Limits of social media in revolutionary processes (Malcolm Gladwell was right!)

Last October Malcolm Gladwell kicked a hornet nest of social media enthusiasts, arguing that social media helped facilitate weak social ties, which are good for some things but not others. Protracted social struggle against the privileged and powerful tends to come with heavy costs, sometimes including prison, physical pain, and even death. Strong social ties are absolutely necessary for sustaining the level of commitment such struggles require, and social media doesn’t do much for cultivating such ties, Gladwell argued.

Gladwell came off as almost entirely dismissive of the value of social media, and that upset people. If he was trying to provoke a dialogue, he clearly succeeded.

Over all, I agree with Gladwell’s emphasis and I argued at the time that people who love social media may be inclined to overstate its real-change value:

From outside of Egypt, it is difficult to see which group identities, social infrastructure, and organizations are playing what roles in encouraging and emboldening such a strong collective mobilization.  But it’s really easy to read tweets.  It’s easy to latch onto the mechanisms that are within our experience.  As the saying goes, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Today, if you spend all of your time online, you might be inclined to overvalue its worth.  You might be more likely to read an article that discusses how to improve your Twitter presence than an article that explores how to talk to your family about a difficult political issue.  Social media is low-hanging fruit.  Any savvy young person can learn to text message, tweet, and update their status &#151 and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

An article by Noam Cohen in Sunday’s NY Times adds dimension to this debate on the social change value of social media:

THE mass media, including interactive social-networking tools, make you passive, can sap your initiative, leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.

Apparently even during a revolution.

Cohen is reporting on a new thesis titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest”, by Yale political science graduate student Navid Hassanpour.

Hassanpour suggests close to the opposite of what many have taken for granted about the role of social media in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak; that the disruption of the regular functioning of social media may have contributed to revolutionary organizing more than its utility. Then-President Mubarak’s decision to shutdown Internet and cellphone service may have shifted cognitive and social processes in favor of revolutionary change. From the NY Times article:

“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” [Hassanpour] writes. “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.”

In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on &#151 we are more unpredictable when we don’t &#151 on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.

I think this thesis lends an interesting layer of support to Gladwell’s arguments. When people are forced into deeper in-person interaction with each other, new potentials are more easily born; new levels of commitment, courage and individual sacrifice for the whole can be seen.

The NY Times article goes on to describe how other governments learned from Mubarak’s strategic blunder (of shutting down the Internet).

Iran, for example&#151according to technology analyst Jim Cowie&#151realized that, “you don’t turn off the Internet anywhere &#151 you make it less useful.” You slow it down, make it harder and less effective to post viral video, etc.

So governments may be well-advised to seek to keep people hooked in and logged in. Slow people down so they spend more time glued to their screens, with less social incentive (i.e. desire to connect with others) to hit the streets.

The NY Times article goes on to describe a 2009 study of western media influence on East Germans during the Cold War. The study, by Holger Lutz Kern of Yale and Jens Hainmueller of M.I.T., suggests that consumption of western media had the net effect of making people passive about their conditions. Rather than inciting people to action, western media created something of a cognitive escape. Their paper is provocatively titled “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media Can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes.”

The NY Times article concludes quoting Todd Wolfson, an assistant professor at Rutgers, who nicely strikes the nuance that this conversation about the social change value of social media needs. Wolfson says that there is “an accelerant role for social media.” Yes, communication mediums play a role in communication &#151 how about that? But social media “cannot and does not create that kind of mass motion.”

[Wolfson] cited the writer Frantz Fanon, who discussed the role of radio in the Algerian revolt against the French in the 1950s. When the French tried to block their transmissions, Fanon wrote in his 1959 book, “A Dying Colonialism,” the rebels had even more power, because the listeners were no longer passive. [my emphasis]

Whatever the value of social media in revolutionary and social change processes, can’t we also examine the costs? And can’t we all admit that it can function as an escape, that it can be a huge time-suck, and that grassroots organizing will always be about getting ourselves and others off our asses?

Revolutionizing Egypt by the Day: An Eyewitness Report

By Bob Wing and Hany Khalil

Veteran analyst Bob Wing and Egyptian-American activist Hany Khalil recently met with a dozen key revolutionaries and spoke with numerous people on Cairo’s streets, in the cafes and taxis, and in their homes.

Jan. 25: Cairo &#151 The political situation in Egypt is volatile, as all Egyptians and their organizations scramble to find their bearings following the unexpected but historic ousting of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Excitement and trepidation abound and colorful revolutionary graffiti fills the public space. New parties, alliances and campaigns are announced one day, only to disband the next. Strenuous debate about the order, rules and content of elections and a new constitution is at the forefront.

Suddenly everyone is a revolutionary and a democrat. But the “leaderless revolution” is still leaderless and thinly organized while the military, the temporary government and the Muslim Brotherhood retain great strength.

The Tunisian Revolution has the workers’ movement as a backbone; the Egyptian Revolution is still searching for an anchor.

18 Days That Shook the World

In the last few years, protests were growing in frequency, especially strikes. But the January 25 actions were called by new, loosely organized youth groups. The actions were unexpectedly transformed into a revolutionary movement by a spontaneous and massive rebellion of an aggrieved population.

The turning point came on Jan. 28 when “millions of demonstrators overwhelmed the stunned internal police security forces throughout the country and, shockingly, this long feared and well armed apparatus literally vanished overnight,” reports journalist and activist Ahmad Shokr.

The Muslim Brotherhood took up the call of the revolutionary youth, adding organized strength to the street actions, followed later by some unions and key professional groups. When the U.S. called for Mubarak to step down and the Egyptian military opted not to attack the demonstrators, the regime collapsed.

In eighteen days Egyptians dispatched from the stage of history one of the most longstanding regimes in the world, one backed to the hilt by the U.S. until its death throes. Unbeknownst to itself or anyone else, the Mubarak government had rotted to its core. One brief but powerful people’s hurricane blew it away.

ABOVE: from an entire wall of revolutionary art in the Tahrir Square subway station

Revolutionary Street Power

There was astonishingly little organization or political definition to the revolution other than calling for the ouster of Mubarak and his closest cronies. Slogans such as “Freedom, Justice, Dignity” ruled the day, but social and economic demands were very low profile. Ruefully we are told, “Everyone now claims to have been in Tahrir Square.”

At first it is baffling to hear many of the revolutionaries describe themselves as liberals. But we soon learned that liberal democracy is a revolutionary demand in a country that has been ruled by foreigners for two millennia and by military regimes for decades.

Still, a mad scramble to organize and develop further political coherence is now afoot. The Egyptian revolutionaries are struggling to retain their unity and expand amidst emerging new divisions over the future of the revolution.

“The strength of the revolution is its massive street presence: its political definition and organization lag far behind. However, no one knows how long the population will remain mobilized, so this is a very fragile situation,” says Sherif Alaa of the newly formed Free Egypt Party.

Youth as Vanguard

The key street mobilizers still appear to be the middle class youth groups, especially the April 6 Movement, We are All Khaled Said and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.

The most recent huge action was held on May 27 in protest of continued political repression by the military and the temporary government. Half a million or more Egyptians thronged Tahrir Square despite the expressed opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.

The youth groups, like everyone else, are in a state of change and flux. Although they are the vanguard of revolutionary action, they are not necessarily radical in their socio-economic vision and have scant organized base.

Mohammed Adel of the April 6 Movement claims his group has an organized and active national membership of 7,000. It has launched a nationwide survey to clarify the people’s opinion about what should be in the new Constitution. April 6 is also trying to unite all the parties and groups behind the presumed presidential candidacy of Mohammed El-Baradei.

Adel believes “the key is to defeat the remnants of the old regime and to establish a transparent liberal political system.” April 6 and others project the remnants of the old regime, including the military, will tacitly back the expected presidential candidacy of Amr Moussa, the longtime foreign minister and Arab League president under Mubarak.

Importantly, some prominent intellectuals and activists, including We Are All Khaled Said just recently launched a “Poor First” campaign, marking the first major entry of class issues into the public debate. In a powerful post entitled “The Poor First, You Bastards,” Mohammed Abul Gheit argues that “the Egyptian revolution cannot be complete without social justice.”

Over the last three years more than 1.5 million workers have struck their employers. Perhaps they, along with the peasants and urban poor, may rise to the fore in the coming period.

Ferment in the Brotherhood

Meanwhile there is frenetic activity to form new political parties that can contest elections. According to veteran leftist and famed journalist Amina Shafik, “Mubarak successfully coopted, tamed or repressed all organized opposition during his reign. Parties that existed prior to the revolution were compromised to the point of now having no future, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

ABOVE: Legendary journalist and activist, Amina Shafik

The Brotherhood is the only party that has wide name recognition let alone organization or mass support. It is a complex and diverse political coalition founded in 1928. Our interviewees estimate that if elections were held today, the Brotherhood would carry between 20 and 30 percent of the electorate.

However, the program and unity of the Brotherhood are increasingly strained by the new forces and ideas unleashed by the revolution. To address the new situation, the Brotherhood has set up the supposedly ecumenical Justice and Freedom Party with a Christian as Vice President.

Still, one of the Brotherhood’s well known leaders, Abdel-Moneim Abul Fotouh, and a significant section of its youth members have split off to form a more liberal, civic-based movement called the Egyptian Current.

Fotouh plans a presidential run while the Brotherhood has promised only to run parliamentary candidates.

The Brotherhood also lost credibility when it refused to back the massive May 27 demonstration. Since then it has been feverishly maneuvering to find its bearings and preserve its unity in the fast changing environment.

Two, Three, Many Parties

Mozn Hassan of Nazra for Feminist Studies told us, “The strongest new political trend appears to be the formation of liberal parties”&#151parties whose central demand is a transparent, liberal democratic political system but who do not advocate major social or economic change. She describes them as being in “fragile, incipient stages of development,” often largely confined to middle class intellectuals in Cairo.

Our interviewees estimate that the current combined electoral strength of all the parties to the left of the Brotherhood is considerably less than ten percent. Their most ardent partisans hope to gain one-third of the new parliament so that they could block any two-thirds votes by more conservative forces.

Perhaps the party with the most potential strength is the Free Egyptians Party. It was founded by Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian who is one of the wealthiest people in Egypt. His vast empire includes a major newspaper and a leading television station. Sawiris reportedly has no presidential aspirations of his own, but he is rumored to have committed $10 million to build the new party.

ABOVE: Sign for unity of Muslims and Coptic Christians

Free Egyptians is noteworthy for its strong secularist position, which has won it the ire of the Brotherhood and especially the Salafists, the most radical Islamists. So far it has not advocated for any significant economic or social changes, other than ridding the current system of cronyism and corruption.

The Justice Party is another liberal party backed by some big businessmen. It also eschews major economic change and is considered conciliatory towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

The third main party is the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. It is trying to forge a center-left alternative that is similar to the European socialist parties but is apparently struggling to get off the ground.

In response to what some view as organizational weakness and a lack of internal democracy, a split recently occurred in the Social Democratic Party leading to attempts to build the Free Egypt Party led by Amr Hamzawi, a well known public intellectual.

There are two overtly left parties in formation, but both are considered much weaker than the center-left Social Democratic Party: the Laborer’s Party which is based in a few independent trade unions and has a significant Trotskyist component and the Popular Alliance Party, a new left unity electoral and organizing effort.

Constitution First?

Perhaps the biggest issue currently being debated is the order and relationship of drafting a new Constitution, electing a new Parliament and voting for a new President.

The Brotherhood and, tacitly, the military and temporary government backed a March 19 referendum calling for the parliament to be elected in September, for the parliament to then choose a constitutional drafting committee for popular approval, to be followed by a presidential election.

Despite virtually universal opposition from the principal secular revolutionary organizations and the Coptic Christian community (which constitutes about ten percent of the population), the apparently fair and free referendum carried more than sixty percent of the electorate. Some interpreted this as a vote for restabilization.

Undeterred, revolutionary coalitions have launched a petition campaign, a survey and a mass education campaign in favor of drafting the constitution ahead of elections. Apparently they fear that the Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime are much better organized and could capitalize on early elections.

“We prefer to emblazon the revolution in a new constitution before elections,” says Ahmed Fawzy of the Social Democratic Party. This might also allow the new parties to get organized.

However, cracks in this alliance are now appearing, as some are concerned that conservatives could also dominate a constitution which would be much harder to change than a president or a parliament.

Still others feel that the debate over the order of these processes is overshadowing discussion of the direction and content of the revolution.

In this respect, the Poor First and similar campaigns may be a salutary development both to add substance to the public debate and to rally the popular sectors.

ABOVE: Area dedicated to martyrs of the Revolution in Alexandria, Egypt

The neoliberal threat to the Arab Spring

Also published at Waging Nonviolence

While the people of Tunisia and Egypt have successfully removed the US-backed dictators that ruled their respective countries, the path to real democracy is still long and precarious. One serious threat emerged last week as the G8 pledged billions of dollars in aid to the two countries to promote “economic stability.”

As Liz Alderman rightly notes for the New York Times, “poor job opportunities are among the major factors that prompted the outpouring of unrest among young people in Egypt and Tunisia.” Revealing her own bias, however, Alderman never discusses the cause of the economic woes of these countries, but goes on to warn that:

Old leftist political parties are re-emerging as though they have been frozen in time for the 30 years of the Mubarak police state to demand that the government again expand its role in the economy to help the poor, even at the price of discouraging foreign investors.


In Tunisia, too, old leftist parties are trying to come back, and parts of the country’s strong labor movement are stepping up their demands or returning to radical roots.

In response to these troublesome developments, she writes that “the projected $20 billion in aid from international financial institutions would come in phases and be contingent on democratic and economic reforms,” that would include “broadening economic opportunity and breaking down trade barriers; Egypt, seeking to protect state industries, has some of the highest in the world.”

Over at the Guardian, Austin Mackell argues that much like what happened in South Africa as it transitioned to democracy, in Egypt the wealthy countries, through forces like the IMF, are essentially seeking “to lock in and enlarge the neoliberal project before there is an accountable government to complain about it.”

What’s most audacious about this news is that one of the primary reasons the economies of Tunisia and Egypt are in such bad shape to begin with is because they have already diligently followed the IMF’s neoliberal prescriptions. As Richard Javad Heydarian explains at Foreign Policy in Focus:

In the last three decades, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt abandoned the more egalitarian and welfare-oriented policies of their predecessors in favor of economic opening and deregulation. The IMF and World Bank have touted Egypt and Tunisia’s economic reform as regional cases of globalization’s success. Both countries registered good scores on major economic liberalization and openness indexes. Both received good rankings in the 2009-10 Economic Competitiveness Index. Tunisia, ranked 32nd, placed above Lithuania, Brazil, and Turkey, while Egypt, ranked 70th, is higher than Greece and Croatia. In the KOF Globalization index, which rates the diffusion of government policies, Egypt and Tunisia rank 12th and 35th respectively. Egypt, considered one of the hottest emerging economies in the world, is part of the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa), and Tunisia has been a leading Arab country in free trade and economic liberalization. The two countries have been the face of economic globalization in the Arab world.

The results of these economic reforms, which were imposed by the IMF in the form of “structural adjustment programs,” were both devastating and entirely predictable.

…Arab autocrats used economic liberalization as an opportunity to transfer welfare responsibilities to the private sector, establish new patterns of patronage by favoring selected clients during bidding processes and privatization schemes, and enrich their military allies by granting them access to major businesses and investments. The product was crony capitalism: high levels of corruption, poor state services, and absence of a decisive and developmental state.

As Walter Armbrust writes at Al Jazeera in an in-depth article that lays out the case that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were not only against their dictators, but also against neoliberalism:

The only people for whom Egyptian neoliberalism worked “by the book” were the most vulnerable members of society, and their experience with neoliberalism was not a pretty picture. Organised labor was fiercely suppressed. The public education and the health care systems were gutted by a combination of neglect and privatization. Much of the population suffered stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation. Official unemployment was estimated at approximately 9.4% last year (and much higher for the youth who spearheaded the January 25th Revolution), and about 20% of the population is said to live below a poverty line defined as $2 per day per person.

These outcomes were not mistakes, but as Naomi Klein documents in her fantastic book The Shock Doctrine, strikingly similar to what neoliberalism has accomplished the world over.

Despite the fact that the IMF and World Bank have often historically stepped in during these transition periods to democracy to ensure that whatever government is elected doesn’t rock the boat when it comes to economic policy, Walden Bello argues that the Arab Spring may be able to chart a different course, because:

…neoliberal pro-market reforms are in severe disrepute, which was not the case in the 1980s and 1990s. The liberalization of capital flows has provoked several crises, including the current global downturn, while trade liberalization has resulted in the displacement of local agricultural producers and local manufacturers by foreign imports. More than at any other time since the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal revolution in the 1980s, radical free market solutions lack credibility.

We can only hope that the people and activists in Egypt and Tunisia have enough foresight to see the G8′s offer of “aid” for what it is: a siren song that could gut their revolutions of much of their meaning.

Eric Stoner is an editor at Waging Nonviolence and an adjunct professor at St. Peter's College.

The Arab Spring and the Changing Dynamics of Global Struggle

The Arab Spring, the Japanese nuclear accident, the progressive/labor motion in response to the rightwing attacks in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, and the demographic changes reflected in the 2010 U.S. census, are reshaping the U.S. and global political terrain.

These events are not immediately connected and each has its own particular dynamics. But together they advance and aggravate the two big world trends I outlined in my Notes on Election 2010: the global rise of the developing world and the relative decline of U.S. and Western power as well as the intense struggle within the U.S. as to how to navigate that global sea change together with the impending people of color majority. Indeed the IMF recently announced their estimate that according to one key indicator China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2016.

These notes address some of the new dynamics underscored and advanced by the Arab Spring, including its implications for U.S. politics.

Changing Dynamics of Struggle in Developing World

The Arab Spring was completely unpredictable in its timing, form, rapidity, politics and Arab-wide form, and it remains to be seen what its outcomes will be.

At another level, however, it was completely predictable. Much of the developing world, including the Arab world, has gone through dramatic economic development in the last thirty years. The corresponding socio-economic transformation has given rise to new social forces that the old repressive regimes, most of more than thirty years duration, proved unable to incorporate or suppress.

At different paces and in different forms, mass struggles by sparked by new social forces against reactionary regimes&#151whether Kings, military or military backed strongmen or former revolutionaries turned dictators&#151have swept Asia (1990s&#151e.g. Philippines, Indonesia, S. Korea), Latin America (2000s&#151mainly through leftwing electoral victories), parts of Africa (esp. southern and sub-Saharan Africa), and now the Arab world. One might even include the demise of the former socialist camp and the recent “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics in this context.

These uprisings are notably diverse according to national and regional particularities. But they are also remarkably different from earlier mass struggles in the developing world: they have focused on turning out local dictators as opposed to focusing primarily on anti-colonial or anti-U.S. aims. The Arab Spring has thus far not even targeted Israel.

These movements have been mass democratic struggles as opposed to mass anti-imperialist struggles. Of course, democracy and anti-imperialism are very often intertwined in the developing world. But the leading element seems to have switched to internal democratic struggles compared to the mass national liberation movements of the 1910s through the 1980s.  

Indeed a number of the revolutionary nationalist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s who ended up degenerating into undemocratic regimes are now the targets of democratic uprisings&#151Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad. And it is also they who are among the most violent defenders of their regimes.

The democratic uprisings in the developing world of the last twenty years have also been notable for their largely peaceful strategies compared to the mostly armed national liberation movements of the 1920s to the 1980s. Indeed, that wave of revolutionary nationalism, like Marxist-Leninist socialism (and European social democracy), was eclipsed in that latter decade. Most movements since then have different dynamics and different leadership.

Indeed, the Middle East, led by Nasser in Egypt but also the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party (including Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq) and the Palestine Liberation Organization, was one of the world centers of the revolutionary nationalist, socialist motion of the 1950s to the 1980s. Although these regimes made powerful progress in their early years, they or their successors eventually degenerated into narrow dictatorships and even allied with the U.S. In the 1990s radical Islamism emerged as the main rallying center of anti-imperialist sentiment.

In this context, the emergence of the Arab Spring is a welcome mass democratic counterpoint to Islamic terrorism. There are, of course, radical differences between mass-based Islamic political groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas compared to narrowly terrorist groups like al-Qaeda whose targets are often civilians. Nonetheless the Arab Spring’s mainly peaceful, mass driven and secular democratic flavor is a powerful development that seems to be eclipsing the al-Qaeda-like approach and having much more positive impact. Perhaps this will be strengthened in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Finally, as a result of the much higher level of economic development of the developing world compared to the past, these movements are largely urban-based rather than rural based, and extremely diverse and complicated in their social composition and political orientations. They cannot be fit into simplistic or outdated categories or theories. Instead they must be studied and interacted with based on a concrete analysis of each movement in its own terms.

The Developing World and the Intensification of the Fight for Energy

While primarily local democratic uprisings, the Arab Spring events, like the fights in Asia and Latin America, are reconfiguring global economic and political power. Many countries are rapidly gaining new economic power and are strengthening the economic ties among themselves, independent of the West.

The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are most notable in this respect. The IMF recently announced that it expects the Chinese economy to replace the U.S. as the world’s largest by 2016. And China has replaced the U.S. as burgeoning Brazil’s main trading partner: economic interaction among developing countries among themselves has exploded.

Fast on the heels of the BRIC are the Next 11 (the “N11”: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Korea, Turkey and Vietnam). South Korea is the first former colony to become an advanced capitalist country. No less an imperial leader than Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2050 only the U.S. of the current G8 will rank among the top eight economies of the world.

The rapid economic development of the Global South is creating massive new demand for energy, just as peak oil is reached. And, whatever the exact outcomes of the Arab Spring, oil political expert Michael Klare believes that with it the “old oil order is dying, and with its demise we will see the end of cheap and readily accessible petroleum&#151forever.”

Meanwhile the Fukushima disaster shows the pitfalls of turning to nuclear energy to fill the gap. Along with climate change, these developments underscore the importance of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable and safe energy sources.

Changing Politics of the Middle East

The Arab Spring is a turning point of global importance because oil has been central to world economic development and politics since WWII.  Over that time, the U.S. has spared little expense or scruple to cobble together a reactionary alliance of Arab police states with Israel to safeguard its interests. The formation of OPEC in the 1960s and 1970s was a critical turning point in world economic history, but the West managed to reconstruct a web of power. Now the Arab people are disrupting that arrangement.

Although the struggles are still intense and the outcomes not at all clear, the genie is out of the bottle for the old regimes. Some new level of democracy is likely in many of the countries, and that by itself is enough to disrupt the old straight up imperialist/authoritarian alliance. This has been duly noted by the Obama administration and outraged U.S. rightwing.

Unlike previous U.S. regimes that routinely, and often brutally, backed their allied dictators throughout the world, the Obama administration has addressed the Arab Spring with halting but nuanced steps in a new direction. Its aim remains the same: to advance U.S. imperial interests. However, Obama’s actions also represent an understanding of new limits on U.S. power.

Washington surprised many by early on calling for Egypt’s Mubarak to step down, despite the fact that Mubarak was a lynchpin of U.S. power. Indeed it was the second largest recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel) for three decades, to the tune of $30 billion. Washington then backed an orderly electoral transition only to see Mubarak unceremoniously thrown out by the people.

In Libya Obama eschewed traditional U.S. unilateral military action in favor of multilateral action, indeed multilateral action spearheaded by France and the U.K., not the U.S. He clearly hopes to circumscribe the U.S. effort rather than to be drawn into another long and likely failed war. I do not back his policy, but still take note of its new characteristics. Indeed, it is optimistic to think that the Libyan attack will lead to any stability in the short run, and Obama runs the risk of having his administration defined by Afghan and Libyan quagmires.

Meanwhile Israel, the Saudi Kings, and the U.S. Republicans hew to the hard line and hope to salvage the old alliances against the Arab masses and Iran (whose influence has risen with the U.S. stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan and alongside the Arab Spring) by using whatever force is necessary. The Republicans rail against Obama taking a back seat to France and want all out war in Libya, and cannot imagine peace with the Palestinians. The U.S. rightwing and the Israeli rightwing are lockstep.

Indeed Israel is a dangerous wild card. Fearing the loss of its main allies in the region&#151Turkey and Egypt&#151it is faced with the potential of having to choose between making substantial peace with the Arab world, starting with the Palestinians, or an even more dangerous war stance including a possible attack on Iran. Such an attack would loose entirely unpredictable forces into a Middle East already wrought by U.S. invasions and mass uprisings.

The recent unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah is a major development that accelerates and deepens the Arab Spring and the various conflicts it involves. It was brokered by the caretaker Egyptian government ushered in by the overthrow of Mubarak, demonstrating the regional, indeed global, significance of the political shift underway in Egypt.

The new unity has been denounced by Israel&#151and the U.S. rightwing&#151who may now face a united Palestinian front for the first time in decades, one that includes Hamas which the entire Western establishment has labeled “terrorist.” Palestine is once again at the center of Middle Eastern and world politics.

The Pivot of Politics

The Arab Spring is the latest demonstration of the drive of the people of the developing world to democratize their governments and empower themselves. It also highlights the complicated, multi-layered process of struggle in the developing world.

The tremendous variance in politics of the developing world gives the U.S. and the West significant room to maneuver and divide. Yet there is little doubt that, overall, this motion is increasingly limiting the power of the U.S. and is ushering out the brutal phase of history characterized by Western colonialism and imperialist domination.

The fight over the shape and pace of this inexorable process is the main battleground of history in our time, shaping both world and U.S. politics.

The varying responses of different political forces in the U.S., both within the ruling circles and within the population as a whole, lie at the root of the sharp polarization of politics in this country.

International competition is one of the root causes of the rightward motion of the economic elite over the past forty years and its attacks on the living standards of working and poor people, especially people of color, in this country. Fear of the loss of U.S. supremacy is also fundamental to the powerful rise of far right populism in that same period, especially its latest incarnation, the Tea Party. The attempt to reassert U.S. supremacy has also given rise to the gigantic increase in U.S. military spending&#151which has more than doubled since 2000&#151and murderous military adventures.

The polarization between those who are determined to reassert U.S. dominance by any means necessary&#151an inherently racialized notion&#151and those that understand that such a policy is dangerous, destructive and unrealistic is the pivotal dividing line in U.S. politics today. The racialization of politics is particularly pronounced due to the tremendous growth of people of color in the U.S. and their clear leftward politics. The right cannot win without isolating people of color and the left cannot win without mobilizing them.

To be sure there are important divisions on the center/right, between reactionary Tea Partyists and old line Republican conservatives, and on the center/left between realistic elitists and genuine progressives. I would argue that the building of a powerful progressive trend inside and outside the Democratic Party is key to exposing, splitting, and defeating the right.

However, as we undertake to build that powerful force, we must try to avoid letting the right split us from moderate allies and thereby prevail. This will be complex given the right’s momentum and the elite realists (and affluent centrists) tendency to collaborate with the right in attacking progressive-leaning social sectors even as they do battle with the right electorally and otherwise.

Only a progressive bloc that is far stronger, more combative, flexible and strategic than what we have now will have a chance to navigate this terrain. Still, the old adage, “unite the left, win over the middle, and isolate the right” was never more relevant.

The stakes are enormous for the people of the world as we enter into the 2012 political season.

Bob Wing is a longtime activist and the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times/Tiempo de Guerras newspaper. He now lives in Durham, NC. Thanks to Max Elbaum for his usual insightful suggestions.

Tacking Into the Winds of Change | Narrative Strategy for Building Transformative Movements

Lessons from Cairo

“I knew that if you build a brand you can get people to trust the brand.”

~Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and creator of
online persona “El Shaheed” (The Martyr)

The seemingly spontaneous, Facebook-fueled uprising in Egypt was the endgame of years of smart organizing. After all, it takes more than a Tweet to turn the oppressive material conditions of poverty and corruption into the launch pad for a transformative movement. A generation of youth activists developed their skills and leadership over time: adapting the theory of strategic nonviolence (as articulated by Gene Sharp), building alliances with organized labor, and exploring new strategies outside of traditional political parties.

These classical elements of a social movement were accelerated and amplified by the effective use of social media. However, what made this a revolutionary moment was not the tactical usage of platforms like Facebook and Twitter-but rather how these technologies became a force multiplier for a unifying narrative strategy. Social media spread video and messaging, and was integrated into Al Jazeera’s coverage of the uprising, so as to create a chorus of the narrative of “Liberation Square” that reached across the world into the west.

There is an ever-evolving ecosystem of applications, outlets, and social networks offering a range of tactics to reach different target audiences. In this increasingly complex and fragmented media environment, we must not confuse tactical tools with an actual strategy. Media tactics – old or new – can only leverage the impact of grassroots organizing when aligned with an effective narrative.

Storytelling has always been central to movement building and successful campaigns, but now being strategic about how we tell our stories is more important than ever. Framing, messaging, building an inviting movement brand and crafting the right memes–or “viral frames,” like the Egyptian uprising’s “We Are All Khaled Said”–is the critical strategy work that determines whether social change vision, demands and mobilizing rhetoric will spread virally across platforms.

Tacking Into the Wind

“A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.”

~Catherine the Great

It’s hard to believe that it was only two years ago that millions gathered in Washington for the inauguration with chants of “Yes we did!” 2011 is already roiled in turbulent political winds, with regressive budget cuts, immigrant scapegoating, attacks on the rights of women and the attempted roll back of Health Care Reform. The dominant response from the progressive establishment has been to ride the winds of change to the right, and build a cautious strategy disproportionately focused on polling and “messaging to the middle.”

If the Egyptian democracy movement had been relying on the U.S. progressive playbook of 2011, they would have been spending their time and resources doing market segmentation polling with questions like, “Are you ‘somewhat’ concerned about police brutality?” Would carefully selected focus groups in Cairo have approved the message, “Mubarak must go?”

Egypt’s democracy movement knew that in order to activate the aspirations of the people, they couldn’t rely on a message that spoke to status quo assumptions. The problem for Egypt’s reformers was not a lack of information about their conditions. The barrier was a collectivized fear of the regime. As one of the movement’s key strategists Wael Ghonim describes, they had to “break the fear barrier.”

Likewise, in the U.S. one of the primary barriers to stronger movements is not a lack of information but rather the lack of coherent framing strategies that can challenge the dominant right wing narrative and build a broader progressive base across different issue fights. The current piecemeal, specialized and top-down approach to communications-along with the siloing of issues-prevents the overall strategic coordination needed to craft a coherent arc for a meaningful progressive story to move a set of frames across multiple media platforms. To our detriment, progressives have left a narrative vacuum where our movements’ story should be leading the day.

No place is this more painfully obvious than in the ongoing public discourse around the economic crisis. Progressives have always fought for strong regulations and an economy that prioritized the needs of working people over corporate greed. But when Wall Street’s predatory financial speculation blew up our economy, right wing ideologues and corporate apologists drowned out the fact that progressives were right. Remember memes like  “Too big to fail” justifying bailouts, and the narrative that blamed the Community Reinvestment Act for the foreclosure crisis?

As strategists and communicators working in social justice movements, our job is not just to calculate the best response to public opinion. Our job is to shape public opinion to support real solutions and structural change. To succeed we must develop strategies to reframe the debate and then commit to the time and resources needed to change the story.

Unfortunately, the Facts Are Not Enough

“There is a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”

~Maya Angelou

The Tea Party has shown time and again that they have no regard for facts and have a fairly successful meme machine: Climate change? It’s a big government conspiracy. Health care reform? Death Panels! Obama? He is a socialist! Plus, he’s just “different.”  (Psst: Is he really a Christian? Was he really born in the US?)

Matters of fact are attacked with an organized right wing narrative strategy. Never mind that the narrative is ripe with contradictions, bankrolled by billionaires, and is designed to play to a base of aging white men with racist assumptions. It’s power is in both the narrative itself, which has had 40 some-odd years of development, and the force-multiplier effect of a right wing infrastructure and corporatized media ecology.

This is the Battle of the Story-the wide-ranging fight to frame the big debates and assign relevance and meaning to current events and issues. Whose stories will be heard? Which points of view will become accepted as conventional wisdom? Which will be marginalized and dismissed? Will collective desire be harnessed for the common good, or hijacked for private gain?

So why haven’t progressives built a unifying narrative or invested in the infrastructure to spread it? We contend that one of the most fundamental reasons is a failure to understand the central role of narrative in social change strategy. This failure stems from progressives’ outdated attachment to the idea that facts alone are an effective method for persuading someone of a political point of view.

There is a crucial difference between delivering data or analysis, and making meaning in the minds and hearts of human beings. The prevailing tendency in our sector is to emphatically state something factually true, and assume that it will be meaningful and persuasive to our audience. But the innate human capacity for narrative means that our experience of “truth” is much more complex than a rational weighing of the facts. As every advertiser knows, we are guided by our hearts and guts much more than our logical minds. Most importantly, we are deeply influenced by what we already know; our existing frames tend to filter out inconvenient facts that don’t reinforce our existing beliefs.

In other words, while progressives have been busy winning the battle of the facts we’ve been losing the Battle of the Story. Having the facts on our side and the relevant policy proposals is important but it’s just the starting point. Next we need to tell the larger stories that make the truth-the truth about poverty, racism, environmental destruction about the possibility of collective action to create a fairer, saner, better world-meaningful to the people we are trying to reach and resonant in the larger cultural sphere.

To work at the necessary scale, we must get beyond the idea that messaging is a technical assistance category, and understand narrative as central to an overall social movement strategy. The model of delegating such critical political work to outside experts-in the hopes they will “fix” the way social movements frame issues-has too often sacrificed vision for perceived reach. The result has been a failure to contest dominant frames and a stunting of our collective progress. Instead we need messaging strategies that both challenge the status quo and resonate with a larger audience. To develop these types of transformative narratives requires communicators who are actively embedded in grassroots struggles and can help impacted communities build their story from the bottom up.

Story-based Strategy: An Invitation for Innovation

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

In smartMeme’s eight years of fieldwork we have found that there is a fundamental lack of communications leadership and capacity in the grassroots organizing sector. While many young organizers are “digital natives” who have grown up using online and mobile technologies, and they understand how to communicate in their online environment, they actually often lack the traditional communications and media skills needed to reach beyond their base. At the same time, veteran organizers can easily feel left behind by the fast changing terrain and feel pressure to chase the latest communication technology fad without getting the support to meaningfully integrate it into their organizing strategy. Meanwhile, there is a prevailing lack of literacy about narrative and framing in the sector, combined with a deep hunger for an effective response to the way the right wing is shaping discourse.

In order meet these vast capacity shortfalls, and to satiate the appetite for a more offensive, pro-active strategy to narrate a progressive vision, we will need scale-up.

In this day and age every organizer’s toolbox and every social change campaign should include an applied understanding of story-based strategy: how to analyze dominant culture stories, reframe issues, and craft effective messages. Our movements desperately need a ground force of story-based strategists who are both versed in traditional media skills and equipped to experiment with online environments.

If our movements are going to win the Battle of the Story-and create more fertile cultural ground for movement building and organizing-we need to expand our skills, our strategy and our connectivity infrastructure. The best way to build this scale while keeping it anchored in democratic and accountable organizing is to grow it from the ground up. We must invest in helping base building organizations build and integrate communications into their grassroots organizing, resulting in louder voices for justice that can resonate in the popular discourse.

But reclaiming our space in the cultural debate will take even more than skills and sound bites. We’re going to need to invest the time and resources into building an “echo effect” of shared frames-spread through coordinated and connective media infrastructure-that can articulate a broader progressive vision across sectors.

We live in fast changing times, and people-powered movements are poised to shatter notions of the politically possible. Indeed, the grassroots uprising spreading out of Wisconsin is a powerful indicator of the potential for new narratives to emerge and unify a broad base. So what does it take for social justice forces in the US to go from a defensive stance to an offensive strategy? How can we build movements to win the Battle of the Story?

Now is the time to experiment and find out. This is a moment to tack into the wind, rather than ride the draft of the right wing narrative. Let’s set sail.

Originally published at

About SmartMeme: SmartMeme is an emerging social change strategy center dedicated to building movements for social and ecological justice with the power of narrative. The organization bridges the gap between strategic communications and grassroots organizing by reimagining methods to achieve fundamental social change with story-based approaches to strategy and framing. Over the past eight years smartMeme has trained over 3,000 organizers and partnered with over 100 high impact organizations to frame issues, strengthen alliances and win campaigns. In 2010 smartMeme released Re:Imagining Change – How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World on PM Press. Learn more at:

Malcolm Gladwell is right about Egypt and Twitter, and here’s why that’s upsetting to some folks

If Malcolm Gladwell lacks nuance in his dismissal of the contributions of Twitter, Facebook and other new social media to deep social change, that is fully forgivable.  The title of the article that kicked off the controversy, Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted, is a lot pithier than the perhaps more accurate, “Sure, the Revolution may very well be Tweeted, and it may even benefit to an extent from this particular new communication form, but Twitter is not a replacement for the strong social ties that come from face-to-face human interaction.”  There can be good reason and value in kicking off a conversation with a slightly oversimplified assertion – because it is indeed more likely to incite a reaction and actually kick off a conversation.

I agreed with Gladwell then, and I agree with him again in his latest post, Does Egypt Need Twitter?, which applies his original assertion to the current situation in Egypt:

Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone-and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years-and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

Those critiquing Gladwell get it wrong, IMHO.  Take Ari Melber’s blog at The Nation.  First, Melber summarizes Gladwell’s position as “an apparent response to the idea that digitally networked activists are exceling in Egypt.”  But really Gladwell does not dispute that “digitally networked activists are excelling,” but rather that they are excelling primarily because they are digitally networked.  Melber continues:

No one is arguing that this is the first protest in world history. Very few people think the Internet is an essential prerequisite to revolution. Instead, they’re exploring whether the web and networked communications open up new and effective ways for citizens to converse and organize each other in repressive societies. (Access to mobile phones and text-messaging, for example, may have helped young people organize in Egypt and Tunisia in a different way than landlines or websites.) We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution.

I concede something to Melber and others: it is interesting to explore how specific communications forms and tools might help progressive change agents (and revolutionaries, in the case of Egypt) in specific ways. I’m certainly interested in doing that in campaigns I work on.  Being up on the latest technology is important.

But Gladwell’s point is one of emphasis.  What are we emphasizing as the means to strong collective action?  The new media technique of the day?  Or building relationships, strong social ties, and strong social blocs that share meanings and commitment?

Melber says, “Gladwell assumes that asking ‘why’ people ‘were driven’ to these protests is somehow in competition with asking how they achieved such effective protests.”  I think this a false asessment of Gladwell.  He is clearly interested in the how, but he’s looking deeper than what is most obvious and most visible in his exploration of the how.  From outside of Egypt, it is difficult to see which group identities, social infrastructure, and organizations are playing what roles in encouraging and emboldening such a strong collective mobilization.  But it’s really easy to read tweets.  It’s easy to latch onto the mechanisms that are within our experience.  As the saying goes, if the only tool you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Today, if you spend all of your time online, you might be inclined to overvalue its worth.  You might be more likely to read an article that discusses how to improve your Twitter presence than an article that explores how to talk to your family about a difficult political issue.  Social media is low-hanging fruit.  Any savvy young person can learn to text message, tweet, and update their status – and that’s all fine.  But we need organizers who can pull the people around them into higher-risk action.

Social media is not a savior or a silver bullet solution.  Strong social ties, which do not come through social media, are still the core motivator of high-risk action.  Building such ties is a lot messier-and offers less instant gratification-than sharing the latest great article you read with online friends who already think like you.  That’s why Gladwell’s analysis can be upsetting, and that’s why we need to hear it.