January was A New Hope, with Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star. Right now we are deep in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back, the rebels are on the run and things look pretty grim. And we all hope that the Return of the Jedi is next, and we get to see the dancing Ewoks. But the fear is that what is next is the Revenge of the Sith, where it turns out that the bad guys win and we have to wait another 20 years for the trilogy to start again.
So quips Marc Lynch in opening a seminar on “Tahrir and Beyond” at the 2011 Theorizing the Web Conference last weekend. Of all the dramatic representations, this is not a bad one. It certainly speaks to the raw narrative power of Tahrir. Lynch moved quickly on, however, making 2 important points in what turned out to be an uncommonly sober and considered discussion about how to conceptualise digital activism in the Egyptian uprising. (Though typically abstract, with Egyptian voices noticeably absent.)
Firstly, Lynch warned of the perennial mistake of trees and forests in considering digital activism, and made a pithy argument for ecological analysis over platform comparison. He made a point of restricting this to the Arab world, but I think his argument—that developments in information flows constitute a fundamental structural environmental change, impacting all other factors mobilizing social movements—holds generally. He was also right in suggesting that this structural shift is so fundamental that it is poses problems for its own analysis. This simplifies an argument elaborated by Dan McQuillan on hybrid communication frameworks in the Tahrir, and productively so. He finishes the point with something of a non sequitur about how the trope of diffusion is also misguided in the context of the Arab spring, because the Arab world today is increasingly a “unified communicative space” in which Arabs from one country identify themselves with Arabs in another country. I am not enough of an expert on the region to comment on this, but have seen some credible criticism of the discourse that represents the Arab world’s social inter-permeability.
Secondly, Lynch argues that we should think carefully about causal mechanisms, and with a reference to Bullets and Blogs, points to a false similarity between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. The Tunisian revolution, Lynch argues, is characterized by an “information availability cascade,” in which visible protest engagement by individuals performs an important signalling function to other individuals about popular sentiment, and this reaches a tipping point whereby people realize that the protests are popularly supported, and everyone joins. Egypt, on the other hand, had been engaged in highly vocal street protests for the last decade. Everyone knew that everyone else was fed up with the regime. The tipping point here had to do with strategic calculations and whether or not citizens thought they could get away with protesting. Lynch didn’t really have time to present this cogently (nor did he have time to get to his third point), and it is not entirely clear to me if he wants to distinguish between strategic power relations, media content, or media functionality, or all three. But there is an important distinction in there somewhere. I would argue that protester’s strategically contingent engagement with media–how the experience and expectations of use are determined by contextual power relations–is perhaps a more relevant register than content.
Lynch was followed by Henry Farell and Dave Parry, who was explicitly engaged in an application of McLuhan to Tahrir, but offered some nice characterizations of protest movements in a digital media ecology, which he called an “internet public,” along the lines of ‘you can take the public out of the internet, but you cant…’ (he didn’t say that). In the context of media’s motivational potential, he summed up as follows:
Knowing that your government is corrupt is one thing. Knowing that your neighbour knows that your government is corrupt is another. Knowing that your neighbour knows that you know that the government is corrupt is entirely another thing, and that is where the social internet plays a role.
Zeynep Tufekci rounded out the ecological focus with a turn to Epidemiology. Tufekci was primarily occupied with what she called the “network level effects” of digital networks (as opposed to field level effects between discrete networks), such as the changing shape and structure of networks and the increased speed of information transmission, and how this frustrates repressive efforts of states.
Careful not to analogize social network activity or revolution itself with processes of contagion, Tufekci made a compelling (if all too perfunctory) argument that quarantine is a useful metaphor for understanding repression of social movements in a socio-technological landscape.
Specifically, Tufekci argued that State efforts to quash protest movements (to “play whack-a-protest” as she puts it) are decidedly easier when networks are defined by multiple clusters with a limited number of bridging nodes. When networks become more integrated and speed of transmission is dramatically increased (as she intimates is the case modern digital media ecologies), suppression (or quarantine) is more difficult for resource constrained state actors (see her three slides below).
Tufekci goes on to illustrate this by describing Tunisian protests in 2008, when uprisings were effectively quashed by the state, and Tunisia had less than 2% of the Facebook accounts it does today. Her argument is intuitively very compelling and engaging—not in the least because she is an engaging speeaker, with a knack for peppering her arguments with entertaining anecdotes—in this case mistranslation between Noam Chomsky and the blood of Kurdish children features prominently. Read also E. Zuckerman’s account of how she put this argument to Evgeny Morozov at a conference 2 days ago. I very much look forward to the detailed paper she promises on her blog.
Lastly, and as something of an outlier, Deen Freelon presented a series of tweet sets related to the Arab Spring. The bulk of the analysis he presented seemed to focus on the #jan25 hashtag, and is similar to the Tahrir Data Project tweet set. His key findings so far appear to relate to geography (75% of users identified themselves with a location, and he has written a script to scrape these locations from web—oh how we would have loved that), and frequencies plotted on a protest timeline. Notably, he finds that local tweeters are overrepresented, and that spikes in use correspond with events “on the ground”. This correlates well with our analysis so far, and there seems like a lot to be gained by joining forces.
The session concluded with a Q&A that covers (inter alia) whether or not these structural changes are inherently democratic, and whether digitally mobilized social movements can be considered “leaderless” or effective for mobilization in traditional political processes. Overall it was a very worthwhile listen for anyone interested in nuanced analysis of the issue. The audio can be streamed and downloaded here.