March 2, 2021

Link by Link: In Times of Unrest, Social Networks Can Be a Distraction

Apparently even during a revolution.

That is the provocative thesis of a new paper by Navid Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale, titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest.”

Using complex calculations and vectors representing decision-making by potential protesters, Mr. Hassanpour, who already has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford, studied the recent uprising in Egypt.

His question was, how smart was the decision by the government of President Hosni Mubarak to completely shut down the Internet and cellphone service on Jan. 28, in the middle of the crucial protests in Tahrir Square?

His conclusion was, not so smart, but not for the reasons you might think. “Full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action,” he writes.

To put it another way, all the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest, but it can also spread a message of caution, delay, confusion or, I don’t have time for all this politics, did you see what Lady Gaga is wearing?

It is a conclusion that counters the widely held belief that the social media helped spur the protests. Mr. Hassanpour used press accounts of outbreaks of unrest in Egypt to show that after Jan. 28, the protests became more spread around Cairo and the country. There were not necessarily more protesters, but the movement spread to more parts of the population.

He called this a “localization process.” “You can say it would be hard to measure that,” he added, talking about his research, “but you can test it, what happens when a disruption goes into effect.”

“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” he writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on — we are more unpredictable when we don’t — on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.

Mr. Mubarak’s government collapsed and the former president, at age 83, now finds himself being wheeled into a Cairo court on a hospital bed to face charges of corruption and complicity in the killing of protesters.

Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer of Renesys, a company that assesses the way the Internet is operating across the world, believes that another besieged leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, may have taken note of the Egyptian experience.

In a blog post on the company’s Web site, “What Libya Learned From Egypt,” Mr. Cowie writes that in March, Libya toyed with the idea of pulling the switch on its Internet service.

Libya’s leaders “faced this same decision in the run-up to civil war,” he wrote, “and each time, perhaps learning from the Egyptian example, they backed down from implementing a multiday all-routes blackout.”

Sophisticated governments will realize that “shutting down radicalizes things,” he said in a phone interview. What is more useful to governments, he said, was “bandwidth throttling,” recognizing that “Internet is something you can meter out.” This “metering out” is meant to make the experience less reliable and responsive, he said, so that video streaming is hesitant and Web pages are slow to load.

Iran, Mr. Cowie said, was one of a number of countries that have realized that “you don’t turn off the Internet anywhere — you make it less useful,” controlling which neighborhoods get it, for example.

Mr. Hassanpour, who was born and raised in Iran, agreed: “Iran does it in a localized way.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=21d2f7c4a8eb1458149b314dd9800abe

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