Are the internet and social media making political revolutions more possible?

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11 January
11:12
11 January
11:30

Revolutions have always found a way to mobilise and spread their message. You go back to the late eighteenth century and you have this great wave of revolutions in the Atlantic world that were spread through people travelling on ships, or as fast as the available technologies and communication infrastructure would allow it to spread. In 1848 you had revolutions spreading throughout Europe virtually overnight, being carried by horse, being carried by available technologies. In 1979 in Iran, people played Khomeini’s speeches by tape cassette. So there’s always a way to spread a revolutionary message, and I don't think social media – or current technologies – do much to change that, except make that easier to do, easier to spread, quicker to spread. 

Some of these revolutionary entrepreneurs for example in the Arab uprisings, were quite aware of how to spread their message internationally to foreign media by using social media, but were probably not hugely significant in terms of what was taking place on the ground. A very regular everyday technology that’s extremely powerful and often overlooked is the mobile phone – to just be able to text people or pass on a message or a photo or something is something that’s been powerful. 

"The Egyptian regime was worried about the use of various technology relying on the internet during the uprising in January 2011, so it actually got the main internet service providers to turn off access to the internet. And you know what happened? More people actually came out and protested."

But you’ve got to remember there's another side to these technologies, which is they can also be used by authoritarian regimes to discipline and survey their populations. So the Egyptian regime, for example, was able to spread its message to all Vodafone subscribers to tell them to go home and stop protesting or else. The Egyptian military has its own Facebook page. But I think the key point here is that they are often very good at generating weak ties – ties that allow you to like something, or share something, or spread something without much cost to yourself. But they're not very good at generating really strong ties, dense ties - that tends to come from family from struggle, from clan, from group, from political allegiance, and that type of thing is something that face-to-face communication is still much better at. 

The Egyptian regime was worried about the use of various technology relying on the internet during the uprising in January 2011, so it actually got the main internet service providers to turn off access to the internet. And you know what happened? More people actually came out and protested. So when relying on technology, to some extent you’re allowing people to stay at home and act as if they were there because they’re able to share a message or act like they were part of the protest when they actually weren’t.

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