Those analysing the feasibility of “Facebook revolutions” in authoritarian countries have so far veered between utopian visions and non-utopian smackdown. These approaches undermine what is in fact a complex process, which may depend on both state resources and types of communication technologies.
Veering dangerously close to fetishisation of Facebook-facilitated protests in the Arab world, the world’s media has reported breathlessly on recent moves by the Chinese government to monitor certain key words in social media which relate to recent unrest in Egypt and Libya. Similar moves in Zimbabwe are being reported as signs that Facebook mobilisation there is a distinct and looming possibility.
There are, however, two factors influencing the likelihood of the current unrest spreading which these reports overlook: the movers and the medium.
By “movers” I mean those behind the protests and the regimes responding to them. Across the Arab world, youth populations find themselves faced with rising unemployment, increasing costs of living, and nowhere to go – youth unemployment in these states outstrips even the substantial unemployment rates for other age groups. These young populations are relatively well educated, and now have the literacy, confidence and motivation to push for change and use these new tools.
In contrast, China’s youth bulge is declining from its peak in the late 1980s, and its political voice is catered to by state patronage of young Chinese nationalism (although of course the story is far from simple). Zimbabwe’s youth bulge, meanwhile, is substantial, but relatively uneducated – its tertiary graduation rates are far below those in much of the Arab world, and youth unemployment is no higher than that of the rest of the population.
As important as constituencies is the ability of the regimes under pressure to respond to social media platforms. Clearly, it is not difficult for any state to block access to the Internet, or ban hashtags, key words and users, but there is a limit to how long these states can undermine their own communications networks. Moreover, not every regime is able to implement the same actions online. Egypt, for example, managed to shut down the Internet for five days but did not manage to outwit online activists completely given the its unsophisticated understanding of the medium and its audience. Indeed, in the event, it probably drew much more international attention to the event in the process. Libya has run a series of attempts to block and heavily filter Internet access but has not as yet managed to shut it down completely. Iran has a long history of relatively sophisticated Internet tools, but again then so does its population.
China’s regime, on the other hand, is a hugely adept online manipulator, using not only filtering and blocking techniques, but engaging in long-term cyber warfare against activists, and using the Internet to push its own message. Zimbabwe is nowhere near as sophisticated, but Internet use in Zimbabwe is so much lower, that the role of the Internet for both sides of the population is presumably greatly reduced, although increasing.
Which brings me to my final point: the role of the medium. Internet penetration and usage rates in the Arab world are huge, and have gown exponentially over the past few years. Smart phone usage and ownership has skyrocketed in the past few years as well. The same can be said of China (although again, it is difficult to compare the Chinese Internet experience with that of the Arab world, given the Chinese state's far greater role in shaping that experience for their citizens).
Zimbabwe offers another interesting case. Although Internet use there is increasing fast, it is mobile phone use which has shown the most growth, increasing exponentially. This raises a question of whether the type of communication medium determines the type political activism that is possible? One might imagine for example, that Facebook revolutions may be quite sophisticated, involving multi-user exchange on individual walls and multimedia cross-posting. What happens when, as in Kenya in 2007, political violence is organised by mobile phone? Is it ever possible to organise the same way on a mobile phone as you would via Facebook?
It should also be noted that these mediums – mobile phone and the Internet – exist in a broader media landscape. Particularly in Egypt, but arguably in most of the Arab world, decades of state control over the media mean repression of free speech is deeply felt. But importantly, the repression takes place in the context of a free press being still in living memory. This means the concept of a free press, and what is possible, are communicable despite the fact that it does not currently exist. The Internet, and social media, feed on a culturally and historically relevant association. In China, despite the limited freedom offered under Deng in the 1980s, the concept of a fully free press is not indigenous in any way, and no experience of it exists in living memory – there is no glorious past which Internet use recalls. In Zimbabwe, the press, while under significant pressure, is still relatively free, and diasporic press in neighbouring South Africa ensures debate is conducted close to home. Might this affect the ‘pressure cooker’ effect of the Internet as a medium of freedom of expression?
Ultimately, analysis of the role in social media is at present being played out in the worlds press, subject to all the vagaries of that medium. Serious scholarship should allow a deeper understanding of the complexities of the process beyond a utopian and non-utopian smackdown (Gladwell and Morozov, I’m looking at you): not can the Facebook revolution spread, but how and why, or why not.