the most important lesson i learned from the arab spring is… “power to the people” just got an operating system upgrade.
– Jim Moriarty (CEO, Surfrider Foundation + MAP Network)
Yesterday was the one year anniversary of #Jan25, the first day of the Egyptian Revolution, the day regime change in Tunisia blossomed into an unprecedented regional movement. We asked MAP’s community members and advisors to reflect on what the Arab Spring taught them about digital activism. Kate Brodock and David Faris wrote their own posts on the question. Here’s what others had to say:
Networks Can Topple Old Regimes, But Can They Form New Ones?
One of the more interesting lessons learned is whether and how decentralized and networked activists can come to power within centralized and hierarchical institutions (governments).
This is actually a historic collective action paradox. In his recent book, The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama notes that historically loose tribal networks were successful at mobilizing but not ruling. In a discussion of military strategy in the first millennium AD, Fukuyama notes, “rulers found they could not rely on tribally organized forces to hold onto their empire. Tribal levies could be quickly mobilized and scaled up for rapid conquest…. But… could not achieve sustained collective action. ”
Will networked activists be able to “sustain collective action,” to lead (or sustainably influence) government? Or was their success only in their ability to “quickly mobilize”? Clay Shirky notes that networked actors have not been able to control the levers of government in countries where they staged successful revolutions.
I think the biggest lesson is that autocratic governments have become so successful at preventing alternate organizations to take root in society, organizations that might challenge the government’s control, that successful opposition strategies tend to be loosely connected collaborations, rather than alternate power centers. This is a good strategy for taking on the autocrats, but it also means that the answer to the question “Who will run the new government” is no longer “The people who toppled the old one.”
This division of labor between the destroyers of an existing regime and the creators of a new one creates this odd interregnum, which we’ve now seen in Tunisia and Egypt, and, to a lesser extent, Libya, where far more is up for grabs than in the usual historical pattern of revolution.
– Clay Shirky (Distinguished Writer in Residence, NYU + MAP Advisory Board)
David Faris, a scholar of Egyptian digital activism, is more optimistic. Though he acknowledges that traditional political parties have been the immediate beneficiaries of the revolution, he believes that networked groups like We are All Khaled Said and the April 6th movement have the staying power to influence Egyptian politics in the long term. Although they are loose networks, they have become stable mobilizing structures with the ability to, in Fukuyama’s terms, “achieve sustained collective action.”
Social media activists have not inherited the political empowerment of the revolutions. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the immediate political beneficiaries of the revolutions have been political Islamists, the long-banned Nahda in Tunisia, and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood…. [But is it networked] activists [who are] still putting out their calls to demonstrate on Twitter and Facebook, who succeeded in pushing presidential elections forward to June, altering the electoral system, and instigating the first, albeit tiny, steps toward reforming recalcitrant security behemoths.
– David Faris (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Roosevelt University + MAP Strategy Group)
Tactical Insights on Effective Digital Activism
Other network members gleaned specific tactical insights from the Arab Spring: the value of a martyr to frame complex injustice in human terms, the power of humor.
Most important/surprising lesson=The profoundamplifyingimpact of a martyr/catalyst when combined with the viral force of technology.
–Eric Tyler (New America Foundation + MAP Network Weaver/Outreach Director)
The understated importance of humor amidst violence and repression.
– Solana Larsen (Managing Editor, Global Voices + MAP Network)
Amy Sample Ward of NTEN reflected on the surprisingly small Internet and mobile penetration rates needed to mount a successful digital campaign. In 2011 Egypt’s Internet penetration rate was 24.5% and Tunisia’s was 33.9% (source).
The biggest lesson, in my opinion, is that you do not need to have every member of your community using social technologies for massive impact to occur. So long as the community is connected, [one] can use the tools to network and organize, and then take the actions needed, massive change can happen.
– Amy Sample Ward (Membership Director, Nonprofit Technology Network + MAP Network)
Beyond Digital: Reflections on the Broader Context
Other network members looked beyond the use of digital tactics to the context in which those tactics were used. History was important in both framing and mobilization and old media and simple word of mouth were used alongside social media to get the message out.
For me, as a media historian, seeing how history and the past still have a profound impact on how a society uses tech to tell its story.
– Will Mari (PhD Candidate, University of Washington + MAP Global Digital Activism Data Set coder)
I found it interesting that the protesters made use of social media and micro blogging tools along with the traditional word-of-mouth and telephone to organize themselves. This number of communication avenues available to the protester made it difficult to suppress. By the time regimes were ready to cut off access to the Internet, the movements had already gained significant momentum and were able to effectively move forward without it.
– Brian Riley (Master’s Candidate, Trinity College + MAP Technical Project Manager)
Another important trend to highlight, and one that isn’t going away, is that this type of digital communication is being used heavily for various purposes aside from the mobilization and communication of direct political or social actors. For instance, journalists and media outlets have turned heavily to these tools to get information for reporting purposes….
– Kate Brodock (Executive Director of Digital and Social Media, Syracuse University + Strategy & Communications Advisor
Thanks to all our community members for contributing to this post!