Friday, February 11, 2011

Facebook Alone Did Not Free Egypt: Social Media is a Tool for Revolution, Not the Single Catalyst

I am happy for the people of Egypt, and as someone trained in communications with experience in social activism who has been online since the mid 90s and uses Facebook and Twitter, I understand how social media can be used as a powerful tool to build a movement. So, on some level I like the play of media soundbites such as "Facebook freed Egypt." I like the warm and fuzzy feel of them, but I know such statements distort the truth.

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.


msladydeborah said...

I'll give credit to Social Media as an organizing tool. It is a great way to do mass communication on the issue. However, being a former street action organizer, the actual physical presence of people still holds a whole lot of weight when it comes to making a major political point.

I think that Google deserves some major credit for being brave enough to support the effort to keeping people connected to the internet. I like that aspect of their corporate ballsiness.

Rens said...

I agree with your statement. New media didn't cause the revolution, but the people that were using these new media did. Of course social media were of great help, but it wassn't the main cause.

Also we must nog forget the power of the "old media" like television. Al Jezeera played a major role in keeping the attention high in the rest of the world. These images were maybe more powerful than anything else.

Lastly, i must say that happily not every medium is just praising the role of new media during the 18 days. A lot of journalist and scholars are highly critical on the role of new media (at least here in the Netherlands).

Rens said...

Another addition to this story: an underexposed factor is the role of football fans in revolutions. Did you know that a lot of competitions in the middle east are suspended at this time? Why? Because of the fans of these teams. They formed the core at the protest in Egypt [they= fans of the anti-government club Al-Ahly]. They dare to stay when it becomes dangerous. Revolutions need those people. A reason to suspend competitions for leaders in the middle east: they don't need great masses together at this point.

When the revolution is on, then of course social media are a helpful tool to coordinate things, but it starts with people on the streets who dare to stay.