Can a Tweet topple a government?

Hashtags and Facebook posts may not change policy, but they can set the agenda, Alfred Hermida writes in his new book, Tell Everyone.
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October 16, 2014
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Hashtags and Facebook posts are no match for state governments, but they can set the agenda on an issue and plant the seed for change, writes Alfred Hermida in his new book, Tell Everyone.

The current UBC journalism professor, who was a founding editor of the BBC News website in the late ’90s, explores the human tendency to share, the technology that has allowed us to do so at an incredible rate, and the risks of assuming what we see online is representative of the whole picture. He spoke to OpenCanada this week about policymaking in the social media era — from protests in Egypt and the Idle No More movement to Romney’s  ‘Binders of Women’ gaffe.

Let’s begin with the good news — the success stories of social media as a tool for social change, as a tool of empowerment.

One of the things that social media is very good at is connecting people who have similar interests and concerns, getting them to know each other… That might be through a Facebook group, it might be through a hashtag on Twitter. That is tremendously powerful because you connect to others who are also concerned about the same issue.

In countries where taking political action or standing up to social injustice is dangerous, where it’s a matter of ‘If I step out on the street I could get beaten up,’ that really does change dynamics. We saw this in Egypt dramatically during the time of the uprising. It was a way for people to say ‘Look, enough of this. We’ve had enough with the corrupt regime, we’ve had enough with police brutality. We want change.’ One of the studies that was done on this, what they found was that people who just talked on the Facebook page were far more likely to then be out on that very first day of protest. So it actually affects how you feel about taking part in action.

So it’s not just reactionary, it also drives action.

Yes, because in these situations you say ‘Well, there is a protest organized for this weekend.’ You might say ‘Well, I’m going to go, but is anybody else going to be there?’ In places like Egypt, you need that safety in numbers. If through the Facebook page you are seeing that there are thousands of people like you saying ‘I’m going to go there’ even if only half of them turn up you still know that there are thousands of people who have said they are going to go. That gives you the reassurance that you’re not going to be the only one and that you might have some safety from police brutality in the fact that it’s not just going to be you and your friends, it’s not you and a dozen people, but you and thousands of others who are taking that first step. That really changes the dynamic of social protest.

You talk about the diversity of voices that appear on social media, as different from the voices portrayed or quoted in the media, especially with the example of Idle No More. Do those diverse voices get through to the policymaking level in some way?

I think in some ways we expect too much of social media because it’s so new, because it’s so shiny and it is so powerful in a way that can change everything. So the reality of social media is that it’s changing everything, but we probably won’t realize how much it has changed everything for a generation.

Sending out a Tweet is not going to topple a government. We saw that in Iran in the elections in 2009. Tweets are no match for countries, but that is not the issue. You saw the big protests over climate change, when tens of thousands of people across the world took part in demonstrations. Now did that change climate change policy overnight? No, of course it didn’t. We don’t expect that, for suddenly politicians to say, ‘Yes we need to abide by all these protocols.’ We should have similar expectations of social media.

When social media becomes used as a tool for activism, the power is in laying the seed for change and enabling people to find others who feel like they do, to connect with them and to start laying the seeds of future organizations. To build that capacity for change in a generation’s time.

It is leading to forms of action that we haven’t seen before. It is leading for people to connect with people they didn’t know before social media. It would have been very hard for them to organize and mobilize. And it’s also amplifying certain messages which then become an issue in the media. Now we saw that with the Occupy Protest, we saw it with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag in Nigeria — it’s the six month anniversary [of the kidnapping]. Now creating a hashtag is not going to bring back our girls, but it then focuses attention on what is happening in Nigeria and potentially laying the foundation for some sort of change in the long term.

So I think this is where we see the power of social media. Not so much in making a change overnight, but in effecting what makes the news, how that news is reported and whose voices are heard.

Is that what you mean when you mention in the book the images of children killed by nerve gas in Syria and how such images were waking people up on the issue. That awareness, then, might shape how people would react to, say, foreign military action in Syria.

Journalists don’t tell people what to think, but they tell them what to think about and often frame the parameters of that discussion. Every news organization will have a certain perspective and by choosing who you quote, that affects the news and whose voice is heard. What happens to social media is we have the power of thousands of people who can selectively say ‘Here is somebody that is worth listening to’ which you won’t read about in the Globe and Mail because they won’t be quoted in the Globe and Mail or The Toronto Star. But, we think they are somebody worth listening to and the collective actions of all these thousands of people will say ‘Here is somebody worth listening to.’ We saw that through Idle No More. Eventually what you then get is a crowd-sourced elite. They are not telling people what to think, but they affect what we think about and how we think about it. They change the nature of the debate and discussion and can bring prominence that wasn’t there before.

What about the risks, from the use of social media as a surveillance tool and so on?

Even before we talk about surveillance, part of the risk is when we see a lot of activity in a hashtag, [we think] it means something but it is not representative of what everybody in Canada thinks about this issue. It is not representative of what the world thinks about these issues. It is representative of a collective group of engaged individuals who have decided it’s important. Now that is not to dismiss it, but we also need to realize that are individuals who are engaged in this particular issue for one reason or another. Part of the danger then is that this group of engaged individuals then sets the agenda.

In the book I talk about Mitt Romney’s ‘binders of women’. Presidential debate, everybody looking out for the gaffe. Mitt Romney is talking about he has promoted all these women and has talent to draw from. Surely that’s something to talk about — here is a presidential candidate who says he values women as leaders. That wasn’t how that debate was framed. He made the ‘binders of women’ gaffe. ‘Binders of women’ flew on social media, and that became a running joke and then that became the story the next day.

Journalists will then say if this is what people are taking away from a debate, then we are right about what people are interested in. Whereas you could have written a story about Mitt Romney having lots of talented women, that positive aspect.

I think this is where you have some of the dangers of social media. You can actually create the idea that there is a ground swell around a particular issue or a particular way of thinking about something and it’s not necessarily representative of the general public because most people aren’t on Twitter. People on Twitter tend to be people who are more engaged with the news, who are more engaged with causes. But that is not the majority. It is not a poll on what people think.

But will it be the majority? We are still in the midst of a generational change.

Well I think it is really figuring out who these different groups of people are, how they are expressing their interest and their passion, and what does that mean? How do we interpret? How do we make sense of that?

One of the challenges in trying to make sense of it, is that it doesn’t work like traditional media. You know we have had newspapers around for hundreds of years. When we see the front page of a newspaper we know how to interpret. We know that every story with a big headline, the editor has decided that is important. Social media is so new that we look at it and it’s this jungle of stuff. There is an order there, but it’s not necessarily the order of the newspaper or the news bulletin. You look at Twitter and it seems like an endless stream of stuff that is just coming at us, mixing the important, the inane, the personal, the professional. There is an order there, but it’s very hard for us to us the tools we have to discern that. I think that’s where the challenges come in making sense of that.

How true is it that social media helps provide access to those weren’t as accessible otherwise — I am thinking of policymakers — and whether it helps keep them accountable as well.

A lot of policymakers are now using social media to bypass the news. Why talk to a journalist who can ask you questions, when you can just put out something on your Facebook page or send out a Tweet about it and announce policy that way? In some ways you could say ‘Well I’m being more accountable to my constituents’ but on the other hand you are not because essentially you are just broadcasting messages and using it as another tool for propaganda.

We’ve seen how effective ISIS is at using social media for propaganda. During the conflict in Gaza, the Israeli Defence Force has been very effective in portraying a certain image of the conflict through its social media platform. But if you then followed Hamas and its social media, you had a very different picture of what happened. In a sense that is where the journalist comes in. They are trying to provide you with a much more rounded picture of what is happening there.

So this is where social media is really complicated because while it can be used for accountability, it can also be used as a tool to bypass a lot of those traditional channels for accountability.

In the book, you recall covering protests in Egypt in the 1990s, when there were no videos posted on YouTube, and compared it to today.

With those protests, yes we got tear gassed, and I reported it for the BBC but it wasn’t really big news. Another protest crushed by the Mubarak regime. Lawyers in their gowns and collars and everything, which makes a very odd sight, lawyers being tear gassed. They don’t seem the most radical dissidents you might imagine.

What you see now, and you certainly saw this during the Arab Spring, is a much more multi-faceted picture of what is happening there. That’s both a good and bad thing because the other side of this coin is that what a lot of activists in Egypt realized, if they Tweeted in English, western journalists would pick up on it. And they would then rebroadcast those messages. So one of the ironies you have for these kinds of protests is you get the sort of on-the-ground context, but you get it from those people who know how to use these tools and technologies which then gets amplified by the western media.

So if you follow the Egyptian uprising on social media, you might have got this impression that all the activists were young, western educated, liberal. All on their smart phones ready to overthrow the government. And yet what that didn’t take account of is the fact that the main strong political force in Egypt was the Muslim Brotherhood. Older, largely male, largely speaking Arabic and not organizing and mobilizing through social media. So then in the West we have this picture of young people that are the faces of the revolution that are like us, want the same things as us. And then we have elections and most of the votes go to the Islamic Party. The West is surprised that the Islamists have the majority, whereas anybody who knows this country, certainly from my experience in Egypt, of course the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win the election. They spent decades organizing as a political force. They had the people in place, they had the structures. Of course they are going to get the majority of votes. But yet the picture we got through social media, which is then amplified through the western media, was very, very different.

I think that’s one of the contradictions and complications when it comes to how we see the world through social media. We are seeing things that were much harder to see before, but we are not necessarily seeing the complete picture. That picture is being drawn by the people taking part in those activities and they are not necessarily representative of the vast population. They are representative of a small group of people who understand these technologies.

Is there any irony that you needed to detail this in a book format?

I have been thinking about this quite a bit. I am very digital, I do a lot of stuff online. I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I think there is a lot of on how this works, how is that working.

What a book does is essentially it enables you to take a step back and say: How do all of these things come together? What is happening to our society as a result of how we are taking advantage of new ways to connect with each other? How is this affecting the way policy plays out? Protesting? The way business has been effected. We as individuals need to think about these tools so that we end up using them rather than them using us.

The book as a physical object itself is enabling you to bring that together. It has got great battery life, it has got touch interface, it has got a way of searching with the index at the back. So actually it has all these tremendous attributes that we take for granted with smartphones and technology. The battery life is never going to run out of this book.

Your book in 140 characters?

It is how we are becoming more human, more connected as we share more with each other.

Because really it is about us, and that is the value of the book. That it is basically about society and how we are changing and the new things we can do.