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Posted 26 June, 2011 by Christopher Wilson

Considering Digital Impact

Marc Lynch, arguably the seminal political scientist on digital media in Arab politics, has just come out with an excellent essay on how we ought to consider digital media’s impact on state/citizen relations in the wake of the Arab  spring (After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State–the journal is behind a paywall, see some commentary here).  The essay uses Egyptian examples to sketch his understanding of the information ecology in which digital activism and political power struggles necessarily occur. Like Zeynep Tufekci, Lynch has argued for an ecological understanding of digital media impact at conferences (a la Star Wars and a la Americana), but this is the first time I have seen the argument laid out schematically, and it is very useful:

The stylized debate between optimists and skeptics has reached its limit. Social media played an important role at key moments in the unfolding of those revolutionary events, but they did so within a context shaped by older media such as al-Jazeera, by political anger over heavily manipulated elections, and by material changes such as a rapidly deteriorating economic situation. …I consider four distinct ways by which the new media can be seen as challenging the power of Arab states: (1) promoting contentious collective action; (2) limiting or enhancing the mechanisms of state repression; (3) affecting international support for the regime; and (4) affecting the overall control of the public sphere.

The framework is especially useful for the concrete set of research questions he sets out in answering. With the attention that the Egyptian “revolution” continues to command, I am sure that these and other analyses will support the current trend of thoughtful research that moves beyond questioning whether media platforms cause or support revolution.  And while academic debate seems increasingly inclined towards an ecological perspective, popular and aid discourses continue to flounder in a pit of simple polemics. Lynch’s essay provides a sturdy and accessible enough scaffolding for the climb out. This too is important.

Lynch explains each of the four modalities in detail, through examples drawn from the Egyptian uprising and transition. Disregarding a couple of lazy asides (for example, that the “Internet may prove to be poor at building warm social networks and trust that are the heart of civil society,” when discussing mobilization in [1]), he demonstrates clearly and convincingly why simple questions of causality are not useful. It is also clear that the Egyptian context provides exceptionally fertile ground for this discussion. This is less because digital activism has had such obvious (though questionable) impact, and due more to the large number of highly visible examples examples that this highly wired movement has produced.

Yet little attention is paid to the ongoing activities of the Egyptian protest movement.  Lynch’s essay is helpful in complicating how we understand the contributions of a digitally networked social movement,and ultimately his thesis on the distinction between the contexts of opposition and governance will likely prove a bitter truism.

[…] while social-media-based forms of political organization may be effective at mobilizing and channeling leaderless challenges to authoritarian states, since they do not have the usual array of party elites available for repression or co-optation, at the same time these political tools have major weaknesses when the time comes for negotiating the terms of democratic transition (especially in pacted transitions) and especially for dealing with the enormous challenges of governing in the wake of a change of regime.

Some thoughtful commentary has pointed to this disjunction, but not nearly enough attention is paid to how the Egyptian protest movement is actually evolving. It is telling that Lynch’s examples are dominated by the pre Feb 11 period, and that he allows himself an widely-shared enthusiasm for Egypt’s politico-wired youth. This analysis only jives with post-revolution political realities in the most abstract of terms.

The confident, wired youth of Tahrir Square embody this vision of new competencies aggregating into political change. By becoming producers of information and circumventing the editorial control of state censors and mass media outlets, these individuals will become new kinds of citizens, better able to stand up to the instruments of state control. Their horizons extend beyond the nation-state, and they demonstrate great impatience with the traditional “red lines” of Arab politics. Deborah Wheeler argues that transformative power of the Internet lies in these youth: “their sheer weight as a social force, their innovative communication strategies and Internet savvy, as well as the fact that youth sub-cultures contain the seeds of future social norms.”

This enthusiasm is of course contagious (just ask Spain), and is largely justified. There is something distinct about the potential and efficacy of digital resistance, and there is something powerfully inspiring about the Egyptian narrative.  More importantly, it should be possible to maintain this enthusiasm for the democratic potential of the digital, while acknowledging and addressing the political shortcomings of wired movements. Egypt is also a fertile context for attempting to reconcile the two. Had Lynch’s essay been scaled to do more than introduce a 4 point framework, it would have benefited from a close look at the efficiency and impotence that now characterize the “confident, wired youth of Tahrir.”

Egypt’s wired advocates are in a tough spot. The ruling military council (SCAF) has largely maintained an authoritarian approach to governance, and has not been shy about violence or repression.  It is noteworthy that this has not inhibited a core group of digital activists from mobilizing with as much dedication, determination and inspiring aptitude as they did during the revolution. And while they seem to have perfected their game when it comes to mobilizing protests and releasing jailed activists, this has had little observable impact on how the country is governed generally.

It is hard to see how revolutionaries will manage to scale the wall that SCAF has erected around governance. As a point of departure, it is worth thinking carefully and structurally about the failure to connect, and what it implies for how we understand the impact of digital activism.

1 thought on “Considering Digital Impact”

Dear Mr. Wilson;
My name is Melissa Moubarak and I am a Masters student of Political Economy at the London School of Economics. The recent collective action phenomenons that have characterized the Arab Spring revolutions have greatly interested me and as a result I would like to write my dissertation on the subject.

Specifically; I would like to further study the quantitative effect of social (digital) media on the turnout of the protests in context of a collective action theory point of view. The data that your team has been able to gather seems to respond to many questions I am asking and as a result I would really appreciate access to your full questionnaires and data on TDS-a to use as a base for my research. All usage will be of course subject to copyright and full citation of references. I would greatly appreciate your reply on the matter as soon as possible since my dissertation is due by the end of August.

Please feel free to contact me on m.moubarak@lse.ac.uk
Thank you in Advance

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