Sorting through claims about the internet and revolutions, part 1


My last blog post argued that too many commentators on the recent events in Tunisia/Egypt/Yemen/etc. have become hamstrung by the “internet revolution” frame—advocates and opponents alike tend to orient their arguments with respect to it. But beneath the headlines, it turns out there’s a sprawling assortment of overlapping and conflicting viewpoints about the internet and revolutionary politics waiting to be teased apart. This blog post will begin this sorting process by proceeding through items 1 and 2 of the following analytical to-do list (I will address items 3 and 4 in a subsequent post):

  1. Develop a rough typology of recent claims about the internet and political revolutions.
  2. Distinguish which claim types require or imply one another, which are compatible with one another, and which conflict.
  3. Identify the kinds of empirical data that would be required to substantiate each.
  4. Use this information to judge how well each claim type is supported by the available evidence.

1: A Rough Typology

I begin task 1 with a grounded typology that incorporates some of the recent online claims about the internet’s role in revolutionary politics. In keeping with the internet’s inherent epistemological inclusiveness, I do not distinguish here between academics, industry observers, journalists, and pundits—topical relevance is the only criterion for consideration. The following table introduces the typology: the left column contains the snappy names I’ll refer to each type by, and the right column contains several representative quotes for each. This typology should not be considered exhaustive, nor should it imply that the quoted sources hold their imputed views to the exclusion of other opinions not listed. My argument here is primarily that the types described below are worthy of discussion because each represents the views of more than one prominent observer.

The four claim types I’ll discuss are the net as dissident’s advantage, the net as public sphere platform, the net as citizen journalism platform, and the net as politically irrelevant revolutionary nicety (sorry, forgot to change this the first time around).

Claim type Representative statements
The net as dissident’s advantage: Holds that (1) the internet confers disproportionate advantages upon previously disenfranchised political activists; and (2) that these advantages are substantial, if not decisive, in the success of some revolutionary movements. Cory Doctorow:

[The internet] has provided a disproportionate benefit to dissidents and outsiders (who, by definition, have fewer resources to start with) than it has to the incumbent and powerful (who, by definition, have amassed enough power to squander some of it on coordination and still have enough left over to rule.

Nate Anderson:

Even yesterday, it would have been too much to say that blogger, tweeters, Facebook users, Anonymous and Wikileaks had “brought down” the Tunisian government, but with today’s news that the country’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has fled the country, it becomes a more plausible claim to make.

Stephen Balkam:

While the role of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and others may well have been overstated by some, it is undeniable that the use of the web to organize and sustain many of the protests has been critical.

The net as public sphere platform: Holds that the existence of weak-tie publics distinct from the state is an important precondition for revolution, and that the net’s primary revolutionary impact is in facilitating their formation. Clay Shirky:

[L]ittle political change happens without the dissemination and adoption of ideas and opinions in the public sphere. Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation.

Zeynep Tufekci:

The capacities of the Internet that are most threatening to authoritarian regimes are not necessarily those pertaining to spreading of censored information but rather its ability to support the formation of a counter-public that is outside the control of the state.

David Parry:

[W]hen the government in Egypt chose to shut down the internet, they could shut down the trafficking of information along those channels, but they couldn’t shut down the public that was already created by having already communicated and interacted along those channels.

The net as citizen journalism platform: Holds that the net’s primary revolutionary influence lies in empowering citizens to report breaking news both to one another and to international audiences during political crises. Jillian York:

I believe there’s a strong case to be made for Twitter reporting, not necessarily as standalone media but as a complement to the major news networks.

Mathew Ingram:

But the reality of modern media is that Twitter and Facebook and other social-media tools can be incredibly useful for spreading the news about revolutions — because it gives everyone a voice, as founder Ev Williams has pointed out — and that can help them expand and ultimately achieve some kind of effect.

Mike Giglio:

[T]he primary function of social media has been to get around the government’s iron grip on information flows.

The net as revolutionary nicety: Holds that the internet contributes little to the activist side of revolutionary politics. Malcolm Gladwell:

People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Evgeny Morozov:

Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter? I think this is a key question to ask. If the answer is “yes,” then the contribution that the Internet has made was minor; there is no way around it.

Dan Murphy:

The fall of Soeharto, by the way, came long before the founding of WikiLeaks. Ditto for 1979′s stunning Islamic revolution in Iran.

Doyle McManus:

In the end, though, the most important steps in promoting democracy and securing human rights will continue to be low tech.

2: Necessity, Compatibility, and Conflict

The most obvious conflict in this typology is between the dissident’s advantage (DA) and revolutionary nicety (RN) stances. Both address roughly the same macro level of analysis, and both are fundamentally about collective action, yet each draws opposite conclusions about the role of the internet in political revolutions. According to DA, disempowered dissidents benefit from online tactics disproportionately compared to incumbent powers, which supports the general notion of the internet as a freedom-enhancing technology (on balance). DA adherents cite the proliferation of online trace data (tweets, Facebook posts, Youtube videos, DDOS attacks, etc.) from the front lines as evidence that the internet is supporting substantial change-making activity.  This perspective is often stereotyped as glib technological determinism, a conclusion partially supported by breathless headlines that rhapsodize about “Twitter revolutions!” and similar. But good-faith readings of the claims themselves reveal that most of them are about the degree of importance of the net as a revolutionary tool.

In contrast, the RN position marshals the cold skepticism of the jaded techno-realist to argue that the internet does not substantially enhance the resistive repertoire. One unifying aspect of this view is the stringent criterion that in order for the net to matter at all, it must be an unqualified sine qua non for the revolution in question. As might be expected, every revolution in history fails this test. (Has any single communication technology ever been a sine qua non for any revolution?) For RN advocates the fact that revolutions have occurred throughout history is proof that communication technologies don’t matter—revolutions will use whatever channels are at hand to connect, organize, and take action. The tweets, Facebook groups, and DDOS attacks of today are close analogues of the posters, samizdat, and nonviolent resistance tactics of revolutions past. Revolutionary politics is at bottom concerned with ultimate causes such as economic- and corruption-related grievances—everything else is just details.

Both of these claims are quite broad—they draw conclusions about the revolutionary role of the internet as a whole without generally making fine distinctions between different applications. This makes empirical assessment difficult, a topic I’ll discuss at greater length in my next blog post.

The remaining two positions, public sphere platform (PS) and citizen journalism platform (CJ), differ from DA and RN in specifying mechanisms through which the net contributes to revolutionary politics. Both can be seen as narrower claims that are essentially consistent with DA, though many adherents might dismiss DA as overly optimistic and vague. The central assumption of PS is that a robust public sphere—that is, a network of conversing citizens free of state sponsorship or surveillance—vastly increases a society’s chances of implementing political change through collective action. More so than the internet at large, social media have become key platforms upon which these national public spheres produce themselves. In some versions of this thesis, the conversations don’t even have to be explicitly political, but they must be ongoing and far-reaching. When a potential proximate cause emerges, such as Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, preexisting public spheres can be quickly mobilized for effective action.

CJ neither requires nor conflicts with PS , but rather is a largely independent claim. It holds that once the wheels of revolution begin to turn in networked societies, citizen journalists play a significant role in distributing information among both the national polity and international audiences. This role is particularly important in authoritarian states which own or otherwise control most forms of mass media. Enterprising citizens of these states can use digital media to capture the attentions of local and distant audiences with credible dispatches from the front lines. CJ’s key testable assertion is that this is the internet’s primary function for dissidents during times of revolution.

One point to note here is that RN is fundamentally inconsistent with the other three positions. More specifically, it may acknowledge that some public spheres or journalistic endeavors are partially internet-based, but it contends that this fact is inconsequential. PS and CJ have points of overlap—citizen journalism is often a crucial input into public-sphere discussion—but PS is mostly about the essential preconditions for revolution whereas CJ is more concerned with the dynamics of communication during times of political crisis. The main conceptual fault lines in this typology lie between:

  • RN and everything else (internet doesn’t matter vs. does)
  • RN & DA and PS & CJ (macro vs. meso levels of analysis)

As noted above, PS and CJ are not really separated by a fault line. However, further research is necessary to better sketch the relationship between the two and the circumstances under which they do and do not coexist.

Stay tuned for part 2 (now available!), in which I will attempt to address the empirical evidence for each claim…

ADDENDUM 2/8/11: The response to this post has exceeded my highest expectations, especially given that I posted it on a Saturday afternoon. It is now my most-read piece ever by at least an order of magnitude—if I’d known that in advance I would have polished it a bit more. In this addendum I will respond briefly to some of the comments I’ve received and point to additional pieces that will problematize my neat little scheme.

  • Clay Shirky generously responds to my framing of these claims in an extended comment, suggesting some conceptual extensions and providing key examples that will be relevant to my next post. In particular, he suggests adding an additional category—”Net as Path to Informed Citizenship”—that emphasizes net access as a critical input for revolutionary politics. My take is that this is, among other things, the consumptive flip side of CJ—the ability to access information freely vs. the ability to produce and distribute it. Unrestricted net access is a crucial assumption of citizen journalism as an enterprise: after all, what good is the latter if revolutionary audiences cannot witness it? Shirky also implicitly observes a key weakness of this typology, which is that while it functions well as a set of categories of what people have said recently about the net and revolutions, it’s somewhat less successful as a general MECE scheme of digital activism types. Sean Aday and colleagues attempt something like this in their recent article “Blogs and Bullets: Evaluating the Impact of New Media on Conflict,” though they frame their analysis too strongly in causal terms IMO.
  • Evgeny Morozov expressed in a private note that he may not fall entirely into the RN box, citing a recent column in which he notes that the net can serve as a weapon against social progress in the hands of illiberal regimes. Stan, responding in comments, makes a very similar point. This perspective, which might be called “the net as dissident’s disadvantage,” is definitely missing above—mostly because I couldn’t find many thought pieces embracing it in the context of recent events in the Arab world (although I’m sure they’re out there)—and it suggests that Morozov straddles a line between it and RN.
  • David Parry clarifies his position on the transformative influence of digital networks in a followup to the post linked above. While endorsing his position in the typology, he argues that we need to radically rethink past notions of “publics” because they are too closely bound up in a communicative culture structured by print. I agree, but I still think the basic logic of democracy requires something close to the very general definition of “publics” used above.
  • Also from comments, Sami Kallinen “would see the typology useful if it is not trying to describe the ontology of these social technologies and techniques but a sort of snapshot of the effect of them at this very moment.” The speed of technological development and widespread social diffusion of disruptive technologies make this an important point to bear in mind. As technologies are introduced, adopted, and discarded, their meanings and purposes change—and the rate at which this is happening today poses serious challenges to the task of generating useful concepts and theories about them. But nearly all social theories of technology must confront this problem, and I don’t think anyone claims to have developed a unified, final theory of political uses of digital networks. (And I really hope no one does—it’d put me out of business!)

6 Responses to Sorting through claims about the internet and revolutions, part 1

  1. Stan

    I enjoyed the clarity of this. Looking forward to part 2. I’m wondering why you didn’t include a final type representing the views that, far from being simply a “nicety”, the internet poses some threats to revolutionary organizational capabilities(increases the state’s power to strangle revolutions through mass surveillance, takeover of communications networks, encourages over-reliance on a narrow range of communicative technologies, etc. etc.) As we’ve seen in Egypt, this sort of thing has been a significant factor in the struggle (with both predictable and unpredictable consequences).


  2. Thanks for this. Excellent synopsis of how people are articulating & positioning themselves. Indeed it demonstrates how most of us talking about this have moved beyond the internet causes revolutions to how does the internet change the way we look at revolutions.

    One addendum I would add to the way you outline my position. I wouldn’t say that the net is a public sphere platform, but rather that the net forces us to rethink the idea of how publics form and operate. I think the public sphere is a very specific view of the question of how publics operate, one which is connected to broadcast and print culture, and one which I think is probably not applicable to the net. What happens on the net is that traditional ways of analyzing the “public sphere” no longer hold, its as if the lens no longer works for focusing on the object of study. So I would argue that we have to think beyond the public sphere to a different understanding of public(s), in fact probably rethinking the very notion of the public.

    • dfreelon

      Part of the issue here has to do with the promiscuous ways in which the term “public sphere” has been used since Habermas introduced it. In the loose sense, which I believe to be most prevalent these days, it refers simply to a metaphorical civic space outside the ambit of government, business, and home in which people come together to discuss matters of public interest. We can quibble a bit about the proper term to use, but what I just described is a constant in most if not all nations today.

  3. Clay Shirky

    This is excellent, thanks. The discussion needs something like this, especially as the arguing about labels like “Twitter Revolution” tend to divide people it should be uniting (both Matthew Ingram and Jillian York believe that social media had an effect, but Ingram uses the phrase as a stock-keeping unit for the overall thesis, while York abhors it) and to unite people it should be dividing (both York and Malcolm Gladwell object to the phrase, but Gladwell regards the net as largely useless, while York does not.)

    A couple observations: A category I might add is ‘Net as Path to Informed Citizenship’, where access to remote sources of information is assumed to be a key advantage. This assumption leads to emphasis on proxy servers and other ways of routing around censorship.

    (Though I’m not skeptical about the net as a source of information, I am skeptical about this claim when made broadly, both because it smacks of “We in the West hold the source code of democracy”, and because governments are not mainly threatened by informed individuals, but by synchronized groups. Nevertheless, this thread has gotten a lot of work, and was, rhetorically, at the core of Secretary Clinton’s “Internet Freedom” speech last year.)

    As for the “Public Sphere” option, I’d just add that one important aspect of that thesis, advocated by, inter alia, Zucherman, Tufecki, and me, is that media does not need to be political to affect politics. Put another way, the notion of “Net as a platform for a) distracted youth/b) political actors” is not an either/or choice.

    In the same way Gaddafi banned football matches in Libya to prevent there from being a place for crowds to gather, we’ve seen non-political online spaces take on political roles in times of crisis, as with fan sites for a Korean boy band helping drive the protest that got the entire Korean cabinet fired.

    Also, the “Dissident’s Advantage” theme (which I also believe, though I think it is less significant than the public sphere) includes several mechanisms in addition to those listed here:

    - It can allow a high degree of secrecy, as with the leaking of the “Palestine Papers”, a move clearly meant to affect national actors in the region.

    - It can help synchronize dissent (e.g. the ouster of Estrada in 2001), it can provide evidence that dissent is an effective strategy (as with the Mad Cow protests in Korea in 2008, along the lines of Granovetter’s ‘threshold models of collective behavior’).

    - It can broadcast the evidence of the dissent and of the state’s reaction to the outside world, which can in turn affect the conflict (e.g. Thai Rak Thai’s use of cellphone video to force Thailand to admit that they were using live fire on the demonstrators.) This use of public media also, of course, blends into the ‘public sphere’ argument.

    - And, most speculatively, it can allow for knowledge transfer among dissidents, as with the case of Tunisians passing advice to Egyptians via football message boards that members of both countries frequented.

    Obviously, you have a ‘lumping and splitting’ problem here, so it’s not clear that ‘Dissident’s Advantage’ would benefit from detailing all these methods (and I’m sure there are more.) On the other hand, given how different using the net to turn out protestors and to send documentation to the outside world, that category, of all the ones you list, seems most ripe for some sort of internal detail.

    And thanks again for doing this — really helpful.

  4. Thank you for this.

    One thing that I think might be missing from this discussion is the temporality of these states. There are numerous examples of new modes of communication spawning revolutions and paradigm shifts. The printing press and the decades of turmoil and war it resulted in europe perhaps being the most often stated. Of course, paradigm shifts are not only political but also scientific, philosophical and artistic. And these “revolutions” have happened as a result of almost every expansion of human means of communication; may it be the “social media” of the coffee houses during the enlightenment or the development of the postal system, as Steven Johnson for instance has so eloquently noted. But a state of revolution is always temporary, and people and societies learn to live with and control the technologies that might have helped to bring change about. Even though the printing press in the 15th century started as a huge force for change, it was not so much anymore by the end of 20th century. Even the contrary. If these techniques have disruptive power, they seem to be most powerful when they are new to the context.

    Keeping this in mind I would see the typology useful if it is not trying to describe the ontology of these social technologies and techniques but a sort of snapshot of the effect of them at this very moment.

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