Why Malcolm Gladwell Should Apologize to Social Media

Gladwell didn't defend his original argument that hierarchy is essential to political movements, much less his central thesis that social media creates only "weak ties" that cannot sustain political revolutions.
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Malcolm Gladwell is a gifted writer. An author of four best-selling books and many articles for The New Yorker, Gladwell likes exposing little recognized phenomena and debunking popular views. His style is more breezy than academic or scientific, yet his anecdotes often sound rather compelling.

One of Gladwell's recent articles, however, may prove to be the tipping point for Gladwell's persuasiveness -- and popularity. In an Oct. 4, 2010 article, "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," Gladwell tried to debunk the popular notion that social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube can be important ingredients to social activism. Gladwell's thesis is that social and political movements need hierarchy to organize and mobilize people, with divisions of labor and, ideally, "strong ties" among people. But, in Gladwell's view, social media like Facebook only establish "weak ties" among people (so-called "friends"), many of whom have never met and who won't risk harm or make real sacrifices for each other.

But didn't social media help spur the political uprisings in Moldova and Iran in 2009? Psshaw, says Gladwell. His evidence? Citing Evgeny Morozov, who is also skeptical of "cyber-utopian" claims that social media will topple totalitarian regimes, Gladwell points out that Moldova had few Twitter accounts identifying Moldova as their location. And, in Iran, a popular hashtag used on Twitter (#iranelection) during the protest was in English, not Farsi, and many tweets were probably from Western countries, not Iran.

These are the only bits of direct evidence Gladwell offers to support his argument. That's it. One doesn't have to be a lawyer to realize Gladwell's proof is lacking.

Indeed, even Gladwell's own source, Morozov, blogged about "Moldova's Twitter Revolution," in which he acknowledged:

"Technology is playing an important role in facilitating these protests. In addition to huge mobilization efforts both on Twitter and Facebook, Moldova's angry youth -- especially those who are currently abroad (roughly a quarter of Moldova's population are working abroad due to dire economic conditions back at home) -- could follow the events on this livestream provided by a Romanian TV station -- directly from the square."

Thus, Gladwell's argument is undermined not only by the fact that location-identification is optional on Twitter, but also by the fact many Moldovans live outside the country. If we credit Morozov's contemporaneous account of the Moldovan uprising, Morozov noted "record-breaking" number of related tweets -- most in Romanian, not English -- as well as "many" blog posts and "plenty" of YouTube videos and Facebook postings related to the uprising. Morozov himself disavowed Gladwell's type of analysis: "[P]eople who point to the low number of Twitter users in Moldova as proof of the mythical nature of the subject have conceptual difficulties understanding how networks work."

Gladwell's discussion of Iran is just as dubious. He ignores the possibility, as one Iranian-American activist reported to the Washington Post, that "tweets from a handful of students have been instrumental in getting information to people outside Iran." Even worse, Gladwell ignores perhaps the most important catalyst or galvanizer for the uprising -- the shooting death of a young Iranian woman named "Neda" (Neda Agha Soltan) that was captured on video and shared around the world on YouTube to millions of viewers. Without the YouTube video, who knows how many Iranians would have known of her death?

And then there's Egypt. The toppling of the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak last week marked a historic event. By many accounts, a leading catalyst for the uprising was the June 6, 2010 death of Khaled Said, a 28 year-old blogger, who reportedly was beaten to death by Egyptian police--possibly in retaliation for his posting or possession of a video showing police sharing loot from a drug bust. Shortly after Said's death, an anonymous person (now revealed as Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google employee in Dubai) created a Facebook page for Khaled Said that showed cellphone photos and YouTube videos of Said, including graphic photos of his beaten corpse. Within weeks, the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page had 130,000 followers. By the beginning of Feb. 2011, it had over 473,000. Today, it has over 773,000 followers, with hundreds of photos and over 60 videos. Although it is impossible to quantify how much Said's death or the Facebook page galvanized the protesters, by the account of one Egyptian protester, "[Khaled Said] is a big part of our revolution." Certainly, the numerous signs with Said's face that protesters held on the streets attest to that fact.

In a Feb. 2, 2011 reply, "Does Egypt Need Twitter?," Gladwell refused to concede the role of social media in the Egyptian protests. "People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented," he dismissed. "People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place." But notice: Gladwell didn't defend his original argument that hierarchy is essential to political movements any longer, much less his central thesis that social media creates only "weak ties" that cannot sustain political revolutions. (Of course, it would be hard to defend Gladwell's positions now in the face of what just happened in Egypt. But facts be damned.) Instead, Gladwell shifted to an entirely different argument that motivations of protesters matter more, in the end, than the modes of communication they choose.

What Gladwell again misses is that the modes of communication, such as social media, may be vital to the success -- or failure -- of the movement in the first place. Social media can help galvanize and organize people (The "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page), while keeping them informed in real time (such as on Twitter). As Ghonim put it in an interview with 60 Minutes, without social media, the revolution would not have happened. The Facebook page organized and galvanized strangers, and gave them the dates and locations for protests. Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet in Egypt during the protests in order to make them fail. But that extreme act only fomented the protesters further on the "Friday of Wrath."

Gladwell should consider an important lesson from history: the "ways to communicate with each other" are often a part of what drives people to seek greater political freedoms. If the accounts of Khaled Said's death are accurate, then his death was another example of a government trying to restrict the freedom of the press--here, in the form of a citizen blogger exposing government corruption. An even more extreme restriction was, of course, Egypt's shut down of the Internet there. In the 16th century, the British Crown did the same by restricting most people's access to the printing press, which eventually led to the British people's protests calling for the freedom of the press. That political movement informed the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution and the later adoption of the First Amendment. Then as now, it is mistake to dismiss, as Gladwell does, the "ways to communicate" as "less interesting" when analyzing political movements. Even Mubarak realized that much.

What is most surprising about Gladwell's argument is that it ignores his earlier work in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In that book, Gladwell theorized that social epidemics are spurred on by a relatively few number of people whom he calls the connectors (with over 100 friends or acquaintances), the mavens (who broker information by word of mouth), and the salesmen (who persuade people by their charisma). Based on the activity of these few actors, a social phenomenon can reach a tipping point and "go viral" drawing in thousands, if not millions more. While Gladwell may not have been writing about political movements, his concepts seem useful in analyzing Egypt. The Facebook page for Khaled Said, along with the photos of him shared through social media, may have been a key connector, maven, and salesman to galvanize the protest. Probably not the only one, but at least an important one. The Facebook page had over 400,000 friends, brokered key information to Egyptians, and provided them with a haunting image of the beaten corpse of Khaled Said, not to mention important dates and locations for upcoming protests, as well as videos of the protests. Under Gladwell's own theory, that would be more than enough to reach a tipping point. Kolena Khaled Said.

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