Much has been said about the role that social media played in the Egyptian revolution, but further study is beginning to show that social media may not have had the affect initially thought.
Only about 15% of the Egyptian population is on the Internet and a much smaller percentage of those folks use social media. So how did Twitter and FB get so much credit as the catalyst for this movement?
Professor Ramesh Srinivasan studies the effect of social media on people and society. He recently wrote about the re-tweeting/posting phenomenon that amplifies ideas and stories, even if not entirely accurate.
“While I was at this protest, I actually was watching where some of the people were who I was following on Twitter, and I saw them at the periphery of the protest. And then I went to the frontlines, and I was observing what was going on over there. And I didn’t observe any sort of live rounds or anything being fired into the air, other than rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.
So it’s sort of a game of telephone. I think people sort of observe or they hear something, and they think that that might be a phenomenon that they’re reporting on – for example, a live round. And because of re-tweeting, where people sort of echo one another’s thoughts and they want to spread it to their own audiences, right, that’s actually going to create the mass distortion of something that was initially just a little bit off of reality.”
-Prof. Ramesh Srinivasan, NPR: Twitter Helped To Distort Egyptian Protests, 8.17.11
Essentially friends re-tweet/post what they like and the more something is re-posted the more credible it seems. This creates a social media echochamber. Prof. Srinivasan has documented many events that were reported on social media but did not actually happen in the real world. Many of these social media echochamber events helped fuel the fire that brought down the Mubarak regime.
So what is the lesson for we researchers?
There are innumerable companies claiming to be able to decipher the social media space. Are we/they reading the re-tweeting echochambers and losing sight of the individual, original, thoughts? Are we making mountains out of molehills?
What methods do you use to understand the social media space?