During the so-called Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, the conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote breathlessly that:
"You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before. It's increasingly clear that Ahmadinejad and the old guard mullahs were caught off-guard by this technology and how it helped galvanize the opposition movement in the last few weeks."
The 'revolution will be twittered', wrote Sullivan, sparking off the notion of the 'Twitter/Facebook revolution' - although it seems that mobile phones played a far greater role than social media and microblogs in the organisation of the uprising.
The recent uprisings in Tunisia and now Egypt raise the question again: what role can the so-called 'new media' (already a somewhat dated phrase) play in bringing about social change? In a recent interview, the philsopher Mehdi Belhaj Kasem suggested that during the Tunisian events,
"When the official media told a lie, within the next half hour it was disproved by civil society on the Internet: a thousand people, ten thousand, a hundred thousand saw the real images, the state’s manipulation, the deceptions, etc. In short, for the first time in history it was the media – television, radio or newspapers – that played catch-up to a new kind of popular, democratic information. And the same thing is going to happen everywhere. It's even possible that journalism as such will end up being unnecessary."
A recent article by Noureddine Miladi gives an equally optimistic answer to the question of the role new media in political change. Miladi argues that the new media have played a key role in helping to bring about a 'revolution' and a democratic 'second republic' in Tunisia, circumventing the strict state censorship of the mainstream media. Perhaps all too revealingly, he also compares the new media's role in the Tunisian events to the part it played in securing the election of the US president Barack Obama in 2008.
Taken on its own terms, Miladi's analysis is sound. But for those who disagree with its political premises, the optimistic view of the political role of the new media is more difficult to maintain. A Marxist analysis of the so-called 'jasmine revolution' must consider the class forces at play in this situation. Rather as Barack Obama's election in 2008 can be seen not as an advance for the working class, but a setback (amongst other things, Obama's administration can be argued to have intensified the level of conflict in the Middle East), so the recent regime change in Tunisia can be seen not as a triumph for radical or 'grassroots' politics, but ultimately as the imposition of a capitalist settlement better able to manage the increasingly violent manifestations of social 'unrest' by adopting a democratic facade. As the International Communist Current's article on the bourgeois media reporting of the events points out, the mainstream news media in many countries - having effectively blacked out news of the uprising for weeks - have now begun to show footage of the demonstrations and to praise the dawning of a new democratic era (although in China there has been a complete news blackout). But from a working class political perspective, the overthrow of Ben Ali's regime - brutal and all-controlling as it certainy was - does not necessarily represent a long-term political gain for the working class. Although undoubtedly driven along by a strong proletarian protest against poverty and unemployment, the Tunisian movement also contained reformist elements. And while the Tunisian events have clearly shaken the country's ruling class, the capitalist state in Tunisia remains intact. We should therefore be wary of embracing either the hegemonic assumption that Tunisia has undergone a 'revolution' or the celebratory account of the new media's role in producing it.
The demonstrators in Tunisia clearly used a variety of new media - mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, etc. - to organise themselves, although there is nothing new about this situation. We might compare the role of social media here with that of the telegraph network in the 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe far more rapidly than the present uprisings have done in north Africa and the Middle East. In fact, as a 'revolutionary' technology, the telegraph beats the Internet hands down. As Ha-Joon Chang calculates in his book 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, the introduction of telegraphy in the nineteenth century speeded up the transmission of a 300-word message across the Atlantic by a factor of 2,500; contrast this with the Internet, which is only five times faster at the same task than its technological predecessor, the fax machine.
Clearly the new social media do present headaches for capitalist states the world over. But there can be no doubt that the ruling class is hiring the best brains it can find to overcome these challenges and regain control of the digital domain. As Miladi himself notes, the Tunisian state disrupted certain social networking sites such as Facebook during the unrest. Moreover, access to new media technologies is very limited in many parts of the world. At most, only 1 in 4 Tunisians is a Facebook user (the figure is much lower for Egypt) and only around 34% of the world's population has Internet access. Use of the Internet is carefully monitored in most states. In extreme circumstances, in fact, the state can always withdraw Internet services - as has now happened in Egypt. The potential of new media to challenge the institutional hegemony of the traditional media should not therefore be overstated.
A slew of recent books, including Matthew Hindman's The Myth of Digital Democracy and Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion have seriously questioned the potential of new media to precipitate radical social change. As Morozov shows, new media are manipulated by the state for propaganda purposes to a far greater extent than many cyber-utopians are prepared to acknowledge. One thinks, for example, of the way in which YouTube videos exposing social problems in countries like the US and Britain are used on channels like Iran's English-language news channel Press TV in order to undermine those states - a good thing in itself, perhaps, but hardly a radical use of new media when the critiques are being levelled by apologists for Iran's theocratic regime. One thinks, too, of the way in which Facebook has been used by the state to encourage participation in capitalist democracy through the placement of an 'I Voted' button on every Facebook user's profile page on election days.
Finally, we must not forget the propaganda value of the idealised figure of the 'netizen' for capitalist politicians. The image of plucky crusaders using social networking sites for democratic ends has enormous propaganda potential and is readily exploited by representatives of the state when it suits their interests: commenting in a Radio 4 lunchtime news bulletin (27 January 2011) on the Egyptian demonstrations that followed the Tunisian events, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that it would be 'futile' for the Mubarak regime to try to prevent the free expression of public opinion via new media - although the British state itself suspended certain websites during the student protests in December 2010. 'Power to the People' is an easily recuperated slogan.
I hope to write more on this topic in future, but in general I think we should be sceptical of celebratory accounts of the potential of new media for radical political organisation.