Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

An Upside to the "Twitter Can't Topple Dictators" Genre?

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 14 2011

Illustration of Hosni Mubarak by Robert Cadena

"The Internet's Role in the Unpredicted Overthrow of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak? It Turns Out That It's Really Very Complicated and We Really Don't Have All the Facts in Hand" doesn't make for that terrific a headline, especially not in the Huffington Post era of SEO-refracted journalism.

That reality's in part why we've seen a ping-ponging of news coverage and commentary in recent weeks wherein journalists, academics, activists and anyone else with an opinion seeks to nail down the absolute truth about just what sort of role everything from Twitter to Facebook to mobile phones has played in the gripping uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East. It can be nearly irresistible to take part, that's for sure. NYU's Jay Rosen elucidates one vein in the coverage which he calls the Twitter Can't Topple Dictators genre, identifiable by six traits:

1.) Nameless fools are staking maximalist claims. 2.) No links we can use to check the context of those claims. 3.) The masses of deluded people make an appearance so they can be ridiculed. 4.) Bizarre ideas get refuted with a straight face. 5.) Spurious historicity. 6.) The really hard questions are skirted.

Rosen thinks he knows why this sort of piece, as formulaic as it might be, seems to be the hottest thing with assignment editors going:

I think this is a dumb way of conducting a debate. But I cannot deny its popularity. So here's a guess: almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away. When we nod along with Twitter Can't Topple Dictators we're assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we're being realistic, mature, grown-up about it.

Rosen's piece is a healthy plea for sanity, even if he does somehow skip over what Foreign Policy's Evgeny Morozov has put on the table as reasonable skepticism about just whether communications tech is always a more powerful thing for revolutionaries than it is for dictators. And Rosen makes what can be considered needed fun of people who take reasonable skepticism to an absurdist extreme.

But as sickening as this whiplash-inducing insta-analysis can be, there's something to be said for it -- even the pieces that Rosen most disdains. Revolutions can start and more or less finish in 18 days these days, and the debates they're sparking on foreign affairs are happening at a similar pace. What technology means for the relationship between the citizen and the state is only going to become more important, and along with it the discussion of what on-looking governments like that of the United States should do in the mix. To wit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is giving at talk tomorrow at George Washington University on the topic of "Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges In A Networked World," a followup to her big "Internet freedom" speech last January that really kicked off domestic debate on the topic. This is stuff too important to ignore.

Every "Twitter revolution" piece sparks a response, and the debate churns along at an amazing pace. It's all a little nauseating, yes, but it seems like there's a decent chance that bad, wrong, or misguided ideas about the political implications of the networked world will have a shorter shelf life than they would otherwise have if everyone weren't going around injecting their take into the debate at such a manic pace.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

First POST: Scotched

Why conservatives should back net neutrality; how big data may damage civil rights; the ways Silicon Valley start-ups are exploiting freelance workers; and much, much more. GO

thursday >

First POST: Resets

Apple's new iOS8 promises greater user privacy; Occupy Wall Street three years later; how tech may tilt the Scotland independence vote; and much, much more. GO

wednesday >

First POST: Connecting the Dots

Take Back the Tech grades Facebook, Twitter, et al, on transparency; MayDay PAC founder Lawrence Lessig talks about getting matched funds; and much, much more. GO

tuesday >

First POST: Splits

USA Freedom Act divides Internet activists; Julian Assange's Reddit "Ask Me Anything"; New York's pro-net-neutrality protest; and much, much more GO

monday >

After Election Loss, Teachout and Wu Keep Up Net Neutrality and Anti-Comcast Merger Campaign

The Teachout/Wu campaign may have lost, but their pro net-neutrality campaign continued Monday as both former candidates participated in a rallly in New York City marking the final day to comment on the Federal Communications Commission's Internet proposals and kept up their pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo. GO

friday >

NYC Politicians and Advocacy Groups Say Airbnb Misrepresents Sharing Economy

A coalition of New York election officials and affordable housing groups have launched an advocacy effort targeting Airbnb called "Share Better" that includes an ad campaign, a web platform, and social media outreach. GO

First POST: Data Dumps

The Internet Slowdown's impact on the FCC; Uber drivers try to go on strike; four kinds of civic tech; and much, much more. GO

More