toppling methods of discourse, communication, & collective action

In The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article, Jay Rosen says

It’s hard to know how much weight to assign to the Internet and its social media tools–Facebook and Twitter–in recent uprisings like Iran and Moldova in 2009, Tunisia this year and Egypt’s stunning January 25th revolution. Because the tools are still fairly new they naturally draw a lot of attention from analysts, journalists and headline writers looking for a “sexy” newsy sidebar to the main event. And inevitably some people get carried away. But then a strange thing happens. Even more people get worried that everyone is getting carried away. And they decide to bring us all back down to earth. “It’s not that simple!” they cry.

Indeed, it isn’t. Rosen correctly points out (among other interesting things, but this one’s of interest to me):

By ranting about the absuridty of maximalist claims, the author takes a pass on the really hard and really interesting question: how does the Internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state?

I don’t know. I’ve written about this myself and pointed out many of the same sorts of things — both that revolutions have been happening quite nicely for centuries before the existence of the Internet or Twitter, but at the same time these tools are shaping current events. I wrote:

Without protesters, “social media” is nothing. Without people, increased communication and information is nothing. Social media isn’t fueling a damn thing. What social media is, is the latest manifestation of humanity’s will to communicate. It is the result of our current level of technology coupled with our current needs for large scale communication. It is not some external force affecting human discourse; it is the (again) result of human discourse. Wikileaks is also absolutely the logical outcome of the extent and range of communication we now possess. But neither is it “fueling” revolutions. It is providing us with information, for example, about new Eyptian VP Omar Suleiman, but to think that the Egyptian people weren’t already aware of that is just to be ignorant — or delusional.

That is to say, there’s more than one axis to examine — the direction of information flow, and the kind of information. I touch on similar issues in this article as well:

I have made these points repeatedly: the online world is increasingly merging with the “real” world. The latter is increasingly forced to take into account the online world, which has mostly been separate, a small exclusive world for geeks and nerds until about 5 years ago or so. But given its global and stateless scope it has already emerged as a formidable way to navigate and influence the “real” world — and I think the speed with which this has happened and the reach that it has, has made quite a few people — and countries — very nervous. In any case, it’s interesting to watch governments and officials take serious notes of applications, especially “social media” appliciations. The latter — meant for “fun” — are the very ones turning into the most important, because if nothing else, the human species has always advanced through it’s ability to communicate.

Aaron Bady (@zunguzungu) wrote an excellent followup to Rosen’s article in Knowing and Unknowing the Egyptian Public:

Before the recent past — goes this interpretation — state terror in Egypt was ubiquitous, but it was not so easily and widely known to be ubiquitous. So however common it might have been, each fact and incident of torture and state violence was mostly knowable as isolated, particular. Which makes sense: in a country whose media was tightly controlled by a dictatorial apparatus, there were few available socially acceptable narratives which could absorb, sustain, and circulate them. Moreover, even if everyone knew that state terror was ubiquitous, they didn’t necessarily know that everyone else knew it too: they might have known that they — and anyone — could suffer the fate of Khalid Saeed, but they didn’t know, for sure, that everyone else knew this as well. In other words, Egyptians might have been united by the fact of being vulnerable to be tortured to death by their government, but the internet allowed them to see and understand that they all understood themselves to be this, that all were united in disgust and rage. This is the fertile seed-bed for revolt: knowing that if you stand in front of a tank, you will not be alone in doing so.

And this is what I think the main function of the “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article, and the ideological function that defines its genre: the disappearance of Egyptian social consciousness as the prime driver of events. Against the straw-man of techno-determinism, someone like Gladwell is enabled to argue that this has nothing to do with what Egyptians think of Egypt, nothing to do with a century of accumulated thought, emotion, identity, and narrated experience — most of which is unavailable to Gladwell, and which most Americans find strange and foreign. Instead, it is something safe and easy, something we, in the West, can safely opine and claim authority over: ourselves. The French revolution, the fall of communism, and Universal Western History. In an implicit — but constitutive — dialogue with those who would tell us that this is about Egypt, it comes along to tell us that it’s not.

Which is to say — this information is not only flowing between the people of Egypt (or substitute any other group of people — Tunisians, Yemenis, etc) to help shape their own particular reactions to the flow of information, but it can also flow back out and to us.

If, of course, we listen.

Again, per Rosen, the interesting question is how does the Internet affect the balance of forces in a contest between the state and people fed up with the state? How? Among other things, it changes the audience and it changes the messages to the audience. Who is the audience? When a repressive state cracks down, keeps its citizens from communicating with one anther, it also controls information about that state to the world at large; instead presenting the picture it wishes. Consider that the majority of Italians, the majority of U.S. citizens, didn’t realize that Mubarak was a dictator.

Through that sort of manipulation, or in cahoots with other countries interested in helping maintain that facade, the ordinary citizens of other countries often comfortably remain ignorant of the true state of affairs in these countries. This kind of scenario plays out at many levels along many subjects, creating mythologies for nearly every country — that are sometimes created internally or externally to the country, that are sometimes accepted by the citizens of those countries, or utterly rejected by the same citizens unable to convey their actual status out to the rest of the world. This theater of the absurd is breaking down rapidly under the porosity of the Internet.

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