Virginia Eubanks, author of Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, on the Arab Spring and whether social media promotes radical political change.
On my recent book tour supporting Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, audiences from Montréal, QC to Washington, DC asked incisive, insightful questions about the relationship between information technology and social justice. Audience members were particularly interested in how the high-tech equity agenda that I develop in the book applies to the thrilling revolts that took place across the Middle East and North Africa this spring. They wanted to know: Does the Arab Spring prove that social media fosters radical political change?
Social media were undoubtedly useful tools in the recent pro-democracy uprisings, and will continue to play a role in liberation movements around the globe. As Xiaolin Zhuo, Barry Wellman, and Justine Yu point out in their article “Egypt: The First Internet Revolt?,” published in the July 2011 issue of Peace Magazine, networked tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs facilitated rapid mobilization of protesters, developed a sense of community under a repressive regime with limited freedom of the press, and garnered global attention once protests had started.
However, as Zhuo, Wellman and Yu show, organized groups, informal networks, and formal organizing training played an equally (if not more) crucial role in these not-so-spontaneous protests. Established political groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6 Youth Movement were central to organizing the Tahrir Square protests. Word of mouth and television spread more information and mobilized more protesters than social media and internet sources. Egyptian activists received face-to-face training and support from international allies such as CANVAS (the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) in Serbia. So social media supported and supplemented on-the-ground organizing, rather than simply unleashing democratic forces. Even in Asmaa Mahfouz's now-famous video blog, which some credit with launching the January 25 protests, she informs watchers that she's to get off the internet, because she’s on her way to hand out fliers in the street.
In cases beyond Egypt, the use of social media has markedly negative impacts on radical organizing, as Evgeny Morozov has persuasively argued in the cases of China, where the authoritarian regime deploys a small army of internet users to post pro-government propaganda, or Iran, where the Ahmadinejad government used internet and mobile device records to track down dissidents after the 2009-2010 election protests.
The focus on technology in the international media may also misrepresent the character of liberation movements -- hiding, for example, the important role played by women in the Arab Spring. Robin Morgan argues in “Women of the Arab Spring,” her article in the most recent Ms. Magazine, that when the mainstream media talked blogs, Facebook and Twitter, they focused on Zeid Al Heni and Google employee Wael Ghonim, not Tunisian feminist blogger Lina Ben Mhenni or even Asmaa Mahfouz and her viral video blog. That the face of “Facebook Revolutions” tends to be male says more about our perceptions of technology than about the reality of who is using online tools for progressive change.
While social media undoubtedly shaped the unfolding of liberation struggles in the Middle East and North Africa, to say that these were Facebook or Twitter revolutions is misleading. The focus on technical aspects of the Arab Spring marginalizes and minimizes the role of traditional organizing and downplays the risks and commitments made by ordinary people who put themselves, embodied and in real time, on the line for freedom.
The most troubling aspect of the myopic focus on “Liberation Technology” is the suggestion that if you add internet, you can produce instant revolution.* We need better stories about the relationship between technology and social change. As I write in Digital Dead End,
[W]e do not have many stories that show us how hard, and how rewarding, it is to actually forge and maintain alliances across difference...Easier just to posit some mythical “Movement Moment” when differences are put aside, to deify a superhuman charismatic leader who turns divisiveness into coalition, or to mourn the sacrificial lambs who become a rallying cry for unity. Easier to ignore or forget the day-to-day heroism of ordinary people coming together to transform their world...This unattainable myth misrepresents collective process; it is a pale imitation of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world.” We should demand more.
In the book, I also describe a model of liberatory technology education my collaborators and I called "Popular Technology." Grounded in popular education, it focuses on resisting oppression, building coalition across difference, and fostering participatory decision-making. Fighting exploitation, imperialism and violence may sound so last century, but there simply is no tech-fix for justice. As Andrew Feenberg reminds us, technology is not a destiny; it is a site of struggle.
*See, for example, New York Times reporting on the US State Department's “Wi-Fi in a Box” project.
Andrew Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology, Oxford UP: 1991.