Egypt: Debunking the Twitter-debunker-debunkers

Ryan Shaw, in the comments, points to Aaron Bady, who points to Jay Rosen.

Jay Rosen and Aaron Bady dislike simplistic "debunking" articles that caricature claims about the role of the Internet and social media in Egypt and Tunisia. Jay Rosen identifies a genre of "Twitter Can't Topple Dictators" articles, and says they have six qualities:

  1. Nameless fools are staking maximalist claims.
  2. No links we can use to check the context of those claims.
  3. The masses of deluded people make an appearance so they can be ridiculed.
  4. Bizarre ideas get refuted with a straight face.
  5. Spurious historicity.
  6. The really hard questions are skirted

Aaron Bady's version of Rosen’s argument is this: "it is a fantasy of a particular kind of credulousness, which is then so soberly refuted (by sober debunkers) that the overriding impression left for the audience is only of the performance of seriousness itself, and of the credulous enthusiasm which has been dismissed."

Both have written much better stuff (well, Aaron Bady at least – I confess I'm no fan of Jay Rosen's style) so here's a suggestion to get them back on the wagon: If you are going to start a list with a complaint about "maximalist claims" and a plea to address the "hard questions", don't  hunt for the an extreme case, label it a "genre-defining classic", and tar a wide range of articles with the same brush  of "wildly overdrawn claims", "weaselly question marks", and "derisive debunking".

Shorter: don't use a caricature to combat a caricature.

Even shorter: Pot, meet kettle.

Update: Omri Ceron does a better job here.

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  1. I don’t like Rosen’s article, and I agree with Ceron’s criticism of it. I also think its disingenuous for cyber-utopians to start claiming that they’re weren’t really being utopian, or whatever. BUT: I do think the pendulum is swinging the other way, and we’re getting to the point where dismissal of new media is becoming as knee-jerk as the championing of it. When TechCrunch starts posting articles that support your views, I think its time to pause and re-consider what your views are.
    What I think Bady was getting at, is that both the cyber-utopian “It wouldn’t have happened without Twitter” and the cyber-skeptic “It’s just a tool / hierarchy will inevitably reassert itself” share the quality of relegating Egyptians to passive objects of, on the one hand, the new media juggernaut or, on the other, “very deep social and political dynamics.” It’s technological forces or social forces that are given agency, and Western pundits are free to pronounce their understanding of what’s _really_ going on.
    Which is kind of what I thought you were getting at with your comment that “… there is a kernel of truth there … Ghosim’s quotation at the top of the page is a clear indicator that some young Egyptians feel a sense of identity with Facebook and the Internet: that it is their generation’s culture, not their parents and not the authorities.” Which brought to mind Bady’s invocation of “permission to narrate,” the idea that, if Egyptians are saying Facebook was important, then we ought to take that seriously, and to do so doesn’t mean ceding ground to cyber-utopians.

  2. I think that Rosen should also consider how credible his debunking of Twitter debunking is given that he does a weekly pod cast with Dave “Get off my lawn you kids” Winer.
    Lying down with dogs, and surprised upon waking up with fleas.

  3. Fair enough. I should avoid caricaturing, I guess 🙂 and I see what you mean about the importance of recognizing local, specific factors, and respecting local expertise and knowledge.
    I hope to put a follow-up post up this evening about the kernel – because I do agree with you that there is something culturally important: a generational identity that has made digital technology something of a counter-cultural space.

  4. 60 Minutes interview with Wael Ghonim:
    Smith: If there’s no social network, does this revolution happen?
    Ghonim: If there was no social networks, it would have never been sparked. Because the whole thing before the revolution was the most critical thing. Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without YouTube, this would have never happened;contentBody

  5. Difficult to argue from a distance with a brave man who was in the heart of the action. And to add to it, there’s this NYT story about collaboration over time between Tunisian and Egyptian activists. But I’ll try. I think it will need a separate post.

  6. Jay Rosen has that as a long-time rhetorical tactic. It’s effective when he can simply flame from on-high, as it simultaneously denies the excesses of the hucksters and paints the debunkers as sloppy or dishonest. It’s not so effective when he can be called on it – but that requires a fairly high pundit-rank.
    Take a look at Jay Rosen’s exchange with Nick Carr in:
    “The Great Unread”
    And my own go-around at:
    “The People Formerly Known As The Audience” … are STILL the audience”
    I call it “The Game Of A-lister Wins”. The outcome of this game is simple: The A-lister wins, because, drumroll … they’re the A-lister and you’re not. But the mechanism of the win does illuminate a deep issue.
    The basic problem is that if an A-lister is caught saying something wrong or stupid, they get to redefine it so that they didn’t say it. Because, again, they’re the A-lister and you’re not. If you claim they did say it, they always have the option of writing a personal attack on you to their audience, which may be two or three orders of magnitude more than your own.
    It’s misleading to analyze it as a truly factual argument on the evangelist side. It’s much closer to “plausible deniability”.

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