We all remember from our high school history classes (hopefully) how important the invention of the printing press was for the development of modern society – including democracy. Relatively widespread access to printed information made it easier for people to organize politically. They could print books about new political ideas, leaflets about immediate actions or current events, and keep the records needed to maintain a long lasting political organization. The enormous impact of the invention of the printing press is well known. We are almost certainly witnessing a socio-technological change of similar proportions with the emergence of social media as a political resource. Zuckerberg may be the new Guttenberg.
Central to much of the literature on democratization and revolutions is the idea that reaching a certain level of development makes new democracies more stable (see previous post on this blog of Jan 29th for a far from exhaustive sampling). Implicit in these arguments is the belief that economic development makes it easier for likeminded individuals to organize to the point where they become politically effective for a long term. The idea is that people find it easier to organize when they have more economic resources. They have easier access to information and the skills and tools required to communicate with likeminded people and coordinate political action with them.
Access to information is central to political organization. It is impossible to formulate any kind of effective political response to a situation if you do not know what your options are or what the preferences of the other major political players are. In the old days, political scientists and sociologists used to count things like the number of radios, TVs, and newspaper subscriptions per 1000 households. These things cost money and for a long time, access to these things was largely restricted to the wealthiest countries or the elites within developing countries.
Setting up a lasting political movement requires a fair amount of skill. Higher literacy rates help potential political activists circulate information among them. In the old days the thinking was someone with a printing press or mimeograph machine or something would print off thousands of leaflets and distribute them around. These could be simply for propaganda purposes or let people know to show up at this or that square in a few days for a big demonstration or organizing meeting for a new political party. Without these kinds of resources, individual people who want to change their political environment may not be able to coordinate their actions. They may not know how many think like they do or how many are willing to risk a crackdown by the police to challenge the regime.
Egypt may change the thinking on all of this radically. It's fairly well known that Egyptians (and people in lots of other non-democracies) have been using Youtube to circumvent state media censorship for some time. Also, there is a lot of talk in the news that the Egyptian uprising was originally set in motion by a marketing exec for Google-Egypt and group of computer savvy young people who intentionally used social media like Facebook and Twitter to get as many people out on the streets as possible in very short order. These things, combined with relatively inexpensive computer (and smart phone) technology, have revolutionized the thinking about what it takes to overcome the difficulties in coordinating political activities. Now, a really big demonstration can be organized in hours. Emerging political parties can use social media to get the word out to their members and get information back from them about their desires and priorities. I even heard a pundit on CNN talk about how he had heard that the CIA was ordering all their station chiefs located in non-democracies to look into the local availability of social media. The clear implication of the conversation was that the CIA was looking into encouraging the spread of such technology in non-democracies where the US government would like to see more democratization (like Iran, Syria or China).
I personally know of several social scientists who are already studying the political importance of social media. One of them had decided to focus his research on the importance of social media for political revolutions even before things broke in Tunisia and Egypt. Applying this sort of research to revolutions and democratization is about to explode.