Do networked communications really facilitate political revolutions?

The difficulties of measuring the relationship between social Internet usage and political struggle are so great that claims about it are almost never based on evidence. 

By Laurin Weissinger

Since the start of the Arab revolutions in 2010, the Internet and mobile communication are widely considered to be useful indicators when it comes to political uprisings and revolutions. Commentators, journalists and academics alike have talked and written about how Internet communication has been important or even crucial to these movements. Western news outlets made use of the rather uncontrolled information flows from Egypt, Syria and Turkey for reporting but also tried to utilise online activities as a way to understand and predict outcomes. The respective potentates in Egypt, Syria and Turkey reacted blatantly: communication surveillance, deactivation of networks, and sabotage were used to assume control over the communication flows. And it is not contained to the East, either. The vast surveillance machinery used by the United States and its allies shows that governments worldwide recognise the centrality of digital communications and has sparked debates around the globe.

While the optimism has become more restrained and reserved after the Snowden leaks, many public intellectuals and academics have argued that the switch from mass media to networked communications was a shift conducive to democratisation and political freedom. Their arguments seem sound: in theory and at the moment in practice, the Internet is the most conducive medium known to us for expressing minority opinions and releasing information that is considered problematic for those in power. Such open spaces are particularly useful in democratic uprisings to gain support and make one’s (usually oppressed) voice heard. While potentially true in theory, things are not that easy; neither are Facebook or Twitter such democratic spaces in general, nor is the link between democratisation and Internet activity that clear and obvious.

Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution

Even when Facebook is down, Tahrir Square is up and running (Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr).

The flaws of uncritically linking the Internet to democratisation are manifold, and I would like to focus on four of them: The first is that the idea of a democratic and open Internet is flawed. Second, the complexity of social interaction during revolutions is an important but often overlooked element. Third, data and methodology are often insufficient to properly link digital communication to democratisation. Fourth, when considering the bigger picture and the international arena, the Internet and digital communications are a much lesser factor in decision-making than the press make them out to be.

First and foremost, it is important to note that unlike in the early days, contemporary data communications networks are not democratic infrastructures; and neither are they overly fail-proof or difficult to control. Many countries are connected to the world by one to three glass fibre nodes and therefore, controlling or at least, tapping, the bulk of the information outflow is not immensely difficult. Furthermore, the group of entities that have a profound influence on the infrastructure is not that great either: Less than ten providers serve the overwhelming majority of users in any given country – in most cases, the number is closer to five.

On the social level, things are mostly the same: while decentralised services do exist, a few giants dominate the social sphere of the Internet – Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and a few others make up most of the traffic. More than 60% of all Internet-enabled devices communicate with Google servers alone. All of the above-mentioned companies govern their own social spaces and have censored voices or given out personal information, which was later used to hunt down members of the democratic opposition. They have their own agenda and those fighting for democracy and civil liberties can hardly count on them.

Second, revolutions are messy. We rarely see a clear-cut situation. Most of the time, things are much more complex: Various groups with differing interests change alliances; followers shift and dormant groups get “activated” by incisive activities or events. And most importantly, conflicts within the opposition as well as within the current power elite are very likely. Trust, personal networks, support for various groups, and even political opinions may change quickly.

No internet today

Not today, either (Photo: GraciolliDotcom / Flickr).

Social networks, and digital communication as a whole, resonate with such a situations but can be an important factor themselves. For example, switching off communications is a typical measure taken by oppressive regimes. However, when and how to do it is a difficult strategic choice: what is turned off cannot be surveyed and depending on various factors, the lack of communication options may calm the situation but also spark additional protests. For Egypt, this point has been made: when the Internet and mobile networks were switched off, people had to hit the streets to stay in the loop, increasing the number of protestors. Understanding such situations is difficult, even on the ground. Therefore, simply monitoring activity rates and making conclusions based on such superficial data is analytically unsound. This leads us to the third point: methodology.

 The argument that activity on the Internet or social networks underlines their importance for democratisation is short-sighted: the way people communicate in general has shifted towards digital communication and consequentially; an increase of activities during incisive times is not at all surprising. People use their digital devices during political struggles, since it is the way we communicate today – but this does not mean that otherwise, communication would not take place in one way or the other. The biggest part of the increase is likely the resonance of other events or simply communication without tangible consequences.

The particularity of uprisings and the messiness of social interactions during such insecure times also impact the accuracy of day-to-day metrics, which incidentally work very well in stable situations. However, during revolutionary struggles, behavioural patterns change: some people may choose to voice their opinion on Facebook, others may choose switching to more secure ways of communication. Without the toolkit of intelligence services, even monitoring of raw data flows remains difficult.

Most researchers focus on the Internet giants due to accessibility and their relative importance. In consequence, their analyses neglect other forms of digital communication, like e-mail or blogs. Furthermore, due to the particularity of revolutionary struggles and a lack of comparable data, interpretation is difficult: How much is a Like on Facebook worth, is Twitter a useful tool for the process of deliberation, and can we be sure that the interactions we see on social networks are representative of what is actually going on? Unfortunately, even in the context of stable situations, we clearly lack a good understanding at this point in time.

Both the potentates and the revolutionary groups are aware of the Internet and its reflexivity: not trying to influence the picture being painted by their own followers and the users in general would be dangerous and imprudent. Strategy matters, and therefore we may not see a good representation of events, or a clear picture of what is going on. We may also oversee a lot of things, which are kept off the radar deliberately. Conclusively, what we see when monitoring social media is an incomplete picture, which different actors and groups try to spin in their favour. The biggest part of what we measure is noise, while the signal is difficult to find.

Fourth, we may not forget that while the Internet surely does show us sides of conflicts we have not seen before, its impact is not that great. Information flows matter a lot and can have a big impact but as the conflict in Syria shows, prove for mass murder of civilians widely available on the Internet does not necessarily cause a definite reaction.

Millions of Likes on Facebook are nothing compared to signatures of President Obama or President Putin. Unlike most Facebook users, they hold tangible power: they have political influence and heavy weaponry to fall back on. Indeed, public opinion at home can have a great deal of leverage on political decision-making but the outcry is normally insufficient to cause a quick change of strategy. Economic interests of elite actors, military strategy, and international relations are much more important for political leaders abroad than a petition by their citizens or atrocities published on Facebook. The struggle around the (non-) intervention in Syria is the perfect example.

In conclusion, we see a change of times. To a huge extent, communication has changed to digital forms but it is much too early to conclude that this new form of communication is democratising. Indeed, pictures, videos and texts flow and do impact abroad but we are likely to overestimate their weight.

Firstly, the Internet is not democratic and easily controlled by states and corporations alike. Surveillance and censorship are easily put into place, and with the right tools such measures can be incredibly effective.

Second, revolutionary struggles are complex and messy: the impact of an action may inverse itself very quickly and judging what caused what is difficult for out- and insiders alike.

Third, most measurements and data points taken by proponents of the “democratisation” camp are questionable: we lack complete data, we lack data points to compare, and we often lack a sufficient understanding to make appropriate conclusions. This is not to say that the Internet does not have an impact but rather that the basis for such fundamental claims has yet to be established. At the moment, digital communications seem to have had a positive but often overestimated impact – but without any doubt, potentates have learned and more powerful censorship and surveillance techniques are waiting around the corner.

Fourth, as unfortunate as it is, the recorded suffering of vulnerable individuals and the support by people from abroad is not the most decisive factor in the international arena. Indeed, digital communication may change a lot in terms of how we communicate and how we learn about struggles but if it proves to be democratising is yet to be seen.  At the moment, and for the most part, political change seems to be decided upon elsewhere.


Laurin Weissinger

Laurin Weissinger is an MSc student in sociology at the University of Oxford. He works on the social impact of modern technology.

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