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We are witnessing the end of the “Twitter Revolution”

The term was once gushingly applied to uprisings against corrupt regimes, but social media has since become associated with darker political developments, with Isis using it to build a global theocratic army.

The myth of “Twitter revolutions” is dying. Once, the term was gushingly applied to uprisings against regimes in Iran (2009), Egypt (2011) and Tunisia (2011). Though social media was helpful for some activists who participated in those movements, the majority had no access to these platforms. Despite rapturous newspaper coverage declaring that Twitter was pivotal to the Arab Spring, social media actually proved less useful to protesters than SMS texting and face-to-face meetings.

The same has been true, more recently, of the uprising in Sudan that began in December 2018. The regime of Omar al-Bashir blacked out the internet, to no avail. Activists reverted to neighbourhood meetings, SMS groups and phone calls. As one protester there put it, the absence of the internet forced insurgents “to organise better”.

One reason that the phrase “Twitter revolution” is heard less today is that the novelty and lustre of social media have worn off. Social media is now a form of communication that is taken for granted, while Twitter and Facebook have become associated with darker political developments: Islamic State self-consciously deployed social media in sophisticated recruitment and messaging campaigns, building a global theocratic army out of it. The true “Twitter revolution” came with black flags and beheadings.

Much of what became social media is rooted in the activities of the cyber-left during the early and mid 2000s. The earliest major example of this was during the August 2004 protests against the Republican National Convention in New York. Protesters, made up of anti-war activists and those demanding debt cancellation for developing countries, faced sophisticated and severe crackdowns by the police, who used tear gas and pre-emptive arrests, and who also had the means to jam activists’ communications. Protestors needed to organise inconspicuously, at speed and without the risk of being surveilled.

TXTmob (text mob) was born. An activist app created by Tad Hirsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and John Henry of the activist group the Institute for Applied Autonomy, TXTmob was deceptively simple in its conception. The app used an existing commercial infrastructure with which police couldn’t interfere: SMS messaging, with different levels of privacy settings ranging from “public” to “invite-only” groups.

It worked. Activists outmanoeuvred police and federal crackdowns, improvised tactics at short notice, organised medical help for the injured and connected with supporters observing the live stream from afar. Not until 2008 did lawyers working for the city of New York figure out what had happened and issue subpoenas demanding to see information held by the app’s creators.

Venture capital, however, was ahead of the state. One of those who had worked on TXTmob, Evan Henshaw-Plath, had gone on to work at a small tech firm named Odeo. Not long after hearing a presentation on TXTmob’s success, the bosses of Odeo brainstormed a new SMS-based app: Twitter.

Launched in July 2006, Twitter resembled TXTmob in its basic conception and political activists quickly seized on its possibilities. Social media broke the monopoly on truth enjoyed by repressive regimes. It also allowed transient collectives to be formed, lightning-fast, around slogans from the Egyptian Revolution’s “We Are All Khalid Said” – commemorating a young man beaten to death by security forces – to “Occupy Wall Street”.

The phrase “Twitter revolution” was coined by the US State Department, which was lobbying Twitter to keep the service up and running during the Iranian Green Movement in 2009. The Obama administration maintained close links with Silicon Valley, seeing the internet as a means to inconvenience America’s political enemies.

This attitude changed when the same social media firms helped to distribute WikiLeaks’s revelations. A tussle between Facebook and Twitter and the American security state ensued, although the conflict was settled in favour of collaboration, in which social media giants became partners in state surveillance and cyberwar.

So what, if anything, remains of the idea of the Twitter revolution? Social media isn’t particularly good for political organising, but it is good for political aggregation. Online platforms spontaneously push people together into temporary coalitions based on shared sentiments, with often unpredictable political results.

The most recent example of this is the protests in Chile (see page 26). These began in October with a student campaign to evade transport fares in protest over soaring costs. It spread with the hashtag #EvasionMasiva, encouraging protesters to resist the fare rises by hopping turnstiles. Soon, though, it spawned a generalised rebellion – not in favour of a single political goal but against the cost of living, police repression and an undemocratic political system. It has forced the government to back off fare rises, end the “state of emergency” it imposed and promise a constitutional referendum. But it is still unclear where the revolt will go.

This situation of open-ended protest can be hugely empowering. But as hashtagged uprisings emerge “spontaneously” and evolve unpredictably, the result can be organisational chaos and political confusion. A good example of this is the early stages of the French gilets jaunes movement in 2018 (see page 28). What began as a petition over fuel tax increases fused into an angry online tendency, which spilled explosively into the streets. It was politically contradictory, with a strong conspiracist fringe. It was primarily a rejection of Emmanuel Macron’s economic reforms, but its early demands among certain sections of the movement also included the deportation of asylum seekers.

This is what happens when the logic of aggregation forms the basis of political action. It is the real-world manifestation of the online shitstorm. There is nothing intrinsically good or bad about such moments. They are volatile, fast-moving and open-ended and as such can represent opportunities for political change.

Yet the often dark and nasty aspect of online storms suggests that they can also go horribly awry. It is this, rather than the Twitter revolution, that is the true future of global protests. 

Read the rest of our world in revolt series here

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question