Twitter and revolutions

Jay Rosen has noted the current explosion in popularity of a subgenre of stories he calls "Twitter Can't Topple Dictators". Read the whole thing; it's a really insightful analysis of why this kind of press article is a cop out.

However, it was two sentences near the end that really caught my attention:

Factors are not causes. It is a mystery why uprisings occur when they do.

Since societies are complex systems, this statement is literally true (we can't predict the day an uprising will happen, any more than we can predict the weather more than a few weeks out). However, that doesn't mean we can't determine if a propensity for uprising exists within a system.

It is well established from experimentation (eg see the Ellsberg paradox) that humans, presented with choices that have various amounts of upside and downside, will gravitate towards the most attractive choice with the least risk. The prospect of having a day that you know will be mildly unpleasant is often "better" than taking actions that risk seriously bad consequences such as torture or death. This risk/reward tradeoff is different for everyone.

Hence, revolutions happen when one of two things happen:

  1. the current situation gets so intolerable that any change is seen as an improvement, or
  2. the risk of living in the current society becomes equal, or almost equal to, the uncertainty involved in trying to change to a new, better model

Let us term the first situation the French revolution model, and the second the Egyptian revolution model. The French revolution was driven in large part by masses of people on the verge of starvation, so they had little to lose by revolting.

On the other hand, the Egyptian revolution appears to have been triggered more by the increasing risk of being targeted by Mubarak's police. (This is not to discount other important underlying factors such as the surge in youth unemployment.)

When Khaled Said was beaten to death in June 2010 by police, it triggered a wave of fear and anger. His only crime — failing to present ID when going into an Internet cafe — reinforced to citizens that there was no sure-fire way to live safely under Mubarak. Anyone could be targeted.

When Tunisia successfully forced the resignation of their President through civil demonstrations, this further tipped the equation. People felt both that their current situation was precarious, and that a successful pathway to removing Mubarak existed.

As numbers of protestors grew, individual risk of being seized and tortured by police by virtue of participating in the protest dropped. Herd behavior took hold — it became in some ways safer to be in the middle of the protest, where at least you were among others who shared your objective of removing the government.

And finally we arrive at where we are today, with Mubarak gone and the promise of full democratic elections in Egypt.

To return to the original premise that this is a "Twitter" revolution, the key differentiator is that Twitter keeps the visibility of personal risk high. Unlike slower methods of communications, where it might take weeks for news of an episode of torture or abuse to filter through the population, with Twitter the news is more or less instantaneously dispersed. Thus everyone is much more aware of their increased personal risk, leading to a greater willingness to participate in change.

The bad news for dictators is that cutting the cord on Twitter won't fix their problem. It's the equivalent of blindfolding someone immediately after they see a hungry tiger in the distance — ie once the sentiment for change takes hold, it is too late to stop people talking about it.

Or to summarize another way: Twitter doesn't cause revolutions. It does increase the instability of societies that are perceived as inherently bad, and make it more likely that citizens will push to get a better and/or less unstable alternative.

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