Democratic movements have always been contagious and unpredictable. Social media make them more so.
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable vendor, set himself on fire over government policy that denied him the ability to make a living. This solitary act sparked a multi-country wave of rebellion, the likes of which we have not seen since 1989.
It is perhaps ironic that the act of this one distraught and isolated individual later joined forces with the interconnected multitudes through social media. It’s an overstatement to say that these rebellions and revolutions wouldn’t have happened without Facebook, but its role has certainly made the events more complex.
There was no Facebook in 1989; even CNN was still quite young then. But the revolutions in Eastern Europe spread nonetheless. This year, throughout what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, Facebook helped virtually leaderless movements to rise up in North Africa and the Middle East very quickly and bring down entrenched rulers who had been in power for decades. We really do not yet understand the long-term implications of the mode of change in these countries.
[T]he set of skills necessary for combating and destroying oppressive regimes is often not the same set of skills needed for building new democratic governments.
Much is still unknown because the set of skills necessary for combating and destroying oppressive regimes is often not the same set of skills needed for building new democratic governments. A case in point was Boris Yeltsin. He was fearless in the face of the Communist Party and Soviet military, but when it came to building a new constitutional democracy, he had no idea how to proceed in a constructive fashion.
Social media obviously lend themselves to organizing and mobilizing masses of people, and Twitter allows instant reporting of situations as they unfold. But these new technologies are no substitutes for the development of civil society and democratic systems and elites in replacing authoritarian regimes. These things take time.
Much of the hard work lies ahead because uniting against a common enemy is far easier than uniting behind a vision for the future.
In addition to chairing the Political Science Department, Kelly Eaton serves as assistant provost for experiential learning. She supports efforts involving prestige scholarships, the Capitol Hill Internship Program, study abroad and service learning.