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"We're still in the first minutes of the first day of the Internet revolution." – Scott Cook

Archive for January, 2013

Big Change: the revolution is here

January 25th, 2013 by Erin McAfee

There is something about the writer Malcolm Gladwell (the author of Blink and Outliers) that annoys me. I must admit, I have barely read his work. I haven’t even given him a chance, because every time I try to read his work, I only make it through about 2 pages.

I begin reading Gladwell’s article called, “Small Change: The Revolution will not be Tweeted” and I am immediately confused, because I was looking for articles about the recent Arab uprisings. He begins his article with a prolific (sounding) account of a 1960s civil rights protest in Greensboro, Arkansas. This is where he begins to annoy me. I can already see that he is going to compare this type of protest with protests that are happening in the Middle East, but isn’t there a huge disconnect in this analogy already? Maybe I am wrong. So I read on, but first I would like to interject a hint at what I am sensing from Gladwell’s writing style:

The definition of righteous from the Online Merriam Webster Dictionary:
1. : acting in accord with divine or moral law : free from guilt or sin
2. a : morally right or justifiable
b : arising from an outraged sense of justice or morality

After reading a bit further, I see that Gladwell isn’t really writing about the Middle East uprisings. He is writing about the recent excitement and buzz regarding the power of social media. His message is cautionary. He condemns the public’s silly belief that internet communication technologies are responsible for the social changes in the Middle East. He explains how it is impossible to create activism from loose, unstructured networks over the internet. According to Gladwell, real activism is born from close-knit bonds that develop into a structured organization. He feels that networks (online or other) are too disorganized and cannot produce the kind of hierarchy that is needed for successful activism. He writes, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met.”

Gladwell completely misses the point on this topic – it is not “social media” that is the driving force in these amazing events. The driving force is how the internet allows people to compare one country’s human rights policies with another country’s human rights policies. When people (who have been oppressed for centuries) are allowed to peer into the lives of others, that is, people who are treated with dignity and respect, doesn’t that make the goal of freedom a real possibility?

Many countries in North Africa and the Middle East have had glaring human rights issues for centuries. According to an a 2012 report by Amnesty International, it is not uncommon for protesters to be shot down in cold blood, rounded up in mass arrests, and tortured and abused. Violence and discrimination against women remain widespread in many countries. Many human rights violations committed by security and law enforcement forces remain unaddressed including arbitrary arrests and detention; torture or other ill-treatment; unlawful killings, including extrajudicial executions; and enforced disappearances.

On June 6, 2010, a 28 year old computer programmer, Khaled Saeed was arrested at a cybercafé in Egypt and then brutally beaten to death (see photos at end of page below References). The Egyptian police claimed that he died of a drug overdose even though he was murdered on the street in front of onlookers. At the morgue, his brother photographed his mangled corpse and posted the pictures on Facebook. The photographs went viral. A Google executive anonymously setup a Facebook page called “We are All Khaled Saeed” and Khaled Saeed’s death (and photos of his corpse) helped spark a revolution. By 2011, both Egypt and Tunisia’s governments were fully brought down.

Even as these amazing events unfolded, Gladwell continued to defend his original statements about social media. He maintains that internet communication technologies cannot take the credit for social change unless one can prove that these events would NOT have occurred without them. This is a baffling perspective, especially considering WHAT had angered the Egyptian police enough for them to kill Saeed. The offense: the 28 year old had posted a video on YouTube of Egyptian police involved in illegal drug activities. The police eventually found him at an internet café and killed him — not at the police station, but right outside the internet café.


Amnesty International Report 2012 on the State of the World’s Human Rights. Retrieved from http://files.amnesty.org/air12/air_2012_full_en.pdf

Gladwell, M. (2010). SMALL CHANGE. New Yorker, 86(30), 42-49. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell

KEY MOMENTS IN THE ARAB SPRING. (2011). Technology Review, 114(5), 76. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.rice.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=66857581&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Stepanova, E. (May 2011) The role of information communication technologies in the “Arab Spring.” Implications Beyond the Region. PONARS Eurasian Policy Memo, No. 159


Khaled Saeed before and after he was murdered by Egyptian Police.