Though many of the Middle Eastern revolutions have come and gone, the prevailing reasons behind them are still under much debate. The conflict largely hinges on whether or not social media can create action. According to one theory, it can actually stop it.
Navid Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale University, wrote his new paper investigating the power of social media during the Egyptian uprising. He differs from Malcolm Gladwell’s now-famous story that took media to task for praising Twitter and Facebook during the revolutions by saying that, yes, they do serve as good organizing tools. But they’re also great at distracting people from their cause, creating a normalizing effect that cows people into apathy.
The most important mobilizing factor, and Mubarak’s biggest mistake, was when the Egyptian government shut down the internet. Speaking with the New York Times, Hassanpour said:
“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” he writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”
Put another way, it forced people to react to the issue on a deeper, more personal level. Which was bad news for the regime. It was bad news for PM David Cameron during the London riots, and it was bad news for BART when they tried to prevent their own protests earlier this month.
How might a dictator quell dissenting opinion with this kind of knowledge, or at the very least stall it? By either throttling connectivity in a way that makes the internet less useful in strategic areas, or creating distractions that will prevent the revolution from reaching critical mass. It likely wouldn’t stop the eventual change the people would demand, but that change won’t be as swift.