I recently read an article by Hamza Shaban with the provocative title “How Social Media Can Weaken a Revolution.” The primary focus of the piece was a Journal of International Affairs paper with a more scholarly title, “Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape.” The article also contained comments from the paper’s author, Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
As its title suggests, Tufekci’s paper examines the evolving dynamic between digitally-empowered social movements and the governments they are attempting to influence (or, in some cases, overthrow). Regarding the former, the paper’s key insight appears to be that:
Social media both empowers new digitally-fueled movements and contributes to their apparent weaknesses… The ability to scale-up quickly using digital infrastructure has empowered movements to embrace their horizontalist and leaderless aspirations, which in turn have engendered new weaknesses after the initial phase of street actions ebbs. Movements without organizational depth are often unable to weather such transitions.
As to government’s response to these movements, Tufekci observes that:
While digital media create more possibilities to evade censorship, many governments have responded by demonizing and attacking social media, thus contributing to polarized environments in which dissidents have access to a very different set of information compared to those more loyal to the regime. This makes it hard to create truly national campaigns of dissent.
Contrasting recent developments in Turkey and Egypt, as well as the U.S.-centric Occupy movement with earlier civil rights and Vietnam War protest movements, Tufekci says:
Digital infrastructure helps undertake functions that would have otherwise required more formal and long-term organizing which, almost as a side effect, help build organizational capacity to respond to long-term movement requirements. Working together to take care of the logistics of a movement, however tedious, also builds trust and an ability to collaborate effectively. Consequently, many recent movements enter into the most contentious phase, the potential confrontation with authorities, without any prior history of working together or managing pivotal moments under stress.
Though noting critiques of the Internet’s role in society as leading to “slacktivism—the tendency to click on links or like posts rather than taking concrete actions or steps,” Tufekci takes a more nuanced approach. Referring to Charles Tilly’s four characteristics of successful social movements—worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment—she suggests that digital social media readily support the first three, but that the fourth characteristic, commitment, is more challenging. At the same time, she notes that “street actions are also not magic wands for social movements.” They “can and do falter,” she observes, “often because they lose the fight for worthiness in the public eye.”
Citing her own research, Tufekci notes that:
Do you have any idea what ICT4DAg is? Well, I have had no idea until I attended a fascinating seminar with Professor Charles Steinfield that focused on his projects in sub-Saharan countries. It was the third Quello/Law School VIPP seminar.
So, all of you are familiar with ICT, and ICT4Ag stands for ICT for Development in Agriculture. And in simple words, Prof. Steinfield and his colleagues study the use of new communication technologies and devices – mobile phones in particular – in rural areas in East Africa. However, they do not study merely the social uses; rather, what is more interesting are the uses that aim at improving agriculture (as well as education, for example) in these poor areas and by that improving their standards of life. For example, providing professional advice, market and financial information, weather conditions, and so forth.
There are three main gaps that prevent a more success in these efforts. First is the huge gap between the developed world and the developing world regarding the penetration of new technologies; second is the gender gap regarding access to these technologies; and third is a gap in access and use of these devices between different countries within the same region (Kenya vs. Malawi, for example) and between cities and rural regions within the same country.
Anyway, there is an optimistic angle to this story as well, and it is associated with the old media of radio and television. Professor Steinfield told us about Shamba shape up, a reality TV program in Kenya, which manages to achieve in a very clever and interesting way the same goal of helping these farmers in their daily life in the fields and at their homes. And there are some other similar radio and television programs such as Rukaa Juu in Tanzania.
There is a lot more to tell about the issue, so if you are interested, search for Professor Steinfield’s publications on this topic.
Avshalom Ginosar, PhD, Communication Department, The Academic College of Yezreel Valley
Visiting Scholar, The Quello Center, The Department of Media & Information, The College of Communication Art & Science, Michigan State University
Sung Wook Ji, a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Media & Information at MSU, has organized a series of lectures for Michigan State University’s Visiting International Professional Program (VIPP) around communication technology and policy issues. The Quello Center will work with Professor Ji to bring the series to a larger audience through a set of interviews and short Webcasts. In addition to Prof. Sung Wook Ji, speakers will include Professors Johannes Bauer, Charles Steinfield, Steve Wildman and Constantinos Coursaris of the Department of Media & Information, and Professor Adam Candeub of the Law School at MSU. Topics will range from an introduction to U.S. communications law and policy Issues (focusing on Internet policy), including focused talks on such issues as content regulation, spectrum management, and ICT4D, to new media business models and trends in multichannel video distribution and consumption. Many of the talks will be held in the Quello Center meeting room and you can follow these VIPP events and Webcasts on this blog.
The Director of the Quello Center, Bill Dutton, first worked with Sung Wook on an edited chapter for Society and the Internet, edited by Mark Graham and William Dutton, and published by Oxford University Press in 2014. Sung Wook’s chapter with David Waterman contributes an important set of empirical findings to debates over the impact of the Internet on film industries, arguing that despite declining revenues, more films are being produced without a reduction in quality, in part due to cost reductions enabled by digital media. It is a must read chapter. See their chapter, entitled ‘The Impact of the Internet on Media Industries: An Economic Perspective’, in Society and the Internet.