On January 25, 2011, the people of Egypt came together to protest a dictatorship that had neglected their needs and silenced their voices. Starting as a small group of 50 marching from a mosque in the Mohandiseen neighborhood, the group grew to 10,000 by the time they reached Tahrir Square. Tweet by tweet, Facebook post by Facebook post, people learnt of the movement and began to join in the protest.
Social media not only gave protesters an easy way to disseminate information and coordinate action; it also gave individuals comfort and conviction in the knowledge that they did not stand alone. As the battle raged on, buffeted by this solidarity that could now be freely expressed and mutually acknowledged through social media, the movement only grew, eventually leading to the resignation of Mubarak after 29 years in power. In an ideal world, the story would have ended here — with Egypt as a thriving democracy and social media feted as the tool that brought down the dictator.
Except that it didn’t.
The movement had come with expectations that a more liberal and democratic country would emerge. A year later, however, protests continued as dictatorship was replaced by military rule. The people of Egypt had found their voice and reclaimed their right to be heard, and were hungry for more. They were not content with the removal of Mubarak — they wanted fair wages, a change in economic policies and a civilian government removed from the influence of the military.
The rules of politics have changed in unexpected ways with the rise of social media. When Facebook was launched in 2004 and Twitter in 2006, nobody could have predicted that they would play a key role in the wave of revolutions that saw ordinary people bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Nor did they foresee the influence these websites would have on the 2008 US presidential elections and American politics ever since.
Yet while many have heralded a new dawn of democracy made possible by social media, the instability witnessed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions and the unpredictability associated with using social media in politics has given rise to doubts about what social media can do and its impact on democracy. So is social media good or bad for democracies? Can it promote genuine change in political systems? And how far can it create and enhance the liberal public sphere integral to sustaining democracy?
Although the movement in Egypt managed to institute popular elections, resulting in the inauguration of Mohammed Morsi, the fifth and only civilian President of Egypt, in the chaos of rapid political change, Egypt’s long standing social and economic problems were only exacerbated by the chaos of the country’s post-revolutionary environment. The economy was contracting, investments had dropped and crime had risen due to the dissolution of police forces.
Jim Sleeper, a political science professor at Yale University, explained, “Social media does not by itself ensure democracy, it can open things up, but cannot by itself ensure binding commitments. [Social media] is a good accelerator, a good stimulant but it does not provide the social order that democracy needs.”
Furthermore, social media’s ability to spread information and sentiment, to bring people together rapidly and spontaneously, also meant that the public was more susceptible to manipulation. On September 12, 2012, mobs of people stormed the US Embassy in Egypt, tearing down the American flag and scaling the embassy walls. Later it was discovered that the protest was planned by Salafists, who instigated the riot by circulating an objectionable video ridiculing Islam’s prophet, Mohammed. According to Eric Trager, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, when the video started circulating, the spokesman for the Salafist political party called on people to go to the embassy, while the brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri tweeted that people should go to the embassy and “defend the prophet.”
“The instantaneity of social media, the fact that people just click and glimpse and react quickly makes them subject to manipulation,” said Sleeper. “Like radio in the past, social media brings instant intimacy and the ability to react quickly, but that might make it possible to stampede people and get them going.”
In mature democracies like the US, social media is also playing an increasingly game-changing role in politics. Today, Facebook has 140 million active users in the US alone and both President Obama and Mitt Romney post and tweet regularly in an attempt to win votes.
The influence of social media is also evident as a political tool. Battling deadlock in Congress to raise the debt ceiling last summer, President Obama, armed with 9.4 million Twitter followers, took to the website to pressure Republicans to compromise. The president tweeted: “The time for putting party first is over. If you want to see a bipartisan #compromise, let Congress know. Call. Email. Tweet. – BO.” The people called, bombarding the Capitol switchboard, and tweeted, effectively spamming their representatives with the hashtag to #compromise.
The force of social media in increasing political engagement is also reflected in the United States’ 2010 midterm elections. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, Facebook users who saw a “Vote” message in their newsfeeds were more likely to vote than those who saw no such message. The study concluded that people are more likely to vote if they’re told their friends — or friends of friends — have.
Furthermore, social media create an effective platform for everyday citizens to publicly engage in wide-reaching political conversation from the comfort of their own homes. During the two recent party conventions, seven million public comments were posted on Twitter and Facebook in response to the evening TV coverage, according to an analysis by Bluefin Labs. And 2.5 million of those remarks were made during the final 90 minutes of the Democratic National Convention, a new record for social response to a single electoral event. Gone are the days when public political commentary was reserved for the educated elite or those with privileged knowledge.
These days, anybody can be a political commentator with a click of the mouse.
The unprecedented national debate enabled by social media also has immense potential, especially in increasing political engagement and providing a diversity of viewpoints in countries where the media industry is less developed. In Singapore, for example, the media industry is dominated by two government-linked conglomerates. But the Internet has provided a space for independent alternative news sources such as The Online Citizen and political bloggers to thrive; this in turn puts increased pressure on the government to liberalize the use of media.
Prior to the 2006 elections, the Singapore government maintained a tight control on online media, legislating that even private or individual political bloggers had to register with the Media Development Authority. Online bloggers protested this legislation and called for greater political liberalism by defying this act of censorship. In the run-up to Election Day on May 6, 2006, more than fifty websites with political content emerged with the number of posts peaking at 200 per day. This resulted in amendments made to the Films Act, allowing greater freedom to distribute political films and transmit personal political views by any individual to another using the Internet.
Yale political science professor Nikolay Marinov, who teaches a course on International Democratization, observed, “The outcome of such collective effort can be very visible and in places where alternative means are less developed, social media will play a larger role. People learn from each other’s experience and that acts as a toolkit [for social media], so everyone can pretty much yield it and you need relatively little money and other resources to make a difference.”
Besides providing space for independent news sources and political viewpoints to arise, social media like Facebook have also driven and enhanced the spread of diverse viewpoints. (Amongst your thousands of friends, surely some of them think differently from you.)
During Singapore’s 2011 general elections, Facebook gave people a place to write extensive notes concerning pertinent political issues. This fostered debate as people shared, commented and responded with Facebook notes of their own, multiplying the number of people in the conversation.
Yet while social media can inspire Americans and Singaporeans to be politically engaged and rally Egyptians against a tyrannical government, it cannot provide a long-term solution for alternative governance, nor can it guarantee that the rallying force it enables will not be manipulated to create chaos and disorder. Social media can provide a platform for alternative viewpoints and a common medium for people with diverse viewpoints to engage in conversation, especially in countries where there were none before. But one should be cautious of conflating political discussion with political action.
At the end of the day, as Sleeper put it, “Social media is good at aerating the soil, getting more nutrients, more sunlight in… but it doesn’t guarantee the result. It is necessary but insufficient.”
Samantha Lee is a junior in Pierson College.