Leading on from this post, I may have an answer to Malcolm Gladwell’s question, “did social media solve a problem that actually needed solving?”
Writing for Foreign Policy, Reuters reporter Maryam Ishani has detailed the Egyptian “Twitter revolutionaries” and the role that technology played in the whole revolution. She seems to support Clay Shirky’s theory – social media did not bring down Mubarak on the strength of its pure Justin Timberlake awesomeness, but it did help long-term to facilitate the movement’s organising. The people that she says were behind the protests’ initiation seem extremely resourceful, dedicated and intelligent and were able to utilise social media as another tool in their kit in order to aid their project.
The groundwork for the Egyptian uprising was set well before these high-profile figures and organizations [El Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood] became involved. Nearly three years ago, a group of youth activists with a strong sense of Internet organizing and more than a little help from abroad was preparing for a grassroots, high-tech opposition movement.
I’m going to start by questioning whether these activists were quite as important as Ishani makes out – after all, the story sounds much better if this is the case. She puts a lot of importance on social media – she even says that the whole movement was sparked by Facebook:
Not surprisingly, it was another Facebook page set up by the April 6 youth — this one devoted to the memory of Khaled Said, a man brutally killed in police custody — that sparked the beginning of the current uprising in Egypt. Thanks largely to the legwork done by the April 6 movement and the Egyptian Democratic Academy months earlier, Egypt’s opposition had been integrated into a closely knit online community. The movement showed up in force on Jan. 25, when the protests began.
It’s funny, because everyone else seems to think that the protests were sparked by the events going on in Tunisia – where the Egyptian people suddenly realised that dictators can be taken down.
If we do accept her premise, there is still a lot to think about. I’m sure Gladwell would again take the line that they happened to use social media, but the revolution could have happened anyway. I made a list of the different ways in which these activists used social media, in an attempt to answer this point:
- To distribute a manual on protest methods.
- To form connections with other groups, such as Italian anarchists, who provided training and expertise.
- To quickly communicate information about arrested activists, so that they could be located and freed by a legal team, rather than languishing in prison for weeks without charge.
- To distribute videos of protests and brutality against protestors.
- As a map, to locate good areas for protests and goof photography vantage points.
Having reduced their use of social media to these points, Gladwell does seem to be on to something. None of these things couldn’t be achieved without the internet; pre-1990, you could still distribute manuals, have communications systems and use maps. The social media would make these things a lot easier, when used properly, but I’m not convinced that they were absolutely necessary.
In fact, the activists used a whole variety of integrated tools, not just social media. For instance, after noticing that the videos of Iran protests around the election last year created a massive stir, but were less effective than they could have been due to poor quality, some of these Egyptians went to the US for film training. Also, they had contingency plans for when the internet failed:
The activists acted quickly during the blackout to create workaround solutions. Within days, clandestine FTP accounts were set up to move videos out to international news outlets. While accredited members of the media struggled to communicate and coordinate, street protesters were using land lines to call supporters, who translated and published their accounts on Twitter for an international audience hungry for news of the unfolding events.
As I said before, this sounds like a very intelligent, very resourceful group of individuals, who used all of the tools and techniques available to them in order to achieve their goals. This is not to underestimate the role of social media in their effort – without these new means off communication, their job would have been far more difficult, we definitely do have a lot to thank Facebook and Twitter for. The question is whether or not they could have achieved what they did without the facilitation provided by social media. This is not as clear cut as social media’s best friends seem to think it is, there are definitely strong arguments for each side.
Speaking of Twitter quickly, Foreign Policy blogger Colum Lynch has written a piece that really illuminates the value that it does and doesn’t have for following current events. He points out that it has sped-up the news cycle in an unprecedented way, and that there is no better tool for following the news as it happens, as well as sourcing a huge variety of content. That said, he also observes that it allows disinformation from dubious sources to spread extremely quickly and possibly be picked-up by lazy journalists in well-regarded publications, allowing it to spread even further.