/// In Unsettled Times, Social Media Can Promote Action. Or Distraction (NYT)

August 29, 2011  |  Blog

THE mass media, including interactive social-networking tools, make you passive, can sap your initiative, leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.

Apparently even during a revolution.

That is the provocative thesis of a new paper by Navid Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale, titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest.”

Using complex calculations and vectors representing decision-making by potential protesters, Mr. Hassanpour, who already has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford, studied the recent uprising in Egypt.

His question was, how smart was the decision by the government of President Hosni Mubarak to completely shut down the Internet and cellphone service on Jan. 28, in the middle of the crucial protests in Tahrir Square?

His conclusion was, not so smart, but not for the reasons you might think. “Full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action,” he writes.

To put it another way, all the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest, but it can also spread a message of caution, delay, confusion or, I don’t have time for all this politics, did you see what Lady Gaga is wearing?

It is a conclusion that counters the widely held belief that the social media helped spur the protests. Mr. Hassanpour used press accounts of outbreaks of unrest in Egypt to show that after Jan. 28, the protests became more spread around Cairo and the country. There were not necessarily more protesters, but the movement spread to more parts of the population.

He called this a “localization process.” “You can say it would be hard to measure that,” he added, talking about his research, “but you can test it, what happens when a disruption goes into effect.”

“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” he writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on — we are more unpredictable when we don’t — on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.

Mr. Mubarak’s government collapsed and the former president, at age 83, now finds himself being wheeled into a Cairo court on a hospital bed to face charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters.

Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, a company that assesses the way the Internet is operating across the world, believes that another besieged leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, may have taken note of the Egyptian experience.

In a blog post on the company’s Web site, “What Libya Learned From Egypt,” Mr. Cowie writes that in March, Libya toyed with the idea of pulling the switch on its Internet service.

Libya’s leaders “faced this same decision in the run-up to civil war,” he wrote, “and each time, perhaps learning from the Egyptian example, they backed down from implementing a multiday all-routes blackout.”

Sophisticated governments will realize that “shutting down radicalizes things,” he said in a phone interview. What is more useful to governments, he said, was “bandwidth throttling,” recognizing that “Internet is something you can meter out.” This “metering out” is meant to make the experience less reliable and responsive, he said, so that video streaming is hesitant and Web pages are slow to load.

Iran, Mr. Cowie said, was one of a number of countries that have realized that “you don’t turn off the Internet anywhere — you make it less useful,” controlling which neighborhoods get it, for example.

Mr. Hassanpour, who was born and raised in Iran, agreed: “Iran does it in a localized way.”

So what is going on here? Certainly, blocking the ability of protesters to use the Internet and cellphones to plot has appeal for all kinds of leaders. In response to recent riots, the British government likewise was trying to figure out a way to gain access to social-networking services like Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry’s messenger system, to stop potential rioters from organizing.

Speaking to Parliament this month, Prime Minister David Cameron made the case for a clampdown: “We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

That proposal, which the British government has backed away from recently, prompted defenders of social networking to point out that not all the organizing was for ill. Others point out that social networking can allow the authorities to follow what is being planned, and try to respond.

Mr. Hassanpour said he was inspired to ask his questions by the insight of a 2009 paper by Holger Lutz Kern of Yale and Jens Hainmueller of M.I.T. that looked at Germany during the cold war and tried to determine the effect of exposure to West German media on East Germans who were able to see West German TV.

The authors took some of the earnest interpretations of the supposed influence of Western media — like, the media gave “people behind the Iron Curtain hope and the assurance that the Free World hadn’t forgotten them,” and allowed Germans to “compare Communist propaganda with credible information from abroad” — and exposed these ideas to basic scrutiny.

Their conclusion, based on formerly classified East German surveys of young people and visa applications to leave East Germany, adjusted for other factors, was that “exposure to West German television increased support for the East German regime.”

“It offered them a vicarious escape from the scarcities, the queues and the ideological indoctrination, making life under communism more bearable and the East German regime more tolerable,” they wrote in their paper, “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes.”

“We do not necessarily argue that West German television’s political content did not undermine public support for the East German regime at all,” they wrote. “However, the evidence shows that the net effect of West German television exposure was an increase in regime support.”

This conclusion can come as a relief to those who see technology given more importance than ideas, organizations and on-the-ground conditions.

Todd Wolfson, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers and a community organizer in Philadelphia, said that there was, indeed, “an accelerant role for social media,” but that it “cannot and does not create that kind of mass motion.”

He cited the writer Frantz Fanon, who discussed the role of radio in the Algerian revolt against the French in the 1950s. When the French tried to block their transmissions, Fanon wrote in his 1959 book, “A Dying Colonialism,” the rebels had even more power, because the listeners were no longer passive. Fanon’s description recalls “the strange darkness” Mr. Hassanpour mentioned:

“For an hour the room would be filled with the piercing, excruciating din of the jamming. Behind each modulation, each active crackling, the Algerian would imagine not only words, but concrete battles.”

Its “phantom-like character,” Fanon concluded paradoxically, “gave to the combat its maximum of reality.”

By Noam Cohen


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