Wael Ghonim is grateful and excited by the role social media and Facebook played in Egypt's revolution. He says that he wants to meet Mark Zuckerbeg one day, and I comprehend his joy. Social media and access to the Internet does indeed give ordinary people the means to communicate and coordinate protests more easily, and so, it can help change the world in the same way the printing press changed society. Nevertheless, in his joy, Ghonim is oversimplifying how revolution happens, and some major U.S. networks are offering little analysis of that oversimplification.
In addition, statements on Twitter such as "18 days topple 30 years of oppression," while catchy, are also reductive. I think that today in America, where technology makes lives easier and mainstream media stands in awe of how Twitter and Facebook have transformed its role as mass communications gatekeeper, we are especially prone to making difficult accomplishments sound magical and instant sometimes.
Feeling strongly about this topic, I searched for someone talking about social media and the people's triumph with Hosni Mubarak's resignation in a less hyperbolic way, and found a level head at the BBC. The British network has a clip that you can watch here in which Walter Armbrust, a scholar of mass media and middle eastern culture, clarifies that revolution takes more than a Twitter or Facebook account.
"While one wouldn't want to be a technological determinist, the new media was unquestionably a crucial tool for building this movement, (but) it didnt' come out of nowhere. It's been building since at least 2002, possibly a bit earlier than that. It was also connected to the emergence of a new generation in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was technologically savvy and also had very different ideological committments than the older generation. And starting in early 2000s there were arrangements being made between them and (??? left). They started cooperating with each other on things like carrying out court cases to stop the torture of members of their organization and of the public."The newscaster tries to nudge Armbrust toward not downplaying the role of social media and speaks of the larger number of young people in Egypt and their ability to use Facebook and Twitter to coordinate protests on the Internet, but the scholar does not abandon his argument that the Egyptian revolution launched from something broader than a social media platform.
"Yes, everything that's been said is true. It's a crucial tool. Although I think it's important to remember that it's a tool and there are many other circumstances that led to the day we are seeing now. It wasn't just that Twitter and Facebook created the revolution. There were many other things that created the grounds that brought people into the street, of course millions of people who have little technological savvy and little connection to Facebook and Twitter and to all these new tools that people are using."In addition, the BBC's published an article by Anne Alexander, another scholar, who puts the role of the Internet into a less sensational perspective. She says:
Online organising does not automatically bring people onto the streets. In 2008, a Facebook group calling for a general strike attracted tens of thousands of members but only relatively small street protests took place in Cairo, largely on the university campuses.According to Alexander's research, political organizers can gauge when other pressures and who is calling for protest (the rhetorical ethos of galvanizers) have inspired people enough to take to the streets. She ends saying it's hope, seeing the success of other protests, that is the real driver.
I watched CNN today and felt that the network was in some ways overemphasizing the role of new media today in relation to Mubarak stepping down because they were neglecting to talk more about the offline influences that led to Egypt's revolution. Despite our love of overnight success stories, rarely does anyone or anything succeed overnight, and the 18 days of protests we've observed on television here were a longtime in the making.