Thoughts on Social Media and Revolutions

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It may not be because of Facebook, Twitter or Wikipedia that revolutionary fervor has taken root in North Africa. As Steve Coll writes in The New Yorker, ‘…youthful populations, high unemployment, grotesque inequality, abusive police, reviled leaders and authoritarian systems” are to blame.  So let’s give credit where credit’s due. It’s bad government that led to the situation at hand. Social media just made it impossible to ignore.

Social media is not much a disruptor as it is an accelerator.  Armed with a report published by Wikileaks confirming what they already knew was a systemic abuse of power, the Tunisians ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Next, in spite of a state sponsored internet blackout, Egyptians took to the streets to fight for their future.  And it seems as if it’s spreading even further.  Right now, King Abdullah ll of Jordan is dealing with a wave of regional discontent and thousands of young Sundanese are braving beatings and arrests to protest against their government. And it has all happened in a matter of weeks.

Social media policies are useful because they help organizations push decision-making authority down through the ranks. Command and control style management hinders organizations from responding, reacting or engaging in real time.  Organizations that have a practical policy in place can move quicker, because everyone is empowered to participate responsibly. In a world where we check our activity streams every minute or so, conversations move faster and farther than ever before.

The logic applies to revolution and diplomacy as well. No Mr. Gladwell, Twitter may not be a driver, but it is an enabler.  Social media are accelerating the pace of change. For the US, which has been backing these corrupt autocratic regimes, we’re now learning that social media cuts both ways. What empowers the people to band together and overthrow their governments, can also be used to challenge hypocrisy.  But given the openness than social media provides, Washington really has only one choice: to support the transition toward inclusive democracy.

But perhaps more importantly, social media’s velocity forces organizations to re-evaluate the way they make decisions. In this light-speed environment, command and control, hierarchical models are severely handicapped, because by the time they make a decision, the opportunity has passed them by.  Old school strategists who strive to control the conversation, perfect their “talking points” and get everything just right before they enter the conversation, will never be able to leverage real time conversations to achieve measurable outcomes because conversations and trends online move to quickly to afford any such luxury.

Organizations will need to push more authority to edges to train individuals to make choices based on practical, rational guidelines.  But reorganizing authority internally to accomplish this shift requires a level of social media literacy that does not currently exist at most organizations.  In my next post, I will discuss a strategy for overcoming this challenge with a holistic approach to social media training.