Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted.

[A shorter version of this post appears at TheAtlantic.com.]

With the backdrop of political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, Roger Cohen mocks Evgeny Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, as an ill-timed book in the same category as Dow 36,000, which was published just before the dot-com crash. (The Jester thanks Anno Saxenian for forwarding the article.) Cohen epitomizes technology utopians when he writes, “The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation.”

Predictably, the Jester sides with Morozov, however, whose point is subtler. (The Jester confesses he hasn’t yet read Morozov’s book, but he has thoroughly studied the back and inside covers.) Morozov’s goal is to highlight the negative uses of the Internet, often by powerful governments to achieve their own nefarious ends. Morozov’s real intent is to deny the simplistic, one-sided view that dissemination of communication technologies necessarily supports democracy.

Morozov doesn’t provide an overarching theory for when technology supports democracy and when it doesn’t, but by now, the Jester’s readers can shout in chorus: “Technology amplifies human intent and capacity.” This, of course, extends to human-run institutions like democracy.

Consider this: If the Internet by itself were the key to causing democracy, then you’d expect a country like China, with its 420 million Internet users to be a fecund breeding ground for democracy-minded activists, eager to cast off their totalitarian government. But, although there are dissident voices in China, and they do often make use of the Internet, the Chinese populace on the whole doesn’t appear prone to overthrowing its government any time soon. Nor do the citizens of Singapore, where Internet penetration is nearly 100%.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that plenty of revolutions have taken place without electronic ICTs, and that not all tweeted attempts at revolution succeed. Remember the American revolution? People wrote paper pamphlets and succeeded. And, how about Iran? People Facebooked and YouTubed, but bits are no match for atoms.

These counterexamples show that the claims of communication technologies as the primary cause, or even the catalyst, of large-scale positive social change are misleading. The Jester believes they lead to poor policy in foreign affairs and international development. They commit the classic error of confusing correlation with cause. It’s not so much that tweeting foments rebellion, but that in our age, all rebellions are tweeted.

What, then, is the cause? If the Jester may engage in a bit of armchair political science, three points emerging from Egypt and Tunisia offer clues. First, the protesters express years, if not decades, of frustrations with their government. People need to be deeply unhappy before they march. The Internet only spreads news. It doesn’t spread unemployment.

Second, the protests are led mostly by educated, middle-class people. It takes an educated population that isn’t living hand-to-mouth, to risk an upending of the status quo. In contrast, there are many oppressed but starving populations that don’t put up a fight. You can’t eat freedom; better a dictator who feeds you than a democracy who doesn’t. (Kevin Bales, an expert on modern slavery, tells a story of a couple who buy themselves out of slavery, and then promptly sign back up with their old master, because without him, they have neither food nor secuirty.)

Third, the governments’ physical might, or their will to use it, appears to be weak. In Egypt’s case, the Jester wagers that how it all turns out will depend on the willingness of the army to be ruthless. So far, it seems the army itself is reluctant to hurt citizens. Must have been because of Facebook!

(Broken record warning.) Technology magnifies the underlying intent and capacity of people and institutions. But, it doesn’t in and of itself change human intent, which evolves through non-technological social forces. Successful revolutions are tipping points, which mark the point when the power of capable citizens frustrated with their governments exceeds the will and physical might of a government intent on power. An avalanche’s underlying cause is a flake-by-flake accumulation of snow; similarly, the tipping point of revolution is the culmination of a person-by-person accumulation of frustration and middle-class security.

The Jester accepts that it’s hard to predict how technological magnification comes out. Different capacities are magnified, and so government and citizen intent will be amplified differently. But, on the whole, the tipping point is determined not so much by technology, but by other forces often buried deep in human psyches. Witness how little FoxNews and MSNBC converts opposing opinions in the United States. If “connecting people” or “making people aware of the plight of others” through technology were the primary cause of peace and equality, then America ought to converge to consensus with all the communication happening over TV, radio, Internet, and mobile phone. But, if anything, the technology is creating greater polarization. Democrats are Democrats, not primarily because they are exposed to left-leaning ideas online. Republicans are Republicans, not primarily because they hear right-leaning ideas on FoxNews. This is again, confusing correlation with cause.

Technology can communicate frustration, but it also amplifies government propaganda and misinformation. Technology can accelerate a revolution once it begins, but it can’t feed or educate an enfeebled population to the point of rebellion (PCs for schools notwithstanding). Whatever extent technology helps revolutionaries communicate, it is a minor contribution compared to the circumstances that made them revolutionaries.

What does this mean for policy? Technology policy should be more selectively applied. It helps most when the social balance is already in favor of a desired outcome. Otherwise, there are other conditions we might push for first – good nutrition, viable healthcare, and universal education – most of which are less controversial, even for dictators. And, in any case, technology-for-all policies require extreme care, as Hilary Clinton found with WikiLeaks and “Internet freedom”: Technology’s blade is always double-edged.

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8 Responses to “Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted.”

  1. Tweets that mention Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted. « The ICT4D Jester -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gautam John and Darren Smith, ICT4D Jester. ICT4D Jester said: Confusing cause & correlation: It’s less that tweeting begets rebellion, but more that rebellions get tweeted. http://bit.ly/e1fk06 #Egypt […]

  2. Will the revolution be tweeted? - Quora Says:

    […] […]

  3. Pedro Ferreira Says:

    “Technology can communicate and spread frustration, but it also amplifies government propaganda and misinformation.”

    The intent of a society is somehow the interplay between different individual and collective intents within it. By shifting that balance, there is a change of intent.

    I am sorry if I often try and challenge your point, but I find great interest in your take and want to see it developed. But the absolute separation of intent and potential is, to me, artificial, and should be worked on more deeply…

    Also the intent depends on information. Though FOXnews and MSNBC seem to do poorly at converting the opposite sides. They do create phenomena like the Tea Party. Information, and the manipulation of information, does create intent… most people who argue for environmental reform and legislation have rarely witnessed the devastation caused by global warming in person…

    • Jester Says:

      No need to apologize! The Jester enjoys having juggling partners.

      Indeed, the amplification factor of technology is not easy to predict, and in toto, the introduction of a technology may lead to a shift in the balance of power. Small groups with guns have beaten out large armies with spears in situations where no one doubts that the underlying intent, if it could be summed, is likely to have started favoring the large army.

      But, the Jester’s claim is that technology amplifies intent AND capacity, not just intent alone. Usually, superior technology is produced and wielded to greater advantage by people or groups with greater total capacity. Hence, there is a feedback effect — those with stronger intent and capacity to accomplish X win out over those with either weaker intent or capacity to accomplish -X, and then they have more capacity to keep advancing X.

      All that our information channels have done is to amplify the voices of the most powerful people, who then marshal less powerful people in large numbers who happen to incline towards them, or are easily led by them. The Tea Party did NOT come out of better communiation channels. It came out of latent frustration and exceptional backing by a handful of powerful people.(http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer)

      The Jester’s core point is that technology is just a tool of people who act on their intent. What that intent is, and how it came to be, are the more interesting questions, and ones which the Jester has not yet gotten deeply into. But, he’ll say this: In spite of mass media and the Internet, the world is NOT converging to a single peaceful system of thinking. If anything, the ability to communicate, and to do so the way we want, polarizes and balkanizes. Human beings have some positive intents that are magnified by technology, but human beings also have tribal instincts which are also being amplified by technology. Which intents win out is up to people, not technology.

      • Pedro Ferreira Says:

        Ok, I think I get your point better… but there is still something problematic.

        Can intent change at all? Is this something embedded at birth and all we can do as a society is to amplify the ‘positive’ intents and diminish the ‘negative’ intent.

        I mean, I am with you that a television does nothing in itself. The technology must be seen as the screen+at least one person talking on it. But that certainly changes intents… you probably wouldn’t be aware of development problems around the world if you had not been exposed to it through some form of technology. Even if you travel and see it through your own eyes, you probably took a plane.

        So I am 100% with you when you say that the world is not converging to one form of pacified system of thought. But intents are changing… Israel-Palestine conflict is a good example. The propaganda and information around it makes people, who have never been in one place or the other, have very strong opinions about either side… isn’t that technology clearly molding human intent? Isn’t propaganda a fabrication of human intent?

  4. Robert Says:

    “Technology magnifies the underlying intent and capacity of people and institutions. But, it doesn’t in and of itself change human intent”

    You make this point often and I find it to be a gross oversimplification. Technology is one of the many features of the landscape upon which possibility, desire, and intent interact. It contributes to directing and constraining intents by making allowing for certain outcomes or making others more or less possible. Saying simply that it magnifies intent misses this.

    I appreciate that you are reacting against another, equally gross, oversimplification and from that perspective this refrain is welcome. But it too does not due justice to what’s at play here.

    Thanks for a nice post.

  5. Daily Dozen: 07/02 « Diasporadical Says:

    […] Urban Digital Divide, or, NUDD for short. [MK] – The luckiest dictator in Africa [Independent] – Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted [ict4d] – Forget Arab Protesters; Kenya Faces A Bigger Crisis [Some Blogger] – Ten Reasons why […]

  6. Tweets that mention Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted. « The ICT4D Jester -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by fabucat, Khadija Patel. Khadija Patel said: Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted. « The ICT4D Jester http://t.co/M1MG1ho #Jan25 #Egypt #Sidibouzid […]

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