Last week I read this article, Facebook is the New Superpower, which no doubt builds on the current hype we are seeing in the Western Media on Social Networks.
The article makes the extraordinary claim that Facebook is just like any other sovereign state, with the big difference that is it a global state, or a super-state with no president, no parliament, no army and no branches of government. It just people like us, who happened to be connected to the Internet, 2 billion according to the latest statistics, who are part of this state. And it is a superpower because it can topple national governments on concerted action of its constituents.
The whole argument of the blog posting is based on the recent events in the Middle East where, following what has now become a myth in the Western press, we did witness a “Facebook and Twitter revolution”. So there you go: Silicon Valley is in the business of fostering social revolutions and social change across the globe. Is this (really) for real?
Let us first take a closer look at Egypt in terms of access to ICTs and socio-economic conditions. There are 1 million Facebook users and around 30 million Internet users. On the other hand, there are over 60 million mobile subscribers (or almost 80% coverage, population wise) most of which use basic cell phones and thus have no direct access to the Internet. On the socio-economic side, recent data from the World Bank indicates that while Egypt’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita grew 54% between 2000 and 2009, the ratio of people living in poverty also grew from 16% to 22 % in that same period, in spite of the fact that the recent global economic crisis did not have any real impact in the country’s economy.
Let us also not forget that Egypt’s government made prompt use of the so-called “Internet kill switch” to shut down both the Internet and mobile communications. And in spite of this, the people of Egypt were able to bring change, the change they wanted, by persisting in their protests and challenging the former government in all fronts -and for some at a very high cost.
The evidence thus strongly suggests that social networks did not play a critical role in Egypt’s revolution.
I recently met a now famous (thanks to Twitter and YouTube in particular) Egyptian activist who openly says that social networks played no mayor internal role in the events in the country. She also openly discussed the fact that many Egyptian activists in Cairo where totally shocked themselves when they saw the size of the crowds that started to gather in Tahrir Square starting on 25th January, after many years of organizing protests which usually got no more than 200 people on average. She however acknowledged that the example of Tunisia showed many Egyptians that after all it was possible to topple governments that have been in power for many many years. She has made strategic use of Social Networks to spread out the word; and she sees this as one of the critical roles such tools can play in these situations.
Being that as it may, let us also not forget that Social Networks such as Facebook and Twitter, unlike current superpowers and sovereign states, are private companies with clear goals and targets.They are also not accountable to the general public but to private investors and shareholders.
This in itself raise a series on interesting governance issues. One could for example argue that public space, the good old “public sphere”, is de facto being privatized, now more than ever. And if we look at the internal governance structures of private Social Networks we must admit that we, end users, have little to no leverage as we are in fact clients but not stakeholders -as is the case with sovereign states.