Jan 312011
Authors: Jim Sojourner

Sure you can fit “viva la revolucion!” into a 140-character message, but you just can’t roll “r’s” on Twitter the same way you can roll them off your tongue. And oh is that sound of popular rebellion ever so sweet.

Popular revolt is the latest fad sweeping through the Middle East. After the Tunisians threw out their 23-year dictator, the struggle for democracy has spread like wildfire through the region, leading to the current mass uprisings in Egypt that threaten to topple Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive and (formerly) U.S.-supported regime.

It’s kind of a big deal.

But if you’ve spent any time watching CNN this week, you’d know the possibility of regime change and resulting policy implications pale in comparison to the most important story of all, ever, no matter what: Twitter.

News networks love Twitter more than the Egyptians love the thought of freedom.

Since the mass protests in Iran following the country’s corrupt 2009 election, every utopian media geek and his/her reporter friend has been quick to point to Twitter, Facebook and their ilk as the key, benevolent instruments of rebellion.

Everyone with ears has heard at least 140 news segments talking about the revolutionary power of social media, where users can share information and organize protests in ways never before possible. We’ve all watched Anderson Cooper contort his face in glee as he basks in the mighty glory of the omnipotent Twitter deity, all while his guest bloviates about how this new-fangled Internet thing is making it easier than ever to overthrow your local tyrant. All you need is 140 characters!

Well I’m not buying it and neither is social media expert Evgeny Morozov in his new book “The Net Delusion.”

Once a social media lackey, Morozov has come around full circle. He argues that, although the Internet does have the power to push some social change with tweets, blogs and video recordings, in the hands of authoritarian regimes, it has even more power to track down dissenters, lock down information and push agendas.

The news media nailed the stories about how protesters in Iran used social media to organize and push for change. What they missed, Morozov argues, were the months after, where the Iranian government used those same tools to hunt down dissidents and to keep an ever-watchful eye on its citizens. Other governments, he says, have combined traditional online censorship with new information-control techniques, where regimes hire bloggers and tweeters to spread misinformation or to push their own ideologies with huge success.

It shouldn’t take much brainpower to figure out that social media doesn’t just benefit the “good guys,” especially when the “bad guys” have more money and more resources to devote to Internet information, dissemination and control.

More than revealing that “dark side,” Morozov argues that the power of social media is overestimated simply because it’s more visible to everyone than traditional forms of communication.

According to an NPR story about his book, Morozov’s conversion to social media critic came in Moldova in April of 2009 amid anti-government protests. During the protests, he said he witnessed that much of the protest organizing was done over analog networks like phone calls or person-to-person conversations, not over the digital network. Unlike Twitter messages, though, these interactions weren’t readily visible, so Twitter got all the credit.

Getting back to the Middle East, it’s no stretch to say this probably holds true for the protests in Iran or Egypt. In a Monday blog post for The Atlantic, visiting scholar at the School of Information for the University of California Berkeley Kentaro Toyama said it better than I can: “It’s not so much that tweeting foments rebellion, but that in our age, all rebellions are tweeted.”

Even the Egyptian government seemed to have overestimated the power of the Internet when it shut down all Internet access in the country. The effect on protesters: nothing I can see. And, if Mubarak’s regime does somehow survive, what’s stopping it from using old Twitter and Facebook posts to hunt down activists?

My quarrel with Twitter-lovers and the Twitter-pated media, then, isn’t their belief that Twitter is a powerful tool –– clearly it’s made communicating and organizing grassroots movements easier than ever ––, It’s their simplistic, naïve and single-minded devotion to the idea that social media makes possible and empowers popular democratic movements and only popular democratic movements.

Technology serves any master; people power, not tech tools, drives popular revolt.

In Egypt, the revolution might be tweeted, but it’s the people chanting in streets that will bring tyranny to its knees.

Managing Editor Jim Sojourner is a senior journalism major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 4:08 pm

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