Media That Moves Millions

Social media may be protesters' favorite weapon, but new research on Syria's revolution shows it can do as much harm as good.


Three years to the month since protests swept across the Middle East, the new year once again sees peaceful demonstrators facing off against hardened and sometimes violent security forces, this time in the Ukraine. And like in the Arab Spring, social media is being said to play a significant and potentially decisive role in empowering Euromaidan protesters in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a decade ago.

While the world watches the Ukraine protests unfold, however, the narrative of how social media helped fuel democratic protests during the Arab Spring is undergoing a major revision. The democratic gains of early 2011 have proven largely ephemeral. Initial optimism about the future of the region’s women and youth has dampened, and generalized violence plagues countries once thought to be on the cusp of a brighter future, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

So what is the role and power of digital media in movements for peace and democracy? In contrast to three years ago, we have a lot more data and evidence now that we can use in trying to answer this question. And according to our research, the importance and uniformity of social media in these uprisings has been both overstated and vastly oversimplified.

Following the violently suppressed mass protests of the 2009 "Green Revolution" in Iran, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication began a multi-year effort to better understand the role of new media and internet communication technologies (ICTs) in protest movements, peace, and war. The resulting "Blogs and Bullets" research program has produced four reports (the previous ones can be found here, here, and here), with the latest — which analyzes more than 38 million tweets in a study of social media in the Syrian civil war — released Jan. 13.

In it, we found the role of technology can’t be examined one-dimensionally. Rather, we applied five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention. How we think about social media’s role in the Arab Spring, for instance, could depend on whether we are asking how gruesome images of a murdered Khaled Saeed mobilized individual Egyptians to join the Tahrir Square protests; or why Facebook appears to have been effective for organizing the various Egyptian social movements, but failed to do so in Yemen; or how the Syrian government and other regimes tracked protesters through their digital footprints; or whether in an era of the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) doctrine, which compels the international community to protect populations when their own governments can’t or won’t, Twitter’s ability to spread the word about regime violence can pressure the international community to act.

Digital media, especially social media, are increasingly part of protest movements’ toolkit for combating regime violence and information monopolies. That said, the initial claims of cyber-media power in these so-called "internet revolutions" appear to have been vastly overstated. Contrary to claims early on in the Arab Spring in 2011, for example, our research shows that Twitter played only a minor role in both in-country and regional mobilization — there did not appear to be any "democracy domino" effect, as evidenced not only by our data but by the durability of autocratic regimes across the region. Somewhat ironically, arguments about the import of new media mirror similarly overstated claims about traditional media’s power decades ago.

Similarly, although there is a logic to the argument of the "dictator’s dilemma" — the idea that 21st-century authoritarian regimes must embrace ICTs in order to prosper, though these same technologies can also be used by protest movements to undermine and even overthrow them — it would be foolhardy to underplay the ability of regimes to use these same technologies to spread misinformation and target opposition figures for persecution or worse. This was as true in 2009 in Iran as it is today in Syria.

There are, however, ways in which social media serve the crowd much better than the regimes they oppose. Our data suggest that Twitter may have been particularly effective in spreading information outside the region during the early months of the Arab Spring protests. In theory, this could have important ramifications for bringing international pressure to bear on authoritarian regimes to avoid wanton violence. It could also prevent the world from turning a blind eye to genocide and mass bloodletting, especially given the international community’s embrace of the R2P doctrine. Some suggest that social media’s reporting of the impending annihilation of Benghazi by former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi helped prod Barack Obama’s administration to spearhead the international intervention that not only prevented the massacre, but also led to Qaddafi’s overthrow.

As others have noted in studies of online political discourse in the United States, we found social media — especially Twitter, where a lot of our data come from — to be increasingly factionalized, especially about the Syrian civil war. Like similar claims regarding traditional media in some idealized Enlightenment-inspired public sphere, arguments that new media bring ideologically diverse people together aren’t entirely false but are probably overstated. In fact, these media may create self-reinforcing information bubbles. Whether these ideological cocoons exacerbate and inflame differences, serve as empowering mobilization tools, or some combination of the two, is still less clear.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of the "Blogs and Bullets" series, however, is that scholars, activists, and policymakers must avoid over-generalizing about the strengths — and limitations — of digital media. Not all new media have the same functions and effects, nor does one case necessarily provide lessons for the next. Perhaps the most under-looked but critical finding about these relatively young media is that their role, influence, and significance today may not be the same tomorrow — assuming the medium in question still exists then.

Our new study on the Syrian crisis illustrates these points in many ways. For instance, Twitter’s use and impact evolved tremendously from the early months of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the early stages of the Syrian crisis — when it was an important shared site of information — to the period after the medium began allowing Arab-language tweets and hashtags. At that point, we found, the Syria-related Twittersphere became much more factionalized, especially within the region.

The English-language Twittersphere used primarily by Western journalists became largely cut off from this vast, contested, and arguably more informative Arab-language counterpart. This has profound implications for understanding the strengths and limitations, and even myopia, of Western journalism and its potential influence on policymakers and international public opinion. 

These findings are similar to what others are finding with the current Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. New York University’s Megan Metzger and her colleagues found that, prior to the violent police crackdown in early December, much of the tweeting around the protests was in English. But during and after the crackdown, tweets switched to Ukrainian and Russian as protesters began using the medium more for spreading information and organizing responses internally.

In the same way that scholars over the decades have found different functions and effects for, say, newspapers versus television, it’s becoming increasingly clear that different ICTs have different effects. We have better evidence for Twitter than Facebook for a variety of reasons, but the former appears to be a better tool for spreading information and real-time surveillance, whereas the latter can be more effective for organization and collective action under the proper circumstances.

These tentative conclusions are hampered, however, by a key problem researchers have in understanding digital media’s role in peace and protest (one outlined in our very first "Blogs and Bullets" report): Too often, we simply don’t have access to good data, or, conversely, the tools for properly analyzing what can be an overwhelming amount of data. Facebook, in particular, has been difficult to understand because of a combination of legitimate privacy concerns and the company’s proprietary control over its data.

There is also this: Punditry, policymaking, and scholarship can all suffer from the same problem of assuming the world is defined by what we happen to be looking at. If we’re excited about social media, we tend to see every problem through that microscopic lens. In fact, though, whether movements are successful and whether regimes fall undoubtedly has far more to do with age-old, systemic, structural, historical, political, and socio-cultural reasons than with what media tools happen to be in vogue at that time.

Why did the regime in Egypt fall but that in Bahrain didn’t? Certainly not because of social media. Will Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement succeed? It’s unclear, but its prospects hinge far more on, say, the opposition party’s strength (or lack thereof) and the historically predicated regional divisions within the country than they do on Facebook. Will Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be overthrown? The abundant research on civil wars doesn’t have a definitive answer, but it does suggest that we may be in for a long, bloody haul, and that whatever happens, the next phases promise to be messy and decidedly undemocratic, as we’ve seen in Egypt and Libya.

Indeed, a look around the world in early 2014 might justify a skepticism bordering on pessimism about digital media’s ability to spur successful movements for peace and democracy. Despite early euphoria, Egypt is not only descending back into military-backed autocracy, but recent reports rank it as the worst place in the region to be a woman. Syrian rebel groups not only use YouTube to reveal regime atrocities, but to celebrate their own. And looking back at a hopeful post from late 2011 predicting 13 social media-led revolutions by 2015, one can’t help but notice that most of the authoritarian figures cited remain in power, and not one was deposed amidst a revolutionary movement.

That said, a closer, more sober look at digital media’s impact reveals the value of these tools. They do, for instance, make it more difficult for regimes to hide their abuses, both from their own citizens and from the international community. Some social media, especially Facebook, seem particularly effective at various forms of organizing, including raising funds, connecting to important Diaspora communities, announcing future protests, and perhaps even engendering a sense of community and empowerment amongst followers. Scholars and activists are increasingly finding creative uses of digital ICTs, such as Ushahidi, for creating greater security and accountability in poverty-stricken areas plagued by problems like graft and police abuse.

Overall, there is no question that digital media have created a richer information environment than that provided solely by traditional media. In fact, our research and that of other scholars shows not only that new media can act as a corrective to the limitations of old media, but also that the functions, roles, and influence of the two are increasingly blurred.

In the end, media of any sort are unlikely to have the transformative power some have claimed and many have hoped for. Yet there’s no question we live in a world that is more connected than ever before in human history, a fact that has enormous implications for mobilizing mass movements. It is therefore important, as we said in our first "Blogs and Bullets" report, "to find a proper balance between knee-jerk skepticism of technology’s promise and the techno-utopianism that too often plagues public discourse."

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