Social Media & the Arab Spring Revolutions: SXSW

SXSW is focused on digital media – design, creation, implementation, distribution – but the most interesting and engaging panels are those connecting digital media to global communities, trends and events.

Yesterday’s diverse panel on Lessons Learned from the Spring 2011 Arab Revolutions explored how the use of social media accelerated political change (info on the speakers at the links).

The panelists got directly to the point: Social media is not just a communications tool. It’s a multiplier of sentiment and an empowering force for individuals. Instead of disparate, disconnected, disaffected individuals seeking change, the use of social media created an associated group who were a real and new challenge to autocratic regimes.

Panelist Habib Haddad described how protesters in Egypt used Facebook not simply to communicate but to build solidarity and to breach the historical fear of the power of the government. The latent rebellion reached a breaking point when people posted pictures of themselves on Facebook – revealing their identity and daring others to participate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said there’s something in us which yearns for freedom – and this talk demonstrated how people’s access to social media mirrored their search for greater freedom. As panelist Katherine Maher noted, the search for social media access was a real time example of an iterative search for freedom: as the government tried trying to restrict some form of communication, people found another way to communicate. When the government cut off access to the internet and SMS, Google and Twitter worked together to create Speak to Tweet, which enabled people without Internet access to leave a voice mail that would be tweeted.

As communities and people move forward in the middle east, mobile communications tools create a rich data record for historians to parse and understand how revolutions happens. Geolocated photos, data, names, conversations, chat records, Facebook groups, videos, Tweets and everything else.

I went from the panel to Clay Shirky’s high level analysis of how social media is truly a revolutionary tool because media gives people who already want to get things done the tools to get things done at a larger scale. The printing press didn’t cause the Protestant revolution, for example, but it made it possible. In the 2011 case, social media enables revolutionaries to do three things: synchronize their views, coordinate their action and document & share their activities.

In Shirky’s most cutting point, he noted that governments aren’t scared, after all, of informed people: they’re scared of groups with synchronized beliefs and views, and social networks accelerate the creation of those groups.

As the revolution spread to Libya, Gaddafi banned soccer not because he didn’t love the game, but because he was scared of the stadium. He didn’t want people to get together to synchronize their views and coordinate their action – but certainly he’s naive if he doesn’t think Facebook and new media are the new stadium.

So what?

These panels both roundly dismissed the concept that social media is just the new telephone -as Shirky noted, the use of social media enables the “ridiculously easy” creation of groups with synchronized beliefs. Revolutions spread faster than the speed of light when the synchronization, coordination and documentation is facilitated through social media.

The questions that emerged for me from these two sessions were about trust and  Libya. As Shirky noted, you can’t just trust someone because they’re also on Facebook. In the absence of real world relationships, you need to build those relationships over time to build real world trust. There’s danger in being too quick to trust online connections, but without some level of trust, revolution can’t go viral.

Second, what is it about Libya that’s different? Why hasn’t their revolution moved as quickly? Is there something that people have done differently, used differently, accessed differently? Or is it just differences in military positioning or tribal divisions? If we can identify what works and what doesn’t, we can hopefully become empowered social media users to promote change for good worldwide.

Finally, in an emotional and unrelated to social media note, Shirky showed a picture of Coptic Christians creating a human chain to protect Muslim protesters at prayer in Tahrir Square. I teared up. He challenged the SXSW crowd to see what we can do to protect Muslims in our country in person or through virtual human chains. It was an unexpected political note, but moving.

What can we do? Is it time for peaceful action of our own? I myself am thinking of printing t-shirts that say “I’m a Muslim too.”

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3 responses to “Social Media & the Arab Spring Revolutions: SXSW

  1. Great post! I’m on board with the “I’m a Muslim too” T shirt.

  2. As a Muslim, I am humbled by the whole thing. Thanks Kelly for posting this!

  3. Thank you both. The Shirky talk inspired me a lot. Not sure yet what I want to do about it, but maybe the shirts are a good idea.

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