Social Media Revolution
When the Arab Spring erupted in 2010, one of the first things people noticed was the very visible role social media seemed to play. Many began to call the series of political uprisings “Twitter Revolutions” and a lively debate broke out about the importance of the new technology.
Malcolm Gladwell quickly moved to downplay the effect of social media and pointed out that organized action requires hierarchy. Twitter’s Biz Stone fired back and argued that Gladwell simply didn’t understand the principles of self-organizing systems.
Having had some personal experience, I found neither compelling and said so at the time. Yet, now we can do more than speculate. The current Euromaidan protests in Ukraine are, in many ways, a continuation of the Orange Revolution in 2004—before social media existed—and give us a unique opportunity to understand how the world has really changed.
Revolution Before Social Media
To understand the impact of communication technology on political uprisings, you first have to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of one. It is—and I don’t mean to trivialize things—very much like looking for a party in college. You spend a lot of time milling around, looking for news about what’s going on and what to be sure to avoid.
In the slow motion revolutions the Eastern Bloc had before the fall of the Berlin Wall, fax machines were immensely powerful. Jihadists have been known to use cassette and videotapes to get their message out. Any medium that is beyond the control of the regime can be helpful, because information is your principal asset.
In 2004 Kiev, we didn’t have social media, but electronic media played an important role. Online chat boards were accessed from homes and offices and mobile phones would relay news to the streets. If you were at the Maidan—the center of the protests—and something was happening at the Cabinet of Ministers, text messages would fly and off you would go.
There were also some independent news outlets. At the time, I was working both with the Kyiv Post in English and Korrespondent in Russian. We started printing a daily newspaper and distributed it free at the protests. Others, such as TV Channel 5 and Ukrainska Pravda also played important roles. So there was no shortage of information outlets.
Yet, social media certainly adds crucial new elements and I think recent events in Ukraine should dispel any doubts that it makes an important difference.
The New Media Landscape
In 2004, the state controlled most of the major media outlets. Reporters had to toe the line or they were fired and relegated to obscurity. They had little choice. So it wasn’t surprising when allies of the Yanukovich regime began to buy up media companies and install new management. Controlling the media has always been an authoritarian imperative.
Shortly before the current protests ensued, a new media purge began and two of my former colleagues, Vitaly Sych and Yulia McGuffie—both of whom are friends I know well—were told they would either have to start reporting what they were told to or they would be fired. Both resigned and most of their staff left with them.
But this time they weren’t relegated to obscurity. Now, released from any restrictions of journalistic propriety, they both actively supported the protests on Facebook, not only reporting on events but actually announcing them beforehand. As two of the most prominent journalists in the country, they were immensely powerful messengers.
Many of their posts were shared thousands of times and were read and discussed widely. As journalists, they had been providing objective analysis. Now on social media, they were often issuing rallying calls. Control of the media, once a mainstay of autocratic regimes, has become a pipedream.
How Disruption Happens
In the past, media provided a filter. If something was on the front page or the evening news, it was considered important. If not, it wasn’t. Yet today, anyone can broadcast—whether it be a distraught mother or a crusading journalist. Nobody needs to ask for permission, even in a corrupt, authoritarian country.
And that’s why social media is playing an increasing role in shaping events. A small group of passionate people can influence others that are slightly more reticent, still others take notice and also join in. Before you know it, a movement ensues like in this TED video.
That’s how disruption happens and social media makes it happen much, much faster. So fast, in fact, that the well positioned and powerful can do little to stop it. It’s not that people didn’t have ways of communicating before, it was just that the power of mass media dominated. Now the playing field has been leveled.
The End of Power and The Challenge Ahead
As Moisés Naím explained in his book The End of Power, technology, along with globalization and economic trends, has made “power easier to get, but harder to use or keep” and that brings us to the present dilemma. We now know how to disrupt, but we still have no clear formula for bridging the gap from disruption to legitimacy.
We’ve already seen this problem in the countries of the Arab Spring, many of which have descended into chaos. I fear that social media will be little help in this regard. Malcolm Gladwell had a point when he argued that hierarchy plays a crucial role in organizing sustained action.
So the road ahead is somewhat murky, but a few things are clear. The days of the Tsars are over. Power is no longer absolute, but must be grounded in shared principles. If the social contract is breached, there will be a heavy price to pay and social media will play a major part in exacting that price.
As for Ukraine, the next election is set for 2015 and the opposition candidate will surely be a pro-European candidate. In a society that has lost its legitimacy, only adherence to international standards will be seen as genuine and justifiable. But eventually, through good governance and hard work, internal validity and trust can be built.
And if not, the streets, which have emptied somewhat, will surely be full again. Social media has made that a near certainty. As US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia recently put it, “the embers that sparked the protests in late November are still burning and will not be easily extinguished.”