Study: Social media may hinder, not aid, revolutions and civil unrest

Tina Nguyen Contributor
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The conventional wisdom explaining the 2011 Egyptian uprisings holds that the revolution was fueled by texts, tweets, and Facebook pages. But a new study conducted by a Yale graduate student suggests the opposite about social media.

Shutting down digital communications in the midst of an uprising, writes Navin Hassanpour, only accelerates civil unrest. And this, he says, is exactly what happened to Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  Do the opposite — keep mass media intact, though disruptively slow — and disaffected people are less likely to mobilize in public.

Social media’s role in promoting revolutions has been highlighted in recent months as observers connect it to uprisings in the Middle East and riots in the United Kingdom. As governments waver between calling for openness in communication and shutting down networks to maintain order, Hassanpour’s study suggests a third option: recognizing that while social media can indeed mobilize, more people use it for non-protest purposes.

“Social media can … discourage face-to-face communication and mass presence in the streets,” writes Hassanpour, a political science graduate student raised in Iran. “Knowing about the situation on Facebook and Twitter and having access to news propagation sources may make personal moves and physical presence unnecessary.”

In other words, revolutionaries will use social media to promote revolutions, but ordinary people might find the information confusing, particularly among a deluge of other information.

In fact, having a centralized media — with state-run news still available and networks slowed down significantly, as in Iran and Libya — may do more help maintain the power status quo. (RELATED: China pulls online documentary showing cyberattacks against US)

“Even the most authoritarian regimes prefer not to systematically bomb their own population, [and] they instead use a threat of forceful military action in order to deter [revolution],” he writes.  “When it is impossible to communicate the possibility of a painful military retaliation, the state is unable to dissuade the crowds. In fact protests proliferate when such threatening measures fail.”

The Egyptian revolution proved a fertile case study for Hassanpour’s idea, since then-President Mubarak unplugged all communication at the local level — between friends and neighborhoods, rather than from a location in the middle of the state. Over a short period of time in January and February, his regime shut down all communication with the outside world. First came websites like Twitter and Facebook, then eventually all Internet access, cell and text services, and even landlines.

By shutting down the Internet, writes Hassanpour, Mubarak effectively ended his own regime. More than 23 million Internet users suddenly found themselves cut off. Without cell service, more than 71 million Egyptians were unable to function in their daily lives. What had once been a minor political issue centered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square ballooned into thousands of riots across Egypt.

“In other words,” Hassanpour argues, “in the presence of a risk-averse majority and a radical minority, adding more links among the majority does not necessarily help mobilization.”