Social Media, The Fifth Estate, and “The Twitter Revolutions”

The press has often been nicknamed the Fourth Estate. In modern-day essence, it serves as an unofficial addition to the three main branches of government: judicial, legislative and executive. In this capacity, the press – in a free society – functions as a watchdog. The power of the press to affect political discourse and actions has bestowed it with this Fourth Estate distinction.

The recent and expanding political chaos in North Africa that started weeks ago in Tunisia and has now spread to Egypt, has been fueled and sustained by what could be argued as a Fifth Estate: social media. Social media has been shown as a powerful political catalyst and enabler in these recent upheavals. In countries where freedom of the press is non-existent or seriously impeded, social media has been able to circumvent, to a certain extent, controls that may have been easier to impose on the Fourth Estate. After all, a country can still function without a free press, but to shut down social media, a country almost has to “go dark” from a communication perspective.

This isn’t the first time political unrest has been fueled by social media. There were many reports that Twitter and other social media played a key role in the deadly election demonstrations in Iran during 2009. Social media certainly gives power to the people by providing a ubiquitous and almost instant way to transmit information to large numbers of a country’s citizens.

Already, there has been considerable discussion that events in Tunisia and Egypt could spread to several other countries. A key methodology for organizing and initializing political opposition in these countries is social media. In other words, social media seems to be abetting a string of “viral” uprisings and/or political reform that appears to be proceeding in almost stepping-stone sequence. Social media certainly isn’t the cause of these revolutions, but it certainly seems to be intensifying the effect both intra- and inter-country.

Others have argued before that social media deserves Fifth Estate status. It would seem in light of what we are witnessing today with the spreading Arab-world political turbulence, there is sufficient confirmation that social media may have attained this level of political importance.

Those who have spoken of social media as being a substantial change agent, are now seeing that played out quite literally with the current tumultuous Middle East events that could be labeled “The Twitter Revolutions.”

[Addendum below]


It’s been quite interesting to watch the debate about some of the above subject matter.

Against – no other than the renowned Malcolm Gladwell over at the New Yorker: Does Egypt Need Twitter? and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

For – author Brian Solis: Malcolm Gladwell, Your Slip Is Showing and Mathew Ingram: It’s Not Twitter or Facebook, It’s The Power Of The Network.

It’s an interesting topic and one that should be debated. Like many discussions around powerful current events, the relative importance of social media to the present situation will benefit from a historical perspective to put things into proper context. Most people (myself included) are not saying that social media caused these uprisings, but rather that they helped enable them. History finds a voice and it will be interesting to see what that voice concludes.

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