The Great Twitter/Facebook Revolution Fallacy

For some strange reason, the American media has always been obsessed with Twitter and Facebook. The movie “The Social Network,” which is about the founding of Facebook, received far more media commentary than any other movie in 2010, despite being only the 28th highest U.S.-grossing film that year.

This applies to foreign affairs as well. In the context of the events occurring in the Middle East, the Western media loves to argue that Twitter and Facebook constitute catalysts for revolution in the modern era. Indeed, some articles called the 2009 Iranian protests the “Twitter Revolution.” One excited journalist at the time wrote:

Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications.

On Twitter, reports and links to photos from a peaceful mass march through Tehran on Monday, along with accounts of street fighting and casualties around the country, have become the most popular topic on the service worldwide, according to Twitter’s published statistics.

The trouble with all this is that in June 2009, the entire country of Iran only had 19,235 Twitter users, according to statistics assembled by Sysomos. This is about half the number of people who attend a professional football game. To be fair, the figure is probably not exact; the true number could be higher (due to Iranians not reporting being from Iran) or lower (due to foreigners setting their residence to Iran to protect native Iranian Twitter users).

But it certainly is not enough to make a “Twitter Revolution.” Foreign Policy analyst Golnaz Esfandiari probably provides a more accurate analysis of Twitter’s role in Iran:

Twitter was definitely not a major communications tool for activists on the ground in Iran.

Nonetheless, the “Twitter Revolution” was an irresistible meme during the post-election protests, a story that wrote itself. Various analysts were eager to chime in about the purported role of Twitter in the Green Movement. Some were politics experts, like the Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder. Others were experts on new media, like Sascha Segan of PC Magazine. Western journalists who couldn’t reach — or didn’t bother reaching? — people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets posted with tag #iranelection. Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.

The recent revolutions in the Arab world also, in all likelihood, have very little to do with either Twitter or Facebook, whatever the Western media might say. Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen have a combined total of 14,642 Twitter users. That is a tiny, tiny number. There are more people in a major public university than Twitter users in these three countries combined.

Facebook is relatively more widely used throughout the world; its penetration in Egypt was 4.58% as of July 2010.  This is better than Twitter, but the usage pales in comparison to – say – the percent of the population that watches Al Jazeera. Fortunately, given the nationwide Internet shutdown in Egypt, journalists are not talking about a “Facebook Revolution” in Egypt.

But the articles about Facebook or Twitter supposedly inciting revolution continue. One recent Times article argued that in Sudan “protests, organized by groups of university students and graduates, came together as Facebook, Twitter and other Web sites were used to rally several thousand demonstrators.”

Maybe. But only 10% of people in Sudan even have access to the Internet, let alone use Facebook or Twitter. One wonders how many people in Sudan (or Egypt or Iran, for that matter) even know that these websites exist.

Indeed, the primary users of Twitter and Facebook seem to be well-educated, Internet-savvy Westerners – the type of people who, not coincidentally, write articles for the New York Times and Washington Post. The Western media’s focus on so-called “Twitter Revolutions” may tell less about the revolution and more about the preoccupations of the American journalists who cover about the revolution.

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5 Responses to The Great Twitter/Facebook Revolution Fallacy

  1. Anonymous says:

    shut stupids

  2. Abu Ali says:

    I have seen it for myself. A face book page called Syrians revolution. Supposedly gathered 15000 members in a very short time calling for demonstration in Syria. The date was set for the 4th and 5th of Feb. 2011.
    I had a look and tried to see who these 15,000 members are, only to find that the names are mostly Jewish names, and the Arabic names are for pages that have only just recently been created just to join the Syrian revolution page.
    In other words the creator of the page and the members are not Syrians.
    I did find Syrians but those were voicing their anger at the creator of the page.
    Whatever anyone says, this is a clear indication and proof that face book is being used to incite trouble in the Middle East. They succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt, like they have in the past in Georgia and Ukraine. The same symbol of clinched fest is used in all these revelations. There is a clip on U tube for the BBC where it is giving evidence that this is the work of the CIA.
    Let me just say one thing. Democracy is good but only when the people are ready for the transition. Democracy does not work everywhere.
    It is odd to hear support for the people’s right to free speech to express themselves peacefully while at the same time a US president can say to all nations. If you are not with us you are against us.
    Strange to see a country going to war in Iraq while there were people demonstrating against the war like what happened in the UK and USA. Despite all the demonstration of the British and the American people both countries went to war in Iraq over claims they knew were false and utter lies.
    I do not call that democracy. Thousands of American and British soldiers were returned back home in plastic bags. A war that was not needed at all, if only they had told the people the real truth behind the war, if only they told them they are going to steal oil from Iraq. But they knew the American and British people would not agree to go to war. I do not call that democracy. Not when the government led people to believe they have a saying while they really don’t.
    Face book is used by the American CIA and the Israeli Mossad to collect information about people and to spread poison into the minds of people.
    A great social network turned into a tool of the cold war.
    Why not…?. I suppose the creator of face book is a Jewish young man who feels duty towards Israel.

    • inoljt says:

      Meh…I think you’re too full of conspiracies. Facebook’s just a company, not a secret CIA or Mossad conspiracy.

      And I have no idea why you brought up Jews into this conversation, given that this post didn’t mention them once.

      • Abu Ali says:

        go to face book and search for the page named “syrian revelution against…” you will see the fist as a picture for the page. now look at the names of the members. you will find that the names are mostly jewish.

      • inoljt says:

        Alas, I cannot tell whether a name is “Jewish” or not, so I wouldn’t be able to know.

        I do agree with you that the influence of Facebook is far overrated.

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