The Moral Molecule

Neuroscience and economic behavior

Why Social Media Is Driving Political Change in the Arab World

Connecting ordinary people causes extraordinary things to happen

Mohamed Bouazizi had worked full-time since he was ten years old. Because he worked in the state-controlled and corrupt economy of Tunisia, Mohamed held various jobs to support his mother and six siblings. For his last job, Mohamed built a small cart to sell fruit to commuters along a roadside. On December 17, 2010 government officials decided that he had to pay a bribe or would not be allowed to earn a living. They confiscated his cart and insulted him as a crowd watched. After officials in the governor's office refused to hear his complaint, he sat in front of a government building, doused himself with gasoline, lit a match to his head and burned to death.

Ten days after Mohamed Bouazizi's suicide, the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned after 23 years of power following massive protests. A month later, 30-year Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left office after violent protests, and the governments of Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan have faced similar protests and have conceded to a substantial number of demands for greater openness by the populace. As of this writing, Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is facing a similar fate and his ability to stay in power is questionable.

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How could the self-immolation of a twenty-six year old street vendor cause dictators-for-life to run for the hills?

The radical change in the Arab world is a triumph of social media. By connecting ordinary people to each other, extraordinary things can happen. But that this happened in the Arab world is surprising because of the low internet usage in these countries. While 86% of Egyptians have a TV, only 20% have ever used the internet. Only 5% of Libyans have internet access. How social media produces mass social change is a mystery.

Neuroscience offers a solution to this mystery. In recent experiments in my lab, I've shown that use of social media causes the release of oxytocin, an idea I thought up with Fast Company magazine writer Adam Penenberg. Oxytocin, as frequent readers of The Moral Molecule know, is the neurochemical basis for trust, empathy, and social connection. Oxytocin release motivates us to sacrifice to help others, even complete strangers.

Human beings are unique in our desire to regularly interact with strangers, and oxytocin is the reason why. Penenberg has shown that once enough people join a social network, a viral loop starts in which everyone else wants to join group. This runaway process leads to a tipping point that in many Arab countries spilled into the streets and was then self-sustaining. In both Tunisia and Egypt even the Army eventually conceded to join the protesters.

But once the dictators have left, will the demands for democracy and transparency survive? An elegant experiment by my former graduate student and information technology and development expert Dr. Sherrie Simms shows that the momentum for change can be maintained. Simms tested the role of the internet in building social capital by running an experiment in six villages on three continents. Each village was slated to receive a free internet kiosk, and she assessed twenty measures of social capital before and after its installation. She found that internet users had measurable increases in connections to village life, such as volunteering to assist others with their crop harvests, after using the internet for a month.

Connection to others is what we humans do. Internet connection or in-person meetings, both are processed the same way in the brain. Because oxytocin release is part of an adaptive brain circuit, the more we release oxytocin the more we seek out new connections. Economic progress helps sustain oxytocin release as the stress of survival abates allowing for the leisure time that enables socializing. But, without fundamental political change that results in economic liberalization, these countries' economies will not improve. It would be a shame if Mohamed Bouazizi and the others who have given their lives in the hope of a better life had done so in vain.

Think of this: next time you Tweet you might just start a revolution.

 

 

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA.  His book The Moral Molecule will be published in 2012.

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