With the January 25 first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution approaching, it is interesting to look back, in the context of some new research, on the widespread belief that social media was a decisive factor in the uprising.

A new paper, The Dynamics of Protest Recruitment through an Online Network, suggests very strongly that what we are seeing is not so much new and more something old in a slightly new form. Indeed, its findings would not be surprising to Gutenberg, Martin Luther, the Apostles and the 17th-century British revolutionaries.

The paper, by Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, Javier Borge-Holthoefer, Alejandro Rivero and Yamir Moreno, was published in Scientific Reports (1:197 DOI: 10.1038/srep00197) and studied the “surge of mobilisations” that took place in Spain in May 2011 in the context of the use of social networking sites that help protesters organise and attain a critical mass of participants.

The authors say: “There is, however, not much evidence on how exactly SNSs encourage recruitment. Empirical research on online activity around riots and protests is scarce, and the few studies that exist show no clear patterns of protest growth. Related research has shown that information cascades in online networks occur only rarely, with the implication that even online it is difficult to reach and mobilise a high number of people.”

Their research focused on Twitter messages over a month around the protests and analysed 87,569 users tracking 581,750 protest messages.

They concluded from the analysis that: “The role that SNSs play in helping protests grow is uncontested by most media reports of recent events. However, there is not much evidence of how exactly these online platforms can help disseminate calls for action and organise a collective movement.”

Their conclusion is hardly unexpected. There are two processes taking place — the “dynamics of recruitment and the dynamics of information diffusion”. But when these underlying processes are analysed it seems that they are based on very traditional network effects and links: a core of people who reach many others; the “collective effervescence” phenomenon (I didn’t realise others felt like I did — isn’t that great and liberating?); and the subsequent impact of multiple messages from different sources.

The Twitter network also has an impact because it functions as a global news broadcaster and a local, personalised network but its major contribution to the recruitment process is its speed rather than social activation as such. Most importantly the authors conclude that “… being able to generate recruitment patterns on a scale of this order is still an exceptional event, and this study sheds no light that helps to predict future occurrences; but it shows that when exceptional events like mass mobilisations take place, recruitment and information diffusion dynamics are reinforcing each other along the way”.

And that’s exactly what has happened throughout history. In the case of the British Civil War, the Reformation, the French Revolution and the spread of Christianity it is the barrage of pamphlets, books, leaflets, cartoons and posters that disseminated the information and helped recruit new participants and allowed people experience the “collective effervescence” that we have seen more recently in the Velvet Revolution and the Philippines anti-Marcos protests.

In the Egyptian case — as the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent electoral triumphs show — the significance of core networks that can exploit the capacity for information dissemination was crucial. While the West is constantly surprised by the electoral successes of the Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah, that success is not based on collective insanity among their constituents. Instead, it is based on the long hard yards of building networks and providing basis on the ground services ranging from food and education to medical treatment and social support. (See the article by Yasmine El-Rashidi, NYRB but reproduced AFR on January 6, for how the networks succeed where the state fails.)

The West can busily describe them as terrorists, which many of them are, but their heroic status in their communities is based on other factors. Indeed, as with Menachem Begin, a history of terrorist attacks doesn’t preclude you from being elected Prime Minister.

The Economist also throws light on the historic role of networks in an article: “How Luther went viral — five centuries before Facebook and the Arab Spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation.” RMIT University’s professor Peter Horsfield, one of the world’s leading scholars of media and religion, has demonstrated in several papers and articles the critical significance of different media and network effects in the growth of Christianity and is now writing a major book on the subject. Harvard University’s Robert Darnton (the great historian of information-sharing networks in pre-Revolutionary France) has said: “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past — even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of the television and the internet (cited in The Economist see above).

For politicians the message is clear — social media may be a powerful tool but it’s no substitute for old-fashioned networks activated by some uplifting story that will promote collective effervescence. So far the two major Australian political parties — except in circulating negative online messages among the already converted — haven’t overcome the problem of inspiring people to recruit others and disseminate their messages.

For activists such as GetUp — just “tell them they’re dreaming!” They didn’t save the forests and they are not about to “save” the Tarkine just with online media.

And for marketers and PR people — another interesting finding  (this time from the Financial Times), which reported on New Year’s Eve that an IBM study had found that on Cyber Monday, when US retailers offer big post-Thanksgiving online discounts, just 0.56% of buyers were referred from social networks.