Lots of people have been talking about how social media created unprecedented opportunities for activists in the Middle East to organize and mobilize the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Although its publication preceded these protests, Philip Howard’s The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, released in 2010 by Oxford University Press, is perhaps the best book on the subject of how and under what conditions social media can change the political status quo. (For those interested in looking at applications and cases of digital activism, see the Meta-Activism Project. iRevolution is also a good resource).
I’ve been less convinced about the causal role that social media have played. I see Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and other digital media as characteristics of the recent uprisings, not necessarily causes. In fact, I’d argue that activists who rely solely on digital media to coordinate a revolution are quite vulnerable. Here is the reason why: oppressive regimes can (and do) use social media too. In fact, they caught on pretty quickly that a smarter response to activist digital media was not to shut down the internet (like Mubarak did), but rather to use these same tools to organize their own henchmen, or to track and trap activists.
This article on the failed uprising in Bahrain gives some good accounts of this phenomenon. In this case, the Bahrain regime used Facebook to organize counter-protests and intimidation tactics by loyalists. Patrick Meier reports that similar events occurred in Sudan, which used Facebook to create loyalists squads in remote areas to “defend” the regime. In some cases, the Sudanese regime even set up mock protest pages to trap the opposition. In one case, he writes:
Thousands of activists promptly subscribed to this group. The government then deliberately changed the time of the protests on the day of to create confusion and stationed police at the rendez-vous point where they promptly arrested several dozen protestors in one swoop. There are also credible reports that many of those arrested were then tortured to reveal their Facebook (and email) password.
Authoritarian regimes are crafty. They have lots of resources at their disposal, and they think strategically about the best way to use those resources to restore “calm” (read: maintain power).
What are activists to do? They should take a strategic approach, which involves switching up sources of communication; thinking like the opponent; and anticipating problems and planning for how to respond to them. A strategic approach would see social media as tools that, if captured by the other side, can be used against the opposition–just like any other weapon. As in battle, opposition strategists should always have back-up plans for how to communicate and coordinate with other activists once their main sources of communication are dismantled or intercepted. This may involve the printing of paper pamphlets and other materials for in-person distribution–a tool that Egyptian activists deployed in their struggle, and other more basic methods. And there should also be a plan C–a covert way to continue communicating and coordinating among relevant opposition groups if the distribution of such literature also becomes impossible.
The bottom line: over-reliance on any one tool makes a nonviolent uprising predictable. And predictability means vulnerability, whether on the battlefield or on the streets.