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Twitter as Tactical and Strategic Lens

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011

In an effort to dial in a bit on the ways in which Twitter and social media in general have altered the tactical and strategic terrain of popular uprisings, I'll toss out a few ideas that have been taking shape over the course of the past few weeks. Last time I visited this subject, I was skeptical about how determinant an impact social media might have on political revolutions. Clearly, the events in Egypt give reason for a skeptic to reconsider. The speed with which an ostensibly leaderless uprising managed to achieve its topline goal reveals something. The question remains, What does it reveal? In trying to answer that question, I'll admittedly rely on some connective links that for now are impossible to verify, but here goes.

It's impossible to argue a counterfactual, so we'll never know what would have occurred in Egypt had the Mubarak regime really let loose the security forces against the protesters in Tahrir Square. That might have crushed the movement, but it also might have galvanized it and escalated the uprising. It's also impossible to know how the events in Egypt might have played out had the uprising in Tunisia, which primed both Egyptians and the world for what was at stake, not immediately preceded them.

Having said that, it's fairly safe to say that the uprising's success in ousting President Hosni Mubarak came as a result of two tactical victories: its ability to maintain a physical presence in Tahrir Square and its ability to capture and hold the world's attention. Both of those tactical victories, in turn, were at the very least made possible, if by no means guaranteed, by the Obama administration's decision, following the initial charge of the camel brigade, to draw two red lines in terms of the Mubarak regime's response to the protests: no violent crackdown on the protesters and no repression of the international press covering the uprising.

In looking at all of these factors, it seems clear that Twitter and social media played an instrumental role in all of them. To begin with, it effectively identified Tahrir Square, to both the as yet inchoate movement and the international press, as the strategic terrain that went on to define victory. Revolutions now begin with an RSVP, and social media is how that invitation is sent out.

Second, Twitter became the gathering point where Western observers and policy analysts shared and weighed in on breaking events. And the very speed of the Twitter chain reaction created an enormous amount of pressure on the Obama administration both "to get out in front of events," and to get on "the right side of history."

Here, too, though, there's a bit of a counterfactual problem, because aside from disagreement over how hard to push Mubarak toward the door and some concern over the opening that might leave for the Muslim Brotherhood, there was a remarkably broad consensus across the U.S. political spectrum on the need to support the Egyptian protest movement. Absent that consensus, it's impossible to say what impact the momentum generated by Twitter coverage of the events might have had.

That said, if you look closely at these tactical factors, it becomes clear that if Twitter and social media had a strategic impact on the events in Egypt, it was through their ability to focus and narrow the strategic terms of victory. In fact, if you look at it as a step-by-step equation, once the terms of victory had been defined as a continual presence in Tahrir Square, relayed globally through the televised press, and once the use of force was effectively removed as an option to retake the square, it's hard to imagine how the revolution could have failed.

But it is worth remembering that in focusing and narrowing the strategic focus, Twitter and social media can't help but falsify the broader picture. There's still no way of knowing for sure whether the Egyptian uprising was the expression of a silent majority or a vocal networked minority. And just like cable news, which by broadcasting the same three or four spectacular clips in an endless loop thereby hides from view the broad stretches of monotony that characterized much of the events on the ground, Twitter reflects not so much what is happening, but a curated, and therefore biased, narrative of what is happening.

It's also worth remembering that the Egyptian uprising benefitted from a remarkable convergence of contributing factors: the Tunisian uprising that preceded it, the consensus in the U.S. policymaking community of the need to support democracy in Egypt, and the potent influence that the U.S. enjoyed in Egyptian decision-making circles (read: the Egyptian military).

All of this suggests to me that Twitter and social media have revolutionized revolution in the same way that machine guns revolutionized warfare: faster, more potent and with a wider range than that which preceded it.

Unfortunately, the response to machine guns was for all sides to deploy them. That means that states are sure to begin developing more effective means of using Twitter and social media to both disrupt revolutionary actions and organize counterrevolutionary actions. And like the machine gun, Twitter's full impact will not be truly understood until both sides begin using it.