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Putting social media in their place

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Did social media drive hundreds of thousands of Egyptians last January out to the streets? A UCLA professor who is tracking the role of social media thinks not.
Months after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had taken to the streets in and around Tahrir Square to vent their anger with the government, Sharif Abdul Hassan, a Cairo cabdriver, gave his take on the "why" of it to Ramesh Srinivasan, a UCLA researcher intent on understanding the forces that brought Hassan and others to the streets.
Was it a primal yearning for democracy, as some Twitter users had conveyed in short bursts of on-the-scene reporting?
Not quite. It was, the cabdriver told Srinivasan, the outrageously inflated price of tomatoes that made him fume. It was the fact that for three decades, his family, neighbors and friends had their money and land stolen from them, and that there was no indication that life would improve for them.
The grievances of struggling Egyptians who felt unjustly denied a better life poured out last June and July when Srinivasan, an assistant professor in information studies, interviewed a broad segment of people, from Facebook activists and well-educated members of the Twitterverse to the working-class residents of central Cairo, most of whom have no access to social media.
Srinivasan went to Cairo to learn how information flowed through social movements — and specifically, whether new technologies played a significant role in mobilizing demonstrators, as many journalists surmised during the 18 days of demonstrations that occurred last January and February.
Ramesh Srinivasan talks about his research on Twitter for the Al Jazeera English TV channel.
"What I found was generally different from what was being reported by mainstream media," said Srinivasan. The grievances of those on the frontlines of the demonstrations were not the same as what was being reported by some on Twitter at the time.
"Among these poorer, less educated people, social media did not directly drive them to protest. Neither did social media incite riot nor bring about the overthrow of an authoritarian regime," he said.
"What we should be focusing on understanding is the more organic networks by which people mobilize and move out to the streets. These networks can be based on whom your family knows, the neighborhood where you live or what church or mosque you go to. There are layers upon layers of networks that people belong to. Social media networks make up only one of those layers."
When he was a graduate student in media arts and sciences working at the MIT Media Laboratory, Srinivasan looked into question of how to build and deploy new technologies to serve people, especially those in developing countries like India, where he did his M.S. research.
"At that time, a lot of new technologies were just emerging," he said of his graduate school days. "Google was about to go public, and new layers of technology were being added. Phones were becoming more and more advanced. And this new technology was spreading around the world."
That’s when Srinivasan, a former industrial engineer who once worked in data mining and algorithms, became interested in finding out whether "these new technologies are or aren’t contributing to the kinds of social, political and cultural dynamics that we see occurring around the world today."
In 2007, he and a colleague interviewed bloggers, dissidents who participated in the overthrow of an authoritarian regime in Kyrgyzstan, located in central Asia. The researchers followed the bloggers’ movements and saw how the Internet was enabling them to connect with others. "This was a high-end activist network," Srinivasan said. "One of our informants ended up becoming one of the leaders of the transitional regime and is still involved in politics there. "
But, as he found in Egypt, Srinivasan maintains that neither social media nor the Internet provided the spark that brought about regime change in Kyrgyzstan.
Instead, the momentum "came from a synergy, a propitious moment when people with different grievances and from different classes came together at the right time, and things just snowballed from there," Srinivasan said. Events in Kyrgyzstan and Egypt would have unfolded without the presence of social media, he maintained.
While Twitter and Facebook have the ability to connect more affluent, more educated activists, social media are basically inaccessible to the vast majority of the 85 million people living in Egypt, he said. Only about 130,000 of them are users of social media.
iStock 000016428789XSmallPerhaps the most powerful aspect of social media, he discovered in the aftermath of the Egypt riots, was its ability to influence journalists, who used tweets to source their reporting of the uprisings. And that’s problematic. "Sometimes the reports people post on Twitter simply echo what other people whom they are following are saying. Things tend to magnify themselves. Twitter creates a kind of echo chamber." In some cases, he said, "journalists who can’t independently verify what they are getting on Twitter just go with it. They trust the people giving them those leads."
While he was in Cairo, Srinivasen watched a demonstration at the Interior Ministry as he tracked what people at the periphery of the protest were tweeting. "Some of what they were saying on Twitter was a little more inflamed than what I was actually observing." Contrary to what he was reading, he saw no live rounds being fired.
Today, Srinivasan is often asked by the international media to comment on the impact of social media on such events as the London riots.
"What I am trying to do is to demystify technologies and put them in perspective, in an honest place where they can be evaluated," he said.
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