In this Guardian column, Evgeny Morozov (whose book I confess to not having read – yet) tempers the cyber-utopians’ proclamations of the power of social networking to bringing democracy to the Middle East. It is a must-read that goes over some now-familiar topics I have blogged about: the fact that real social movements still require old-fashioned people on the streets taking real risks against the powers they are fighting.
And yes, Twitter and Facebook may be useful tools, but they are simply that, tools. This should not be a very controversial idea, so, for Morozov, there must be something behind the quick and superficial embrace of the notion of political power of social media platforms:
“First of all, while the recent round of uprisings may seem spontaneous to western observers – and therefore as magically disruptive as a rush-hour flash mob in San Francisco – the actual history of popular regime change tends to diminish the central role commonly ascribed to technology. By emphasising the liberating role of the tools and downplaying the role of human agency, such accounts make Americans feel proud of their own contribution to events in the Middle East. After all, the argument goes, such a spontaneous uprising wouldn’t have succeeded before Facebook was around – so Silicon Valley deserves a lion’s share of the credit. If, of course, the uprising was not spontaneous and its leaders chose Facebook simply because that’s where everybody is, it’s a far less glamorous story.
Second, social media – by the very virtue of being “social” – lends itself to glib, pundit-style overestimations of its own importance. In 1989, the fax-machine industry didn’t employ an army of lobbyists – and fax users didn’t feel the same level of attachment to these clunky machines as today’s Facebook users feel toward their all-powerful social network. Perhaps the outsize revolutionary claims for social media now circulating throughout the west are only a manifestation of western guilt for wasting so much time on social media: after all, if it helps to spread democracy in the Middle East, it can’t be all that bad to while away the hours “poking” your friends and playing FarmVille. But the recent history of technology strongly suggests that today’s vogue for Facebook and Twitter will fade as online audiences migrate to new services. Already, tech enthusiasts are blushing at the memory of the serious academic conferences once devoted to the MySpace revolution.
Third, the people who serve as our immediate sources about the protests may simply be too excited to provide a balanced view. Could it be that the Google sales executive Wael Ghonim – probably the first revolutionary with an MBA – who has emerged as the public face of Egypt’s uprising, vowing to publish his own book about “Revolution 2.0″, is slightly overstating the role of technology, while also downplaying his own role in the lead-up to the protests? After all, the world has yet to meet a Soviet dissident who doesn’t think it was the fax machine that toppled the Politburo – or a former employee of Radio Free Europe or Voice of America who doesn’t think it was western radio broadcasting that brought down the Berlin Wall.”
I would also argue that all the talk of the role of social networking sites pushes other topics of discussion to the background: how these regimes have maintained themselves in power for so long thanks to Western military assistance, that is, assistance in repressing their social movements; the role of increased impoverished youth in the context of economic globalization; the rise in food prices as a result of factors such as climate change and financial speculation.
It’s much more fun and hip to talk about how Twitter allowed activists to bypass governmental censorship. As the article linked above notes,
“Nowhere is immune to this wave of rebellion because globalisation is a fact; all the world’s markets are intricately interlinked, and woe in one place quickly translates into fury in another. Twenty years ago, things were more manageable. When grain production collapsed in the Soviet Union during the 1980s and what had been one of the world’s greatest grain exporters became a net importer, the resulting surges of anger brought down the whole Communist system within a couple of years – but stopped there. Today there are no such firebreaks, and thanks to digital communications, events happen much faster.
Why are all these revolutions happening now? Plenty of answers have been offered: the emergence of huge urban populations with college degrees but no prospect of work; the accumulation of decades of resentment at rulers who are “authoritarian familial kleptocracies delivering little to their people”, as Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation put it; the subversive role of Facebook and Twitter, fatally undermining the state’s systems of thought control.
Absent from this list – to the combined bewilderment and relief of the US and Europe – are the factors that were universally supposed to be driving populist politics in the Middle East: Islamic fundamentalism coupled with anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism. As one Egyptian pointed out after the fall of Mubarak, at no point during weeks of passionate revolt did either the Israeli or the US embassies become a target of the crowd’s fury, even though both are within easy reach of Tahrir Square. “Not so much as a Coke can was thrown over the wall,” he said.
The first warnings of what was to come appeared in the form of a briefing paper on the website of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in December. “Recent bouts of extreme price volatility in global agricultural markets,” it said, “portend rising and more frequent threats to world food security. There is emerging consensus that the global food system is becoming more vulnerable and susceptible to episodes of extreme price volatility. As markets are increasingly integrated in the world economy, shocks in the international arena can now transpire and propagate to domestic markets much quicker than before.”
The “shocks” all occurred a long way from Cairo and Tunis. They included fires in Russia last autumn which wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of grain; heavy rains in Canada, destroying the wheat crop there; hot, dry weather in Argentina which destroyed the soybean crop; the Australian floods which ruined the wheat harvest. The Middle East accounts for one-third of worldwide wheat imports. The combined effect of these far-flung agricultural problems was to bump up the food price index by 32 per cent in the second half of 2010.
For the poor of the Middle East, the price shocks at the start of this year were like experiencing a second killer earthquake in three years – but unlike with an earthquake, there was someone you could blame. So angry were the food price protesters in Tunisia that, after Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and promised to reduce the price of food. But it was too little, too late: by mid-January he was gone.
Tunisia’s turmoil, warned The Washington Post as the toppled president flew off into exile, “has economists worried that we may be seeing the beginning of a second wave of global food riots”. As we know now, it turned out somewhat differently. Food riots in 2008, revolutions in 2011 – what, where, who is next?”
But yeah, it’s much less glamorous than Revolution 2.0.