I write about digital strategies and communications — and their intersection with culture, politics, journalism and social activism.

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Protests: The Confidence to Act

There is a type of "critic" who in the face of significant social movements likes to play the role of cynic and doubter, throwing cold water on prevailing ideas.

The best of them, like Andrew Keen, delight in the role of curmudgeon and do so with a kind of tongue in cheek bravura that helps bring clarity to the idea or concept they are challenging. Others appear to resist a dominant idea simply because, well, it is axial to a popular meme.

An influential idea today is that the social web has played a role in the upheaval taking place in the Middle East. Almost on queue, the dutiful and dogged carping began or, if you like, followed in the footsteps of Malcolm Gladwell and his ill-thought out trashing of social revolution. (Paul Seaman: "The reality of revolt is that old-fashioned word-of-mouth communication is the best form of communication in any confrontation with one’s nation state.")

It is true as Evgeny Morozov (a some time carper himself) pointed out in The Globe and Mail, that authoritarian regimes can equally take advantage of the Internet:

(T)he Internet is an excellent platform for inciting revolutionary sentiment – and tracking down wannabe revolutionaries; it is a handy vehicle for spreading propaganda – and revealing government lies; it provides a platform that facilitates government surveillance – and helps people evade it.

Yet, Twitter WAS used as an organizing platform, connector and warning system as this Sysomos infographic (via Mashable) demonstrates

Correct me if I have this wrong, but few social web disbelievers have likely been to war or fought security forces on the streets. If they had, they would recognize the simple truth about the social web and social action: The social web can give people the confidence needed to act.

When protesters take to the streets in Egypt and Tunisia, they do so knowing -- from Facebook walls, Twitter and blog posts and text messages -- they are 'not walking alone', to paraphrase the Liverpool Football Club slogan.

The parallel is why soldiers risk their lives in war. An Army News Services story from 2003 reports on a study about why soldiers fight:

The other role is it provides the confidence and assurance that someone is watching their back. In one infantryman’s words, “You have got to trust them more than your mother, your father, or girlfriend, or your wife, or anybody. It becomes almost like your guardian angel.”

This is as true for people rising up in anger at repression as it is for soldiers in combat.

Young people in particular need to know their friends are with them. And how do they know? Because their social web, SMS and mobile networks give them not just information about a struggle but also faith others will be in the figurative 'foxhole' with them.

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Reader Comments (2)

The numbers just don't work for you: the idea that 85 million Egyptians were influenced by 14 000 Tweeters based in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia (many of whom work for the security services) is just nuts. But I won't get too bogged down in arguing the uselessness or otherwise of social media in revolutionary situations - sometimes it will be amazing, sometimes not; sometimes weak and sometimes strong. But in Egypt the hype does not match the reality; its influence was marginal. Here's some evidence drawn from SM sources based in and from Egypt...

This is so much more than a ‘webolution’

An Egyptian In London: Watching Revolution In My City Through Modern Media (Guest Blog)

Meanwhile, the instigator of the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said" is missing, feared arrested. Let's not forget, 80% of Egyptians are not connected to the internet and of ones that are connected most have narrowband and poor quality broadband etc.

February 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Seaman

My response to your comment seems to have been lost. So, I'll try again.

Thanks for the useful information. But you are batting at a straw man since my main point was that: "The social web can give people the confidence needed to act." Whether there a 10, 10,000 or 1,000,000 involved does not deny that people in both countries were emboldened by the knowledge that others -- their friends, colleagues, family members -- were as angry as they were and ready to take that anger to the streets. Check out Jennifer Preston's piece in the New York Times today:


February 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBoyd Neil

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