Journal article

The dictator’s dilemma: the role of social media in revolutions

3 Aug 2013

This paper develops a revolution model incorporating the effects of social media. It is seen that social media changes the outcomes of traditional revolution models due its effects on the cost/benefit analysis of would-be participants. The paper also considers various strategies for the dictator to stop the revolution in light of social media. Finally, the paper offers extensions and different ways to evaluate the effectiveness of social media in a revolution.

Introduction: So, you want to be a dictator? These days, it is tougher to lead an authoritarian regime in the face of democratic ideals, free speech and globalized media. Look to the Arab Spring, the inspiration for this paper, as an example of dictators overthrown by these modern forces. Rebels mobilized in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya against longstanding dictators to achieve a self-determined life. This paper hopes to find ways to help you, the would-be dictator, stay in power. In order to do this, the paper will explore and model the factors that encourage the overthrow of a dictator and hence inform how the dictator can rebuff any rebellions before they start.

All revolutions differ; perhaps, however, modern and future revolutions have fundamentally changed due to the internet and social media. The greatest problem for would-be revolutionaries is organization. Social media helps overcome collective action problems by dissemination of information to organize people. Facebook and Twitter brought people to Tahrir Square in Egypt to protest Hosni Mubarek because they were inspired by posted messages and videos. Wael Gholim created a Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Saeed” that created an online arena for people to share their discontent. When the page called for protests on January 25th, hundreds of thousands mobilized.

Social media has also changed the effectiveness of the dictator’s methods to quell a revolution. In the past, a dictator could kill a dissident to silence him while only angering a few close relatives and friends. Today, as in the case of Khaled Saeed, the deceased can become a rallying cry for thousands and his message quickly spread. The dictator’s action, while silencing one, angers thousands. Since the revolutionaries’ tactics have changed, perhaps the dictators need to as well. In some Asian countries, authoritarian regimes restrict internet access such as China’s “great firewall”. Pakistan has decided to build its own web wall to partially block users from certain websites while North Korea effectively does not have internet.  Restricting the internet involves a trade-off between the internet’s efficiency gains and the possibility of social unrest.

Of course, there is always the good old-fashioned bribe. The problem is enforcing the bribe. Hopefully, the bribe is not taken and then used against the dictator. Instead of a cash bribe, the dictator could employ or create governmental positions for his opposition. This co-option of leading revolutionaries may help kill a revolution before it starts.  Perhaps the best method of keeping a revolution at bay is to make the people happier by governing better.
The dictator has many choices to stop a revolution; some more effective than others. In order to examine the dictator’s choices, a revolution model needs to be constructed.

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