Russia's Winter of Discontent, the Arab Spring and Facebook

Spring 2011

I was just reading Forbes's article on how Twitter and Facebook are fuelling Anti-Putin protests in Russia and I couldn't help but wonder how accurate was this assessment? Particularly when we take into account the relatively low levels of adoption of both the Internet and Facebook in Russia today.

Just how influential could Facebook and Twitter be in this discussion when

  • a. the majority of Russians don't have access to the Internet, and
  • b. the majority of those that do are connected to other social networks (e.g. VKontakte )?
    • Facebook usage by % of online subscribers per country (BRICI Economies)

      The story also makes reference to how earler this year the Arab Spring relied heavily on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to spread revolutions across Africa and the Middle East.

      This of course reinforces the underlying subtext that Social Media - Twitter and Facebook especially - is empowering the "wisdom of the crowds" the world over to embrace democracy and (hopefully) make the world a significantly better place to live in.

      Within this context the idea (i.e. meme) that Facebook and Twitter are global change agents becomes both self evident and self reinforcing. It has already happen there and now it is happen here... So it is probably worth while exploring the question: How much of this is urban myth and how much is this a reality?

      For example, some reports suggest that Facebook and Twitter were responsible or at least key to Arab Spring uprisings. While others suggest that and Twitter were just tools.

      Anyway I thought I would just take a quick look at the scale of reach of the Internet and Facebook in some of these countries to see what the data may reveal about the probability of this universal story of a "Revolution by Social Media" being true.

      Here is a data sample of countries from the African and Middle Eastern Region. Again China and the USA are in the mix to fix the scale of the chart so that you can appreciate the relative size of these Internet economies.

      Facebook usage by % of online subscribers per country - Africa and Middle East Economies

      Once again a cursory glance at the chart suggests that the below levels of adoption of both the Internet and Facebook suggest that wide scale disruption organised via social media is unlikely - at least on a Many:Many basis.

      If social media was used then it would have been as a communications tool to connect the social influencers who in turn communicated directly with their social network via word of mouth or perhaps, given the much high adoption rates for mobile vs. Internet across all these markets, Mobile Phone.

      This suggests the role of Facebook and the other social media platforms was more of an ad-hoc "Just in Time" communications channel for the network of organisers than an underlying strategy for achieving social "ignition".

      Again the commentators appear to be confusing Facebook, Twitter and the other social media platforms as a new form of broadcasting when all the evidence to date suggests they are not.

      They are personalised communications (i.e. Nanocasting) channels whose DNA resides with SMS, Email and Database Marketing rather than mass communication channels like TV, Radio and Print.

      [Updated 22/12/2011]

      The New York Times has uncovered some some research into the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings that suggests the bulk of the Social Media activity during the uprisings was undertaken by peripheral actors (e.g. Bloggers and Journalists). In these samples Activists on Tweeter represented just 12.4% of those actively engaged with the social network in relationto the Egyptian uprising. In Tunisa's case it was just 11.9%. These actors seeded 19% and 10% of the conversations conducted on Twitter but interestingly only 6.6% and 8% of these conversations were conducted between activists.

      This suggests that Twitter acted more as an amplifier of ideas within the "Global SocioSphere" than as a "Just in time" communications tool for the activists.

      Looking back even further the research stats released by Sysomos in January of this year suggest that the ratio of Tunisians to Tunisans with active Twitter Accounts was around 10000:1. Or, about the equivilent of a single grain in a handful of desert sand. This suggests that Twitter's role in the Arab Spring in Tunisia would be something akin to the Butterfly Effect.

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