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Nothing New Under the Sun? Social Media, the Arab Spring, and the Reformation Era

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

A few weeks ago, the Economist provided an interesting take on social media, the Arab Spring, and the Reformation era. The article, How Luther Went Viral, claims that centuries before Facebook and the Arab Spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation era.  Led by Martin Luther, the Reformation was a period of religious revolt that led to the division of Western Christianity and the start of Protestantism. The developments of this period were propelled by the advent of the printing press, which the article describes in rich detail. But it begins by making an interesting claim about how Luther and his allies promoted the message of religious reform with the social media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts. So basically, the central argument of the piece states that what happened in the Arab Spring is what happened in the Reformation era: a new form of media provided the opponents of an authoritarian regime an opportunity to voice their concerns, affirm their discontent, and mobilize their actions.

In exploring the similarities, the article examines the long running debate on the role of the media in the Reformation era---the importance of the printing press vs. oral transmission vs. visual media. It argues that the Internet has provided a new perspective on this debate by pointing to a key factor that went beyond one or more forms of media, but instead looked at the wider system of media sharing along social networks that is equivalent to our modern day “social media.” Both Luther and the Arab revolutionaries understood these new media environments, leading to the rapid spread of messages among wide audiences, which sparked a whole new level of public debate.

The Reformation era is likened to the Arab Spring in other ways, including what the article describes as a “collective action problem.” This occurs when people are dissatisfied, but are unsure how widely their dissatisfaction is shared, leading to long dictatorships in places like Tunisia and Egypt. But as the article describes, social media websites changed this by allowing people to share their sentiments of dissatisfaction very quickly with mass audiences. This led to an over abundance of information that created momentum for action. Likewise, the popularity of pamphlets in the reformation era served as a collective signal of shared discontent. Once Luther’s message went viral, the overwhelming tide of information followed, shifting public opinion and igniting collective action. This is just one of a number of similarities that leads the author to conclude that social media are not unprecedented, but are a continuation of a long tradition.

There is support for this argument, as pointed out by Nancy Roelker, in her piece on the “Impact of the Reformation Era” in the text, Propaganda and Communication in World History. In her writing, she argues that the effective use of communication and propaganda was a central instrument in the achievements of the Reformation era and that media affected every sphere of the society through a chain reaction of communication networks that were oral, visual, and print, reinforcing the Economist’s point on the wider system of media sharing along social networks.

There are other arguments, like those proposed by Frank Rich in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times, that place more emphasis on the issues sparking revolutions rather than what he describes as the hype of social media. In examining this argument, a colleague recently wrote about the role of an entire media system in the Arab Spring (for more, read this blog). This brings us to the question: is it really about social media or is it about social networks?

These are all important and interesting assertions. Yes, media sharing along social networks has been taking place over time with technological advances helping to improve and refine the process. But beyond the media environment, one can also argue that a critical link between these periods is the simplicity of the communication, whether written or visual. The colloquial language and graphics that were used in the printed material of the Reformation era provided the common man with unprecedented access to new ideas. Fast forward to the Facebook era, and a status update or a tweet has the same potential to resonate with a much wider and informal audience.

Picture credit: flickr user Art History Museum (Holly Hayes)

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Submitted by Dale Mead on
Thanks for the interesting article. I think that one of the things that is often overlooked in these discussions is that it isn't just that it is communications or networking that enable revolutions, but rather new forms of communications/networking. One of the essential factors in maintaining an oppressive governmental environment by a small minority over a majority is controlling communications and coordination between members of the oppressed population. If the oppressed group realizes their strength and can coordinate actions, then the individual risk declines dramatically and the likelihood of success increases exponentially. What is key in understand the role of printing in the Reformation, the PC/Desktop Publishing in the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Social Media in the Arab Spring is that they were adopted and the implications understood by the masses before they could be co-opted by the authorities. As printing matured, it was followed by a maturing of governmental understanding of how to control it. Modern copyright law directly descends from royal control over who could print and what they could say. The standard bibliographic information (title, author, place of publication, publisher, date of publication) for books derives from laws requiring that information to be printed on all books so that the king knew who to execute and where to find them. The Internet remains a relatively new, rapidly evolving forum for communication of idea and coordination of action. The core technology of the Internet comes from the cold war and the inherent need to be able to function as a means of military command and control even if all central nodes were knocked out in a nuclear strike. That design makes it ideal as a means of avoiding easy government control. Over time, certain governments have learned how to obtain some management over that, however. Communications higher in the technology stack (e.g., social networking sites), are more recent developments and, therefore, less understood and less easily controlled. Rather than trying to credit for the Reformation to printing (or to deny it) or credit for the Arab Spring to Facebook (or deny it), I think that it is more useful to think of the desire of oppressed peoples for freedom as an ongoing part of human nature and changes in circumstances around the instruments of control, including technical change, as opportunities for that freedom to be expressed.

Submitted by Donn Downing on
We forget sometimes that we have been here before. Knowing your past may help in navigating your present. Americans in particular tend toward impatience when it comes to history. Thus the history of social media did not begin with Google and Facebook. It began with print 500 years ago. AS a retired journalist I have been collecting early print - leaves not books - in an attempt to bring this home in very public settings - libraries, trade shows, airports, theater lobbies, big box retail environments and the like. Crazy? Maybe? Go see "A Renaissance Computer" at and tell me what you think. Donn

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