The Twitter Revolution Debate Is Dead

by Ella Chou

The debate about the role of digital social media in social movements is brought to a new height with events in Tunisia and Egypt. Chinese netizens also labeled the success of the Egyptian demonstrations a victory of the "Twitter Revolution"Graham Webster, graduate student in political science at the University of Washington, who studies China and the intersection of technology and politics, writes in to say that the Twitter revolution is dead, and he makes a cogent argument for cyber pragmatism:

"It is a triumph of science and energy over time and space, uniting more closely the bonds of peace and commercial prosperity, -- introducing an era in the world's history pregnant with results beyond the conception of a finite mind." It, of course, is the transatlantic telegraph, in the words of the mayor of New York in August 1858.

But would it not be reasonable if I claimed these were the words of a Twitter proponent with strange diction? In 2009, this kind of rhetoric seemed ubiquitous. A "Twitter revolution" (later failed) was under way in Iran, and freedom was to flow from a fiber-optic terminal. A battle of narratives emerged.

In one corner, we had "cyper-optimists," these heralds of a new era of liberalization triggered by a fundamental democratizing force of the internet and social media. In the other, we had "cyber-pessimists," cautious realists who witnessed or anticipated the ways authoritarian governments could use the internet to shore up control. After a battle played out in op-eds, popular books, online debates, and the killing fields of punditlandia, the two sides have obliterated one other.

After the events in Iran, intense debate over Belarus, Moldova, the Philippines, Tunisia, and now Egypt, a tentative realism has set in--and it's just what we need.

It has become clear that in authoritarian countries, as in college dorms or corporate offices, cheap digital technology and social media applications can change the way people organize. It has also become clear that authoritarian governments, just like other governments, can use the internet and digital technology to try to accomplish their goals.

For some, such as Clay Shirky and Malcom Gladwell, the debate is still on (though even they have refined their rhetoric). However, in what I see as a growing wave of essays and news reports, the notion that information and communication technologies could almost singlehandedly cause a movement that leads to a regime change is passé, and no longer in need of refutation. Revolutionaries and political contexts cause revolution, and they succeed or fail for reasons that necessarily transcend their tools.

What excites me as a researcher is that we have reached a stage where the structure of revolutions and the contributing or countervailing role of technology is discussed in some subtlety even by pundits.

We have come back to the question of how political change happens, and technology no longer needs to be the center of the story. Even better, some are reasonably asking what we even mean by revolution, if technology is to be a part of it. Even the folks who think technology is pushing history are getting more careful, taking the focus away from specific applications and underlining the tradeoffs of online organizing.

It is important that this new equilibrium set in. Cyber-pragmatism is the perspective that should guide U.S. policy on the internet. As much as I believe in freedom of speech, expression, press, etc., it has to be an open question as to whether internet freedom is really a core U.S. interest, and one way or another, liberalizers can't use social media as a crutch. Policymakers and thinkers should not be seduced by fantastic stories of tech-driven reform, or by one-sided stories of tech-enabled suppression. Only careful consideration and debate will show the way, and if we leave the Twitter revolution debate behind, we just might get there.

Ella Chou, who grew up in Hangzhou, China, is a graduate student in Regional Studies - East Asia at Harvard University, studying law and comparative politics.