian rhetoric, exaggerating the scale of participation in protests, distorting the nature of local violence?

Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook didn’t cause the Arab Spring on their own, and they aren’t alone to blame for its struggles. I continue to believe that the Internet and social media represent a profound change in the texture of Arab politics, shattering the monopoly over information and opinion upon which those authoritarian regimes depended. The net effects of the empowerment of diverse voices and the free flow of information strike me as positive. But if we believe in the transformative power of these changes, we really can’t avoid considering the negatives alongside the positives. And the current state of the Arab revolutions offers us far too many negatives from which to choose.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark