Did or didn't Twitter have anything to do with the Arab Spring? The answer has gotten pretty murky. Malcolm Gladwell scoffed at the idea in The New Yorker. Yet, it looked like he was kind of wrong, and maybe social media had a real impact. But then another study refuted that claim, proving once and for all that the Internet is bad for revolutions. Now, another recent study out of University of Washington has Twitter for the win, reports Talking Points Memo's Tina Casey. "Social media, in the form of millions of tweets, played a "central role" leading up to the revolutionary movements that toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year." This study flip flopping only proves one thing: It's really hard to measure social media impact on revolutions.
These studies all agree on two things: Lots of people tweeted and the messages facilitated conversations. Twitter volume is something scientifically quantifiable. And indeed Twitter use rose during these revolutions, as Casey explains. "The number of tweets from Egypt went from 2,300 to 230,000 in the week leading to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak." Not only did tweeting increase, but lots of that tweeting was about the revolution and helped shaped the debate. Of course, even the study that said Internet hurts revolutions conceded this point. "To put it another way, all the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest," noted The New York Times's Noam Cohen.
Tweets increased. Those tweets talked about governments and stuff. But how can we measure the real-world effects of those messages? While the University of Washington study found that "a spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground," that doesn't really prove much about causation. And, as Yale's Navid Hassanpour asserted, "Full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action." But he only notes that Internet disruption--a time when tweeting would've stopped--exacerbated unrest. Another correlation argument that doesn't fully address the impact of the tweets.
So at the end of all this research, what do we know? Twitter had something important to do with the Arab Spring. It's just hard to measure exactly what.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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