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The Internet helps foster revolutions? Think again

Social networking has been a star of the Arab Spring revolutions.

People can't stop talking about how Twitter and Facebook helped protestors organize, and when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak suddenly cut access to the Internet and cell phone service on January 28th, many wondered how the protestors would share information and keep momentum.

But as it turned out, depriving people of information had an explosive effect--far from the epicenter at Tahrir Square in Cairo, so many grassroots protests sprung up that the military was brought in. Two weeks later, Mubarak resigned.

Using the Egyptian revolution as a case study, a new paper makes the case that theories of group dynamics explain why access to information can actually have a quenching effect on revolutions, and argues that regimes that shut information sources down are signing their own death warrants.

Evidence from Mubarak's natural experiment.
Making sense of the Arab Spring

The paper's author, political science graduate student Navid Hassanpour, describes various other revolutions in which information kept people content, but he focused on the Egyptian revolution because the information shut-off was sudden and complete, removing many of the confounding factors that make its role in revolutions difficult to gauge.

Using the theories of Mark Granovetter, a social scientist who pioneered the study of social networks in the 70s, Hassanpour took a close look at how a sudden dearth of information would affect individual actions. Granovetter helped popularize the "threshold" model of group dynamics, which holds that what neighbors are doing and how many of them are doing it determine the point at which an individual decides to get involved.

When information about protests is freely available, individuals can be passive while remaining informed. Additionally, the government can promulgate both reassurances that protests will soon be resolved and threats that military force will be used against protestors, thus maintaining the status quo and deterring involvement. But when people are suddenly plunged into radio silence, they almost by default must take action: they have to leave the house to check up on family members and learn more about events. If they hadn't heard of the protests before, they will have now, and they will have to take to the streets as well. And the government loses its ability to spin the situation through Internet channels. In Cairo, as more and more people who'd stayed inside began to leave their homes, the process accelerated, and protests exploded all over the city and the rest of the nation.

"The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways," Hassanpour summarizes. "It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir."

Hassanpour was inspired by earlier work by that examined whether news broadcasts from the west in East Berlin caused dissatisfaction with the East German government, as was widely believed. On the contrary, the researchers found in a review of East German visa applications, access to western news made living under authoritarian rule more bearable and decreased people's interest in leaving the country. The effects of Egypt's information shut-down weren't lost on the Libyan government, which toyed with the idea of unilaterally shutting down the Internet to hinder the rebels' communications but ultimately decided against it.

Syria, on the other hand, did resort to that in early June. In the UK, where violent riots and looting broke out earlier this month, the government also considered blocking suspected rioters from social networking sites, and some called for BlackBerry service to be turned off. But in the face of public outcry, the government seems to have retreated on that front. In San Francisco, BART officials apparently didn't get the memo: after they got wind of a possible protest surrounding an incident of alleged policy brutality, they shut down cell phone service on their platforms and trains and triggered a new series of protests surrounding freedom to assemble.

While this paper brings up some interesting points and brings statistics to bear on the problem, it is not a controlled study; ideally, this issue would be probed with a larger data set of similar revolutions, some with shut-downs and some without, to learn the true effects of an information vacuum.

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