5th October 2010: Malcolm Gladwell on Social Network Activism

A year ago cultural policy researcher Ben Eltham and I delivered a conference paper (PDF) and presentation (PDF) on divergent views of Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 elections. The paper’s comparative approach and mention of United States diplomacy and psychology operations policies caused a furore in the peer review process. The paper later became our most downloaded, read, debated and cited paper yet.

Malcolm Gladwell enters the fray in a New Yorker piece about activism and social networks:

A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Our paper’s view was slightly more nuanced and tried to offer multiple perspectives. Twitter’s market valuation and public visibility soared because of event-driven stories like Iran’s elections and the social network’s ‘net responder’ role during California and Victoria’s 2009 fires. Its self-organising capability and viral nature enabled Western activists, international non-government organisations, and media to monitor Iran’s elections. However, those same features enabled Iran’s Basij paramilitary to hunt down protestors during the uncertainty about the election’s outcome. Twitter’s social network platform also fulfilled what neoconservative strategists had been looking for since at least late 1998 and publicly since 2000: a ‘next generation’ replacement for radio and satellite television broadcasts into Iran, usually from a Los Angeles-based diaspora to Tehran students.

Gladwell updates our paper’s findings:

In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “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.”
One of the problems Gladwell notes is that Web 2.0 innovation exponents like Clay Shirky can get too close to their own ideas: ‘weak-tie’ networks rely on a cascade that can create its own problems. Another is that the 1960s civil rights movement mode of activism relies on ‘strong tie’ networks: people with resilient, strong, personal friendships who are willing to face danger. Gladwell’s insight is echoed in civil rights documentaries like Robert Drew’s Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963) about Alabama Governor George Wallace’s confrontation with President John F. Kennedy over the enrolment of two black college students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Contemporary researchers like Jose M. Ramos have found a similar gulf between ‘strong tie’ activism’ that is ‘in the flesh’ and ‘weak tie’ activism that pervades online social networks. Gladwell also makes some interesting comparisons between the vulnerable ‘network logic’ of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Al Qaeda, and the hierarchical, intergenerational violence of Germany’s Red Army Faction. Has he read Jeremy Varon’s recent history Bringing The War Home (University of Californa Press, Los Angeles, 2004)?

Eltham gave our paper a melancholic, realist conclusion: for all the #IranElection tweets, the Basij targeted, arrested and killed real people.