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Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About Social Media

November 6, 2010
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Malcolm Gladwell has made a career out of making conventional wisdom, and by extension the majority of us, look stupid.  More often than not it comes off brilliantly, as evidenced by a string of bestsellers that, whatever their own merit, have succeeded – in the best spirit of the public intellectuals of yesteryear – in making broad yet everyday intellectual inquiry sexy again.

But sometimes, let’s be honest, Gladwell comes off sounding like a haughty contrarian, camouflaging his own select examples and agenda with others’ scientific studies.  This was the case most recently with his much discussed article in The New Yorker, about the fallacies of the purported social media “revolution.”  Titled “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” the article takes apart the idea that our new social media platforms are a galvanizing tool for social activism, change, and yes, revolution.

In a classic Gladwell-ian twist, this theory, much in vogue especially after Iran’s post-election upheaval last year, is not only wrong but actually pernicious.  In other words, not only do these new media platforms not do what everyone says they do – “reinvent[ing] social activism…. [thereby] making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns,” according to Gladwell – but they actually make people lazy, so that, he says, “we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

The Real Lessons of Iran’s “Twitter Revolution”

Gladwell’s framing device in the article is the American civil rights movement of the early 1960s.  But the real target of these and other similar broadsides against the potential influence of social media is the Iranian example cited above.  Gladwell is relatively late to this game, so he cites Golnaz Esfandiari, an Iran specialist, as stating definitively that “There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

According to this argument, the hype surrounding Twitter and other social media was misplaced, since they played a minimal role, if at all, in organizing and coordinating the vast opposition street protests inside Iran.  However, as many observers noted in real-time as the crisis unfolded, this was not the primary utility of social media in the Iranian context.  Rather, its utility came as a tool, not for coordinating the protests, but for disseminating information and images of the protests on a scale heretofore unseen in a foreign conflict.  Especially after the expulsion of most of the professional foreign press, the only avenue for the outside world to keep seeing, hearing, and reading about events inside Iran was through social media like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and various other online platforms like blogs and specialist listservs.

As even Gladwell’s authority, Esfandiari, has written:  “Twitter played an important role in getting word about the events in Iran out to the wider world. Together with YouTube, it helped focus the world’s attention on the Iranian people’s fight for democracy and human rights. New media over the last year created and sustained unprecedented international moral solidarity with the Iranian struggle.”

One can quibble about the impact that outside “moral solidarity” has against a regime like Iran’s, and on a crisis like the post-election upheaval.  But what shouldn’t be up for debate – and what Gladwell consistently underappreciates – is the fact that without social media, the Iranian opposition protests simply would not have been as big of an international story – informationally, but also in terms of the visceral emotional attachment many people all across the world felt (and still feel) towards the Iranian people themselves.

Images from inside running street battles, or of the storming of a Basiji compound, or of a young woman bleeding to death from a gunshot wound, have an impact far beyond the isolated incident or event being covered.  In the wider debate over Iran policy, such images help to “humanize[] the latest Enemy,” as one Salon article put it at the time, and decelerate the “prospect of attacking and bombing another country as though it’s some abstract decision in a video game.”

Fast internet connections, cell phone cameras, and yes, Facebook and Twitter feeds are able to disseminate this information, at a greater speed, than was ever the case before.  Every individual or group involved in ground-level politics – what Gladwell would term social activism – has begun to take this new reality into account, from Obama’s presidential campaign to violence-wracked countries abroad.

Consider the so-called Gaza flotilla incident from this past May.  The flotilla organizers made social media a cornerstone of their public relations campaign right from the start, with, among other initiatives, a running online camera feed put up on their website.    After the Israeli navy commandos intercepted the ship and the event turned deadly, the following hours and days were spent parsing rival YouTube feeds put up by the Israeli government and the Free Gaza Movement.  In the not-too-distant past, the only information we would have seen about this episode would have been newspaper headlines and, perhaps, still photos from onboard the ship.

The Gaza flotilla, in other words, became a massive international story precisely because of the outsized influence of social media.  Ultimately, the proof, as Gladwell would agree, is in concrete action.  To take just one example, the Iranian authorities recently jailed the “godfather of the Iranian blogosphere,” Hossein Derakhsan, for 19 years, a prison term the Guardian observed is “a longer sentence than for commissioning a murder.”  More recently, the Iranian government took the unprecedented step of shutting down the websites of two prominent clerics.  Does Gladwell expect us to believe that Tehran undertook these measures because social media has no political impact whatsoever?  Clearly the petty dictators in Iran understand something that Gladwell does not – that social media does pose a political risk to them, since in the modern age it does impact the level of people’s social awareness and activism.

“Injustice Thrives in the Dark”

Which brings us to Gladwell’s second argument, that social media makes people lazy.  In his analysis, things like Facebook and Twitter help emphasize “weak ties” between people, so that the level of connection and effort it takes to, say, press the “Like” button on Facebook cannot be equated with people actually taking to the streets – a “high risk activism” which necessitates “strong [human] ties.”  This argument, as far as it goes, is correct.  It costs nothing for people sitting on their couch to press a computer key.  Yet Gladwell again vastly misstates the real utility of social media.

Those people sitting on their couch, who, in an example he uses, express solidarity against the genocide in Darfur might, even a few years ago, not have even been aware that there was a Darfur, let alone that there was a genocide taking place.  Social media allowed them to join an online community of like-minded individuals, and to keep abreast of new developments.  The next steps, if they so choose, would be donating money and then taking part in demonstrations.

Indeed, anyone familiar with the recent progression of social media has undoubtedly noticed how the lines between its “social” dimension – connecting with and following friends – and its “media” dimension – links to articles and Youtube clips, and as information input platforms – have become ever more blurred.

The issue is not that all of the nearly 1.3 million people committed to the Save Darfur Coalition on Facebook have to take to the streets, but that the pool of potential recruits has been expanded exponentially precisely because of this online, social media presence.

For Gladwell, the gold standard for social activism is the civil rights movement in the American south of the 1960s, and in many respects he’s right.  Gladwell holds this example up as a stark contrast to the lack of similar mobilizations in the social media age, what with the volunteers and money that the successful civil rights movement was able to attract.  Yet, with all due respect, this is a classic Gladwell-ian false dichotomy.

Consider that, last October 30th, more than two hundred thousand people willingly chose to spend their Halloween weekend in dreary old Washington, DC, protesting our current political ridiculousness with two professional comedians, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  Who’s to say that, in the year 2010, the great Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t have doubled the number of volunteers and money he was able to draw to his cause – and from all over the world — through useful tools like the internet and its social media offspring.

More interesting still is to consider how developments on the ground, which Gladwell rightly emphasizes, would have been different had social media tools been available to the civil rights movement.  It would not be a stretch to think of northern volunteers who, having been followed and threatened by armed gangs of southern revanchists, use their cell phone cameras to document the ugliness, illegality, and immorality of the locals.  How viral would those (subsequently uploaded) images and videos have gone?  How wide would the outrage have been?  How many murders would have been avoided had the local authorities been pressured to crack down harder and faster?  All this is not to suggest that modern technology can solve all political problems, nor is it to take anything away from the truly courageous volunteers of the time.  Yet modern technology and social media, with potential “journalists” everywhere, can have a constraining effect on the uses of violence and coercion.  Injustice, as the saying goes, does indeed thrive in the dark.

In the final analysis, comparing the activism that a distant foreign conflict like Darfur attracts relative to an historic injustice like black oppression in modern America is completely misleading.  This is not a case, as Gladwell would have us believe, of past “strong ties” being better mobilizing tools than modern “weak ties,” but rather one cause being closer and ostensibly more solvable – in geographic, personal and political terms – to most Americans and, indeed, Westerners.

That we do not have causes that resonate as strongly anymore is a testament both to our fractured political condition – a development which long predates the rise of social media – and the historical uniqueness of the American civil rights movement.

Networks, Hierarchies, and Counterterrorism 101

The corollary that Gladwell uses to reinforce his “weak ties”/”strong ties” argument is the distinction he draws between hierarchies and networks.  As Gladwell explains, the high risk activism of the civil rights movement was “also, crucially, strategic activism,” which required a hierarchical organization structure.  “Social media,” Gladwell concludes, “are not about this kind of hierarchical organization.”  This argument is fair enough: the structure of social media is inherently network based.  However, the logic doesn’t follow that only hierarchies are able to think and execute strategically, nor does it follow that hierarchies would be necessarily more successful than networks.

It obviously helps discipline and organization if control over a movement is exerted from the top-down, but other positive attributes are then inevitably lost.  Strangely, Gladwell raises the case of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a prime example of a failed network-based approach, while presenting the example of the German left-wing terrorist groups (Baader-Meinhoff and the like) as hierarchical success stories.

Needless to say, the success Gladwell attributes to the various European “Red” factions of the 1970s was ephemeral in the extreme:  they achieved zero tangible results, and by the early 1980s were a shell of their former selves.  They are now viewed as historical footnotes by nostalgic hippies and tweed-wearing professors.  In stark contrast, the PLO arguably has been one of the most successful national liberation movements of the latter half of the 20th century, raising the question of Palestine to the forefront of every daily newspaper and to the brink, most hope, of statehood.

Yet, crucially, the PLO cannot in any way be viewed as an example of a classic network.  From at least the late-1960s, the PLO and by extension the whole of the Palestinian national movement was dominated by one individual – Yasser Arafat – whose (often erratic) decision-making almost directly accounted for both great Palestinian triumphs as well as reversals (e.g. “Black September” in Jordan, the first Israeli war in Lebanon, exile to Tunis, the Second “Al Aqsa” Intifada).  In this way, Gladwell’s argument is wrong twice over:  If anything, the PLO, a classic hierarchy (and not a network), needed to become less hierarchical and less dependent on one overarching commander.

Every counterterrorism expert in the world can vouch for the fact that terrorism in its modern variety is more unpredictable and thus potentially more lethal precisely because these various groups are structured as networks and self-contained cells.  This was true for the Algerian FLN in its campaign against the French (as depicted in the classic Battle of Algiers), and is also true for Al-Qaeda today.

What we can call the “Castro model” of insurgency – raising a guerrilla army in the mountains and marching on a capital city – is, more than likely, a relic of a bygone era, and for good reason.  The surest path to a swift defeat is to follow Gladwell’s advice:  “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy.”  It simply makes things far too easy for one’s enemies.  Strategic thought and flexibility are not, and should not be thought of as, mutually exclusive.

Mistaking Cause for Effect

Reading Gladwell’s conclusion in his article, then, one cannot help but feel that his criticism has less to do with social media per se, and more to do with the present political condition.  He laments the lack of our current revolutionary spirits, and in this, he mistakes cause for effect and confuses means with ends.  Social media is a product of our age, not its progenitor; it will only be as instrumental in bringing about political change as we, the individuals, allow it to be.  Politics, at its core, is based on people making decisions and taking action.  As Martin Luther King Jr. himself put it in a different time, we need to move away from our “dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest.”  Complacency, as well as creative protest, are not the exclusive attributes of one era.

Just as we cannot know for certain how social media will develop going forward (it’s just a few years old, after all), we also cannot foresee where and how the next revolution will come about.  What we can know for certain, however, is that it will undoubtedly be Tweeted.

Neri Zilber is a freelance writer on international politics based in New York City.


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5 Responses to Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About Social Media

  1. Benjamin on December 19, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Very interesting article on social media. I found this quote to be of some interest in the matter.

    “What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I’m a villain? Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s Man of the Year.”
    — Julian Assange on SNL

  2. World Spinner on November 10, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About Social Media | The Leftist Review…

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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