During the initial upsurge of enthusiasm about the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, observers noted how effectively social media had been used as an organizing tool by young activists. While it would be overstating the case to attribute the revolutions themselves to social media (as some of the more breathless analyses did at the time), the impact that online social networks, cellphones, and new satellite television stations had on mobilizing and informing people in these societies was undeniable. The idea of young people using social media to topple dictatorships played into the narrative of “tech-utopianism,” still in vogue at the time, stimulating the idea that future political changes might be organized from below through the liberating power of the internet.
The grim years that followed the initial uprisings have mostly dispelled this narrative. While liberal activists were adept at organizing online, so were political Islamists and jihadist groups. These groups were better funded, better organized, and already had experience operating clandestinely – using the latest technologies for propaganda, recruitment, and networking. Over time, it would be Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as jihadists, that moved into the vanguard of the revolutions, pushing aside the liberal activists who had initially captured the world’s imagination.
“Digital World War” is an analysis of how opposition movements, and Islamists in particular, have used social media as a tool of waging war against established governments. Haroon Ullah is a former State Department official and expert on Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami movement. Unlike Patrikarikos’s book, “Digital World War” is a staid academic analysis of how social media and other new technologies are altering the dynamics between central governments and opposition movements, both Islamist and liberal. But Ullah’s work also addresses the crux of how social media is upending the traditional power dynamics governing war and politics.
Perhaps the most destabilizing aspect of new technologies is the way that they have potentially supercharged the speed of political change. Youth-led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia began and ended within a matter of weeks, toppling governments that had been in place for decades. Although both countries had suffered from long-standing structural problems, the sparks for both uprisings were lit over individual outrages – corruption and police brutality – that were spread and rapidly popularized over social media. Though many bystanders later joined the protests for other reasons, the speed and scale with which people initially organized would have been impossible in an era before cellphones and the internet.
The very speed of these movements, however, made it hard to build a sustainable order out of the collapse of the old regimes. While it was true that online mobilization played a role in toppling both Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it also allowed little time for real leaders to emerge or for political platforms to be agreed upon. While the people who went into the streets were united in their indignation over injustice and their opposition to the old order, they had very different ideas about the future of their countries. When the regimes collapsed, the only parties established enough to take advantage were those aligned with the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood.
“It was not a matter of Islam being some defining feature of Tunisian identity — despite the Islamists claims,” Ullah writes, regarding the Tunisian revolution and the subsequent election of the liberal Islamist party Ennahda, “Rather, the victory was the natural outcome of the inevitable schism between the nature of the revolution and the readiness of the Islamists for power.”
Social media is not the first information technology that has had helped galvanize revolutionary change. Radio, telegraph, and even the printing press all helped precipitate major socio-political transformations in the past, the latter famously helping enable the Christian Reformation.
More recently, the groundwork for the 1979 Iranian Revolution was laid with the help of a relatively new technology: Popular speeches by the revolution’s leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were recorded and copied onto cassette tapes, which were then rapidly replicated and distributed. Unlike social media movements that can close the cycle between outrage and protest to a matter of days, however, it took Khomeini years of painstaking media work to help build mass support for an opposition movement in Iran. By the time the that Iranians finally went into the streets against the Shah – motivated by many different ideological currents – Khomeini was a well-known and popular spiritual leader within the opposition. When the monarchy fell, he was well-placed to marginalize his ideological rivals and consolidate clerical power over the country.
The difference between Iran’s uprising and the leaderless revolutions of today is vast and points to one of the major pitfalls of internet activism. Online organizing and propaganda can be legitimately useful for destabilizing regimes, especially rigidly authoritarian ones that need to strictly control the flow of information. But because of the speed with which it can precipitate change, it is less useful for building up the networks and organizations needed to fill the gap created when old governments actually fall.
“When there is no single leader to focus a political movement — Khomeini, Mandela, Lenin — there may be more and faster revolutions than previously, but there are fewer revolutionary outcomes and scenarios,” Ullah writes. “So when a dictatorship – by definition and decree the sole and strongest institution in a country — is deposed by insurrections like the Arab Spring, what comes into the place of the power vacuum is not dictated by those who have created it.”