Revolution in the Age of Social Media & Twitter and Tear Gas
Image source: Gigi Ibrahim

Revolution in the Age of Social Media & Twitter and Tear Gas

I attempt to review Revolution in the Age of Social Media (2014) and Twitter and Tear Gas (2017) side-by-side.

When the Egyptian revolution of 2011 happened, it was – among with a few other revolutions – framed as a “Twitter revolution” or a “Facebook uprising.” Especially Western media focused on the role of technology in these revolutions, conveying the narrative of new technology ousting old autocrats and ushering in democracy. Critics like Evgeny Morozov soon countered, pointing out the obvious simplicity of this explanation. Terms like “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” were coined to explain the new forms of digital resistance, showing its supposed futility.

When looked at in actual context of revolutions, the picture gets both clearer and more complex. Yes, platforms matter. No, they don’t make revolutions happen on their own. They channel actions into certain paths, make certain types of activity easier and provide ways to communicate that may be hard for authorities to censor but easy to surveil. Online platforms matter, but so do people on the streets.

Both Revolution and Twitter and Tear Gas deal with similar issues: how has the internet and the spread of social media affected how protests, resistance and revolutions work. Revolution focuses on the Egyptian uprising of 2011, while Twitter and Tear Gas takes a step back and observes more general trends, starting from the Zapatistas in the 90’s and continuing with the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey, while often framing them in terms of social movements in the US, like Black Lives Matter.

While the focus of the two books is slightly different, they share a lot. Both use personal experiences of the authors to frame the exploration of their topics, while drawing from other sources of data, like interviews. They also attempt to explain the events in a more general terms to reach a more general theory of what the internet’s role in protest is.

As a source on the Egyptian January 25 Revolution (2011), Revolution is a thorough reference, detailing the cultural, political and technological context that gave rise to the revolution that is the main focus of the book. Comparison to Twitter and Tear Gas makes it easy to appreciate the detail, since Twitter and Tear Gas describes some of the same events, while missing some of the nuances portrayed in Revolution. In comparison, Twitter and Tear Gas provides many examples, discussing similar themes in relation to multiple revolutions and movements.

Theoretically the two books also take slightly different paths. Revolution discusses social media and revolution in relation to digital marketing and memes – coining an unnecessary neologism “veme” for “virtual meme” to describe what are simply memes. Much emphasis is placed on the fact that one of the two administrators of the popular Facebook page instrumental to the January 25 Revolution “We Are All Khaled Said” was a Google employee trained in marketing. The discussion on memes is enlightening, showing how the initially digitally-illiterate Egyptian government learns to use the activists’ tools against them. The overall theoretical grounding in Revolution is unfortunately rather thin and eclectic, with especially the ending conveying fantasies of “virtual warriors” destroying dogmas and ideologies online, as if digital tools would free people from ideology.

Twitter and Tear Gas focuses more on algorithmic issues and how the big platforms, especially Facebook, affect social movements. The framework put forward by Twitter and Tear Gas is much more coherent, showing how social movements have certain capacities for action and how they signal certain qualities. Digital tools may have made it easier to organize in ad hoc -manner, but that lack of organization has also introduced fragility into the movements. The book also notes how attention is becoming more important than information for social movements and how this has changed how censorship works: it’s no longer necessary to silence communication, but instead to drown the relevant information in a sea of misinformation.

Both books clarify the relation of social media and internet to revolutions and social movements, while also highlighting the importance of discussing the issues further. Facebook is now the biggest public sphere in the world, controlled by a private company that can choose how issues are addressed on its platform. How does that affect democracy and politics?

Herrera, L. (2014) Revolution in the age of social media: The Egyptian popular insurrection and the internet. Verso: New York and London.

Tufekci, Z. (2017) Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Yale University Press: New Haven and London. Also available online.