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Twitter can start a party but can’t keep it going

Oct. 9, 2011 - 21:19 By
Social media is the new forum for free speech ― and its suppression. Whether coordinating large protests in Cairo and Tunis or flash mobs in Birmingham and London, social media have proved in recent months that they are capable of disturbing business as usual.

Governments, in response, are selectively shutting down sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to block unwanted activity. The lonely pamphleteer ― the subject of classic First Amendment protection ― has become the many-friended user.

The latest deployments of this fast-changing technology form a pattern. There are certain things that, so far, social media seem to do very well. One is coordination. Coordinating large numbers of people to do exactly the same thing at the same time is notoriously difficult. So long as the activity is relatively simple ― say, show up and protest the government ― the new social media drastically reduce the costs of coordination.

In a sense, this coordination is the political analogue to holding a big party. All people need to know is when and where the party is. When they show up, the party will by definition be in full swing. If they come, the party is a success. If they don’t, the party fails. Of course, the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia were not partying. They were risking arrest and torture and even death. But the role of social media was nevertheless to coordinate multiple get-togethers in multiple places ― just as one would for a party.

Big parties scare governments. Although the enormous crowds in Cairo and Tunis were not enough on their own to bring down dictators, they did signal that the public was fed up with the regime. The rulers realized that if they could not make the public go home, their legitimacy would be utterly undercut. Unable to suppress demonstrations using secret police, each looked to the military. That was the cue for senior officers in both Egypt and Tunisia to side with the public rather than the aging autocrat. That spelled the end for Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Without the coordination of social media, the protests would still have been possible. Huge crowds have gathered in places from the Washington Mall to Tiananmen Square long before the Internet, much less Twitter. But the demonstrations would have been much harder to organize.

Moreover, social media also carry rapid doses of instant information about protests (admittedly, of dubious reliability), sometimes across long distances. Although spreading news about government depredation is no guarantee of successful revolution ― consider the Iranian Green movement of two years ago ― it can certainly help to shift public attitudes away from a regime that is in the process of cracking down.

It is worth noting, too, that not only autocracies fear fast-forming crowds. The flash mobs of the British riots this summer were just as illegitimate from the standpoint of the U.K. government as the North African protests were to the governments of Egypt and Tunisia. The mobs wanted violence and looting, whereas the peaceful protesters wanted democratic change. But they were equally illegal under the norms of the country where they occurred.

During an attempt to protest a shooting in a San Francisco subway station, the city government turned off mobile phone service in the subway. Although hardly a human-rights violation (except maybe at rush hour), the action brought criticism from civil libertarians concerned about free speech. It was a reminder that every government that seeks to maintain its legitimacy must deliver order. Without order, indeed, law seems irrelevant.

But if social media are good at coordinating simple events, so far they have failed at building political parties on a grander scale. In Egypt and Tunisia, the tech savvy young people who facilitated the protests have already begun to fall behind in the race to political organization. Ahead of them are Islamic democrats, political groups that have years of experience in attracting, organizing and mobilizing followers.

Why should Facebook and Twitter be good for social parties but not political parties? It’s too soon to know definitively; and of course it is possible that, as technology changes and user culture evolves, more complex political organizations may come out of social media.

For now, however, the answer seems to lie in the kinds of contacts needed to create extended political cohesion. To show up at a gathering, I don’t need to have any close or repeated bonds with the other people. All of us can show up, enjoy ourselves and go our separate ways. This is true even if we are meeting to do something risky and politically motivated. The key is that our objective is simple rather than complex.

Political organization, by contrast, is very complicated indeed ― more complicated even than ordinary friendship. A successful political organization must generate beliefs about the way the world works and how it should be. It must reflect a shared ethos or morality ― even if the shared worldview is tolerance of other beliefs. Above all, it must produce some sense of community and commonality ― at least if it intends to keep people loyal.

To generate the shared beliefs and feelings that in turn shape action demands repeated human contact. Charisma is hard to convey on the small screen, and so is institutional support and a sense of concerted values. Someday perhaps it may be possible to capture the full range of human emotions in virtual space. But it will never be possible to capture every dimension of human experience there. Right now, human contact still prevails over the virtual kind when it comes to forming collective political communities.

Of course social media can be useful to political organizations that already exist. The Islamists are very interested in using social media to make their political organizations more effective ― though so far, their attempts to produce their own protests using the new coordination techniques have mostly failed. But getting the committed out on the streets is a job that follows forming bonds of belief and loyalty, not one that precedes it. If the aspiring secular democrats of Egypt and Tunisia want to govern after the regime changes they helped bring about, they will have to come out from behind their mobile phones and notebooks and hit the ground running. 

By Noah Feldman

Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. ― Ed.