Last week, Marc Lynch struggled to unravel the continuing impact of social media on the Arab Spring:
[N]egatives such as sectarianism, fear, and hatred spread as rapidly on social media as do more positive ideas. The success of the Tunisian revolution inspired Arabs everywhere to believe that victory was possible, and Egypt’s success convinced many that victory was inevitable. But the reverse also proved true. The bloodbath in Syria, like the horrors of Iraq in the mid-2000s, had a chilling effect on popular mobilization. By midway through 2011, it was already clear that the end of the story did not have to be partying in Tahrir Square — it might be butchered women and children littering the streets and massive dispossession and grief. The sectarian hatred and division fueled by the Syrian bloodshed flowed through social media just as effectively as the unifying message of the early Arab Spring.
Brian Ulrich’s perspective:
As a historian, I am struck by how often changes in the information environment appear in explanations for revolutions. What I know of the French Revolution comes from basic reading and conversations with a colleague in order to teach my world history survey, but there is definitely the idea that in the mid-1700’s a critical mass of literate urban dwellers began reading and spreading information contained in pamphlets, a culture which took an increasingly political turn in the aftermath of the debacle of the Seven Years’ War, and that King Louis XVI was simply unable to effectively engage with or manage the newfangled “public opinion.” Juan Cole wrote of something similar in Egypt’s 1881 Urabi Revolt. When I think of Iran’s Tobacco Revolt and Constitutional Revolution, I think in part of the telegraph and the spread of ideas and information via labor migration. I have no idea if similar developments figure in the contemporary developments in China, Russia, and Mexico. None of these situations, however, led quickly and easily to a happy and united community under a new political framework, an expectation much of the public has had of the Arab Spring that probably owes more to memories of the transitions of the fall of communism than the longer history of popular uprisings.
In a follow-up post gathering responses, Lynch clarifies his stance:
I believe that the underlying transformation of the Arab public sphere enabled by the radical, rapid spread of new information technology represents the single most enduring and profound change of the last decade. It is one of the primary obstacles to the return of traditional Arab authoritarianism, and to the emergence of a new Islamist domination. The effects of that structural change, like those of any structural change, are complex and unpredictable, and can’t be reduced to reassuring narratives of “democratization” or frightening narratives of “state collapse.” The new information environment empowers politics, which do tend to be messy and contentious and unsatisfying. That’s good, but it doesn’t guarantee any particular outcome.