by Eric Johnson on Apr 28, 2011
The demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square were organized by activists using mobile devices, and news and images about the event were spread using the same tools. Photo by Jonathan Rashad
When cell-phone- clutching Tunisians mobilized mass protests in late January to confront their kleptocratic rulers, Clay Shirky watched from his home thinking, “Oh God, please let this work. Please, not another Tiananmen.”
When the army joined the protesters and Tunisia’s president Ben Ali was forced out of power, Shirky said he felt “immense relief.”
Shirky, a media theorist and professor at New York University, had written an essay which was at that very moment on bookstore shelves in Foreign Affairs, the premier journal of American foreign policy. Titled “The Political Power of Social Media,” Shirky’s piece precisely predicts the events taking place in the Middle East.
It describes instances from around the globe where insurgent groups had learned to “weaponize social media” such as Twitter and Facebook—using them not just to tell the world what was going on, but also to synchronize their actions.
“Social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements,” Shirky writes. “Just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments are trying to limit access to [them].”
Tunisia’s “Twitter Revolution” spilled over into Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s regime teetered and then fell. The uprising, still powered by citizens using online tools and mobile devices, has since spread to Libya, Syria Yemen and Bahrain.
Speaking Tuesday from his office at NYU, Shirky said it is no exaggeration to suggest that the political world is being fundamentally altered.
“It has been just over 100 days since Ben Ali fell,” Shirky said. “So the world we’ve been theorizing about for 10 years, in which ordinary citizens are empowered with these tools, has been the world we’re living in for only 100 days.”
In the Foreign Affairs piece, Shirky traces the rise of politicized social media tools to the 2001 impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada, during which 7 million text messages reading, “Go 2 edsa; Wear blk” resulted in a protest a million strong. He writes about the 2009 Green Wave uprising in Iran, when activists used modern communications technologies to coordinate widespread protests against the rigged election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Both of those uprisings were squelched by violent government backlash.
In our interview, Shirky noted that despotic leaders are facing an unprecedented challenge.
“What we learned in the Philippines and what we learned in Iran is that autocrats can prevail if they are willing to kill their own citizens,” he said. “But now we are seeing that even Muammar Gaddafi does not want to murder too many of his citizens in the broad light of day. And the presence of people with camera phones makes it all but impossible to stage a massacre without consequences.”