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War of words: Social media’s role in inciting revolutionary change

Note: This article was published in the April 2011 issue of Public Relations Tactics. It is posted here with permission.

Egypt_Facebook.jpgAssessing the impact of social technologies on the winter uprisings is complicated. In the midst of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and other Middle Eastern autocracies, pundits attributed the spreading demands for democracy to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This seriously over-simplified the highly complex web of economic, cultural and political factors that contributed to the demands for change.

Revolutionaries are using text messages, blogs and social networks to communicate and collaborate with each other and the rest of the world. However, social technologies weren’t necessary for the U.S. Civil Rights movement, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines or the fall of the Iron Curtain.

It is tempting to suggest that social technologies are causing revolutionary change, but that suggestion insults those who rise up at great personal risk. Demands for radical change are often rooted in prolonged periods of discontent resulting from authoritative leadership that systematically disenfranchises a large portion of those under their rule to the benefit of a relative few.

Revolution is borne of desperation, not apps on smartphones.

What role do social technologies play in inciting revolutionary change? In this article, we examine the role social media is playing in events shaping our world. We will look specifically at how social technologies help change agents to find each other, educate, expose and expand – and do all of it in a safe, remote locale.

Numbers Don’t Lie

In the days leading up to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak we checked out some of the social media hotspots that had been getting a lot of attention on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. What we found surprised us – not because it was so big and active, but because it was so small.

The Facebook page credited at the time with galvanizing the resolve of the Egyptian protesters, “We Are All Khalid Said,” had approximately 61,000 fans – many from outside of Egypt. Google executive Wael Ghonim, the de facto  leader of the youth uprising, had 46,000 Twitter followers. Considering this is a country of 84 million people in which approximately 45 million are under age 30, I expected much larger numbers.

Once we dug into the issue further, it became clear that Facebook is not much of a factor in Egypt. In a bit of auspicious timing, the Dubai School of Government’s Governance and Innovation Program released the Arab Social Media Report (ASMR) in the midst of the winter uprisings. It reported that Facebook penetration in Egypt is just 5.24 percent. Compare that to neighboring Tunisia at more than 17 percent, Bahrain at more than 34 percent or the United Arab Emirates at more than 45 percent. Facebook penetration in the U.S. is 46 percent (December 2010).

Despite our enormous respect for Mr. Ghonim, we think he got it wrong when he attributed the success of the Egyptian overthrow to Facebook. Nobody puts their life on the line because they were invited to a tweet-up. They are mobilized only after concluding that the only way out of their despair is to rise up.

The numbers illustrate that Facebook, Twitter and other social tools may have been instrumental in helping the movement gain a critical mass among a relatively small and highly connected segment of the population. But once that was achieved, social media’s primary role was showing the rest of the world what was happening.

The Role of Social Tools

Our examination of the winter uprisings found that social media can play the following important roles in any rapid change. Each is inter-related with the others and each contributes and amplifies the impact of the others.

Findability – One of the great things about social technologies is the way they help us find people who have similar interests and experiences. We all have found classmates we haven’t heard from in years on Facebook and established or re-established business contacts via LinkedIn. Author Peter Morville coined the term, “ambient findablity,” to describe how the ability to find information has become woven into the fabric of our lives. In Egypt, these tools enabled a relative few people with revolutionary views to find each other and begin planning the protests that eventually toppled their government.  

Education –Thomas Friedman, in The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, describes how access to information and the ability to share information have elevated the role of the individual in shaping world events. Perhaps the most profound contribution social tools can make to change initiatives is to provide insight into the life experiences of others. It can be life changing for a person who has only known dictatorial rule to click a Youtube video and see the experiences of people living in a free society. As Friedman says, once that happens, the genie is out of the bottle.

Exposure – The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marred by an authoritarian crackdown by Chicago police while protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching.” It was a turning point. That’s what social technologies can do without relying on traditional media access or interest. They can expose anyone who is interested to the energy, passion and outrage being experienced on the ground. Once you do that, you have them hooked. Social technologies also speed everything up, making it difficult for existing power structures to anticipate and respond effectively to change.

Expansion – Social technologies make it easy to send those social objects to your friends who in turn can pass it along, and so on. If a person has 500 Facebook friends and each of them has 500 Facebook friends, you are reaching a population of up to 250,000 people all within two degrees of separation. One more degree of separation would reach as many as 125 million people. So at that point is CNN still the “Worldwide Leader in News,” they claim to be? With smart phones becoming ubiquitous even in emerging nations, we have hundreds of citizen reporters uploading videos, pictures, sounds and words from wherever news is made. Sorry, CNN, we were watching Al Jazeera and citizen journalists.

Virtuality – A terse description of the strategy often used to quiet a revolution is to “cut it off at the head.” Removing the leaders of a movement often leaves the rest in disarray. For instance, most believe that Nelson Mandella’s 27 year imprisonment prolonged apartheid for a generation. Social technologies make it possible for leaders to effectively guide activities remotely. Wael Ghonim began shaping Egypt’s revolutionary movement from Dubai. By the time he was imprisoned, the movement had reached a critical mass and could not be stopped. 

Implications for Your Organization

As we witnessed one Middle Eastern autocracy after another topple this winter, I kept returning to the question: What are the implications for organizations and their communicators? After all, revolutionary change doesn’t only threaten governments; it can challenge corporate power structures as well.

If you have not worked with a CEO who exhibits some of the same traits as a dictator, consider yourself lucky. Many great companies are guided by autocrats who enforce their singular vision and seek to squelch dissenting opinions.

But it doesn’t take a terrible CEO to be susceptible to revolution – either internally from labor strife or externally from major changes in the marketplace. 

All organizations should stay tuned into the mood of their internal and external communities. Communicators should encourage leadership to constantly ask employees, customers, suppliers and neighbors, among others, “How are we doing and what can we improve upon?”

There has been much written in The Public Relations Strategist and elsewhere about the power of social tools to enable organizations to listen. Twitter, Facebook and Google Alerts can provide invaluable insight and early warnings of potential problems.

Too often, we as communicators are called upon to deliver information aimed at making our organizations look better, which has the effect of glossing over problems. “Don’t look over there – look over here!”

To have the greatest impact on future success, communicators should encourage leadership to devote similar energy to understanding and addressing issues we know our communities care about: quality, value, jobs, environmental impact, labor practices, and so on.

Great organizations use the information they gather from their communities to proactively change and seize opportunities. Which side of the revolution do you want to be on?

 

Ed Schipul is the president and CEO of Schipul–The Web Marketing Company (www.schipul.com). Follow him @eschipul. Daniel Keeney, APR is the president of DPK Public Relations (www.dpkpr.com). Follow
him @dpkpr.

Daniel Keeney
(214) 432-7556
Author: Daniel Keeney
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