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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.

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