Social media cannot begin revolutions – but it can consolidate opinions and co-ordinate group action.
New media: synchronising beliefs, co-ordinating actions
In the majority of media commentaries addressing the current unrest in the Arab region, new media have been glorified as prime drivers of political transitions. I have seen contributions that present new media as the magic wands that make revolutions happen.
One joke circulating on the web provides a hypothetical account of a Day of Judgment encounter between the former Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was rumoured to have died from poisoning, Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated while sitting on a platform watching a military parade, and Hosni Mubarak. Sadat asks Mubarak about his demise. "Poison or Platform?" he says. "Facebook!" Mubarak answers.
In many ways, I find this type of discourse rather intriguing. Its implicit misleading message is: Get a Facebook account and start a revolution. But as research and practical experience have demonstrated over the past years, it takes more than possessing the tools of communication to make a difference.
Throughout my 25 years in academics, I have always shared with my students the classical view of media, in what are termed "bullet" or "hypodermic needle" communication theories. The appalling aspect of those theories was that they viewed audiences as passive receivers who could be easily manipulated. It was on this premise that propaganda wars in the 20th century were waged. But in the 1970s and 1980s, we came to discover that the audience was never passive, but was rather smart and proactive. In the late 1990s, that dynamic feature of the audience found its best expression in the interactive and user-based communications opportunities of new media.
The notion of a social network revolution in the making has not been an exclusive academic invention, but an integral ingredient of the global media discourse. In the writings about new media contributions to transitions in Tunisia and Egypt, I have come across phrases like "the Facebook revolution," "the online effect," and "the Twitter magic". CBSNews dubbed it "Egypt's social network revolution that sparked the Day of Wrath". MoscowNews called it a "social network revolution with a twist". In significant ways, these commentaries owe their validity to new media's proven public mobilisation effects, global reach, and user engagement. These views will most likely define the academic research and public policy agendas for many years to come.
But what counts most is not how extensive or accessible new media is, but how sound the social and political causes they are supposed to carry are.
In commenting on the power of social media in the Middle East, Jon Stewart, an American television commentator, astutely noted that: "If two speeches and a social media site is all we needed to spread democracy, then why did we invade Iraq? Why didn't we just, I don't know, 'poke' them?"
As Clay Shirky of New York University notes, new media at its best is good only in synchronising beliefs and coordinating actions.
I truly believe that social networks do indeed enhance our ability to communicate and engage. But as they stand on their own, their power to affect change remains uncertain.
An alarming facet of this social media debate is that it might deepen scepticism among different actors about how new media channels are supposed to be used.
One implication of this dilemma is that social networks as physical and virtual communications systems might turn into battlefields, reminiscent of the 20th century propaganda wars waged on airwaves.
Social networks do have a constructive role to play in creating common attitudes and knowledge about community issues and events. But when it comes to concrete actions, it takes more than Facebook or Twitter accounts to bring about change.
The problem here is that as we let the "Facebook factor" dominate our discussions of the ongoing unrest, we risk losing sight of the real issues and concerns that give rise to popular discontent.
It is in this context that I see media literacy crucial in educating us not only about what new media can do, but also about what they cannot.
Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah