Thursday, June 2, 2011

Zeynep Tufekci: Collective Action Under Autocracies

Last Monday the prominent sociologist Dr. Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc) gave a lecture in Cairo University about "Social Media and Collective Action under Autocracies". The topic is one of the most over discussed topics nowadays, yet finding a lecture by someone like Zeynep who is specialized in "Social Impacts of Technology" and "Theorizing the Web" is more like finding a needle in a haystack.

Zeynep started her lecture by assuring that even though the credit for the ongoing uprising in the Middle East goes to the people, yet we cannot deny the impact of the methods and tools available nowadays; the Internet and Social Media in our case. However, her stress on this fact didn't stop the debate that took place after her lecture. Being allergic to media-generated terms such as "Internet Revolution" makes some people here insist that it's either the internet or the Egyptian people, as if they both are comparable to each other. Anyway, let's skip such debate as I don't want it to distract you as it did to me somehow then.

A revolution is a collective action. So Zeynep started by listing the challenges to collective actions:
  • Information Diffusion: How information and news are spread plays an important role here. In the second half of the past century it was TV that has the ability to whether spread or censor the news about a demonstration in real time. And that's why it was a classical scenario in coups to occupy the national TV building in the country and announce the new power in charge from there. But nowadays social media also can spread such information and in real-time, and that's why occupying the TV building was never a main goal for the revolts in Egypt nor Tunisia. It's no more that autocracies hold monopoly on broadcast via TV, radio, and newspapers.
  • Shaping the Public Sphere: The nature of flow of information affects how the public think. In the one-to-many broadcast days, people used to get their information from that single source (or few sources). But a neighbour never know how does his neighbour think. He never know whether his neighbour knows how he himself sinks as well. Once more it was autocracies who hold monopoly on shaping the public sphere.
  • Hidden Preferences: As you can see from the above point, people might be living next door and they both might be opposing to the regime, but they never know they are unless they talk to each other about it. And regimes knew this, and the role of their security forces was to use people's fear to make it hard for people to talk to each other about it.
  • Synchronization: One more obstacle is that people synchronize their beliefs and actions. It's hard to be achieved in a one-to-one manner where communication is slow and dangerous, while the in a networked world this becomes easier now.
  • Mass Action: Finally, for the mass-action to take place it needs all of the above, as well as courage, and there was no shortage of that.
From the above you might think that it's either a world with social networks connecting people or an Orwellian society. And you might think that without social networks we'd have never had a revolution. And that's why Dr. Zeynep Tufekci asked: "Does social media give us same results, or may be just faster? Or, it does qualitatively change the dynamics?". Again, I believe the main goal for the lecture was to study the effect of the Social Media while putting aside all other factors in order not to be distracted by them, and because they are out of our scope now. Zeynep then started to discuss what social media changed in more details.
  • Network-Level Effect: As you can see, it isn't a one-to-many information flow any more. It's a many-to-many flow now. She even referred to Epidemiology to find out the factors that affect whether a quarantine (censorship in our case) will work or not. The two main factors here are the speed of transmission and the shape of the network. It was common in old Arabic films to see revolts distributing notes written on pieces of paper, manshourat. Those pieces of paper share many common characteristics with tweets, but if you give it a second look you will find out that a tweet is transmitted from one peer to another much more quicker than those notes. Also geography and other human factors affected the shape of network where such notes were distributed as opposed to the network present now on twitter. So even in a many-to-many network there might exist separate cluster connected by connectors or bridge who once cut might isolate significant parts of that network. Please refer to slides 31, 32 and 33 here for more information how highly connected networks are more immune to censorship. Zeynep then compared two identical demonstrations Gafsa 2008 and Sidi Bouzid 2010, where both of them were distant cities however the demonstration in Gafsa was crushed and isolated while that in Sidi Bouzid resulted in overthrowing Ben Ali. It worth noticing here that Facebook users in Tunisia in 2008 were about 28,000 users while in 2010 they reached 2,000,000 users. And for sure a network of 2M users is most probably more highly connected and information there diffuses qucker and more easily.
  • Field Effect: How your presence within a certain network reshapes your opinion. I had a discussion with Dr Zeynep on how geeks who speak different languages and the early adopters of blogs and social networks tend to be more liberal and less conservative. May be this is due to the field effect too, where they get exposed more to different cultures and societies. But the question here, those who work in Mobile Operators and ISP's are supposed to belong to this category, yet they submitted to the governments orders to cut off the mobile and internet connection during the early days of the revolution. May be we have to differentiate between hackers who are into technology as a hobby and those who are working in the field of ICT and deal with technology as a part of their job? I don't really know!
Social Media also open doors to oral culture. And now even if you don't have good command of language, you still have voice via videos, photos, and oral-language tweets.

Social Media effect is not one way. The slogan for those protesters in Wisonsin was "Demonstrate like Egyptians". What the media used to call Arab Spring is now being spread to Madrid and Athens.

Social Media can help in spreading rumours, but it can also help in correcting itself. Claims of Muslim Brotherhood about empty Tahrir Square on #May27 were quickly taken off their site due to overwhelming contrary evidence via photos, videos, etc.

Social Media increased participation and made the diffusion of information quicker. But this is not necessary a good thing all the time. It's both uniting as well as segmenting people more. The increased participation can risk increased polarization.
Finally, Dr. Zeynep Tufekci said that the collective mood of Egypt now is Optimistic and Proud, with a little Cautious.
You can see the lecture's slides here. An interesting panel was held after the lecture with the participation of Mahmoud Salem (@SandMonkey) and Sarah Abdel Rahman (@Sarrahsworld). They both discussed the current situation in Egypt and shared their comments on the lecture. Al-Masry Al-Youm published an article about the lecture and the panel here. This is a video recoding for another speech given by Dr. Tufekci later on in Personal Democracy Form #PdF11, and it touches base with some of the main points discussed above. This article by Esther Dyson about the illusions of democracy and the internet is not really related but worth reading as well if you have time. And finally, I highly advise you to follow Zeynep's blog, TechnoSociology.

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