Social Media in Egypt: A Second Public Sphere

I've been mostly silent on the "social media revolution in Egypt" meme because, frankly, I didn't want to join an already crowded chorus until enough information had emerged for the beginning of an actual analysis.  Justly or not, the idea of the uprising in Egypt being a "Twitter revolution" or "Facebook revolt" has become one of the major narratives in the American media.  This shouldn't be surprising, given the way the same narrative caught on during Iran's uprising in 2009. And, as Luke Allnutt argued well, there's an element of the "Twitter revolution" story that's appealing to Americans because, in some vaguely imperialistic yet satisfyingly altruistic way, it gives us a bit of the credit for the empowerment of the disenfranchised people of Egypt, Tunisia and wherever else.

But it's becoming more and more clear that in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, social media really have played pivotal roles in driving the uprising. "We are All Khaled Said," the Facebook group originally created to commemorate the brutal death of a young businessman at the hands of the Egyptian policy, was created last June by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist blogger who has become a reluctant face of the movement since his release from prison and an emotional interview on Egyptian television this week. The group is widely credited with helping catalyze the initial protests last month. The "April 6 Youth Movement," another Facebook-based, youth-led democracy movement, also helped turn people out to protest, while Twitter has been a constant source of Egypt news for people around the world. 

Drilling down on this, it seems to me that social media could have contributed to the cause of the protesters in three distinct ways: as a tool for organizing, as a news source, and as a public sphere to build a community of like-minded activists. Let me assess the importance and potential each of those in turn...

Organizing Tool: In this construction, social media was an essential ingredient in mobilizing protesters to the streets and coordinating demonstrations. This is probably the most readily and widely understood theory of social-media-for-social-change, and in Egypt it seems to have held true. Massive Facebook groups like "Khaled Said" and "April 6" did play a significant role in organizing the initial protests and movtivating their users to demonstrate. Likewise, in Tunisia, Twitter appears to have been valuable for coordinating protests simultaneously in many cities across the country.

But it didn't take much for the Egyptian government to turn off the internet, and once access is denied, online tools aren't very useful for organizing a movement. Ethan Zuckerman, of the Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, described this dynamic last year: "The communications channels opened online tend to be compromised quickly, used for disinformation and for monitoring activists. And when protests get out of hand, governments of closed societies don’t hesitate to pull the plug on networks – China has blocked internet access in Xinjiang for months, and Ethiopia turned off SMS on mobile phone networks for years after they were used to organize street protests." 

These problems with Facebook and Twitter as organizing tools-- propaganda, surveillance and censorship of social media networks-- are comprehensively covered by Evgeny Morozov in his new book The Net Delusion. As we've seen in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, social media certainly can be used as tools for organizing and mobilization of would-be protesters.  But it's awfully easy for nasty governments to take advantage of the same networks for ill-- or just shut them down. As I wrote about Tunisia, social media have certainly been useful tools for protesters, but once the Egyptian government did shut down the internet, the protests only gained steam, suggesting that these tools are not essential, at least once the protests have begun.

News Source: Of these three, the idea of social media as a global source for news is the most suspect, and the most easily subject to media hyperbole. It has certainly been captivating to follow the developments in Tahrir Square via Twitter, reading firsthand accounts as they stream in second-by-second. But if you really want to know what's going on, Al Jazeera has been the place to turn, almost no matter where you are on earth. Their coverage has been extraordinary, and a reminder of the power of "traditional" media. If these protests continue to spread across the Middle East, it will more likely be thanks to Al Jazeera than to Facebook.

In Tunisia, we saw a somewhat different phenomenon, where the mainstream media completely failed to notice the development of nationwide protests until the whole shebang was almost over. This was at least in part because the suppression of free press within the country prevented any major news outlets from even reporting the story. But Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other, local social media sites were all essential in getting news out of the country, and Al Jazeera, among other news outlets, eventually came to depend on this citizen reporting for their own coverage.

Now, we can ask if this sort of Twitter-for-global-awareness phenomenon is essential-- or even helpful-- to a revolutionary movement. I recall watching Meet the Press on the morning of Jan. 31, as Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution and David Gregory looked at streams of Tweets about Egypt flowing into Tweetdeck. "You are witnessing here a 21st century revolution," said Indyk.  The trouble was, the internet and mobile networks were entirely shut down in Egypt.  Indyk is a brilliant guy, and the rest of his interview was very insightful, but that remark was pure hype and total nonsense.  In fact, what we were witnessing was so much chatter about Egypt coming from just about everyone except the revolutionaries themselves.

The protesters in Tunisia succeeded in ousting their president almost before the rest of the world knew what was going on. And in Egypt, the protests carried on and intensified even as the internet shutdown prevented protesters from Tweeting to the world. At a certain point, global awareness may help protect protesters from their own government-- international scrutiny does have a chilling effect on horrid humanitarian abuses-- but social media's role as a news source is probably not terribly important to the success of a revolt.

Public Sphere: This is the long-term theory-- the idea that, over time, activists can use social media and the broader online public space to discuss ideas, establish a shared perspective, and connect with like-minded individuals. Quoting Zuckerman again: "Communication tools may not lead to revolution immediately, but they provide a new rhetorical space where a new generation of leaders can think and speak freely. In the long run, this ability to create a new public sphere, parallel to the one controlled by the state, will empower a new generation of social actors, though perhaps not for many years." 

Without a doubt, the new generation of social actors in Egypt found their voice and built their movement in significant part on Facebook. Before using Facebook to bring people into the streets, the activsists used it to articulate their political critique and build a constituency around those ideas. A colleague of Zuckerman's at Berkman, Jillian York, was quoted in the New York Times describing the impact of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook group: "Prior to the murder of Khaled Said, there were blogs and YouTube videos that existed about police torture, but there wasn’t a strong community around them. This case changed that."

This community has grown up over years.  A great new essay by Charles Hirschkind of Berkeley delves into the evolution of Egyptian blogosphere and social media-sphere, explaining how they "Have played a key role in transforming the conditions of political possibility in Egypt during the last decade, and of paving the way to Tahrir Square today." Building on offline social movements that began in the '90s, the growth of the Egyptian blogosphere starting in 2004-05, and eventually the Facebook-driven that has emerged in the past couple years.

In all three of these ways, social media played a role in Egypt. We must avoid overestimating the replicability of Facebook's use as an organizing tool and the impact of Twitter as a global news source. But we can be greatly encouraged by the ways social media acted as a public space for more free speech and assembly. Even while opposition political parties were significantly curtailed and civil society crushed at every turn, social media offered another place for discussion and dissent. Eventually, the dissent moved offline, and became real.

Echoing an analogy used by Secretary of State Clinton in her speech on Internet Freedom last year, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Walter Isaacson compared social media in Egypt to Samizdat in the Soviet Union. Just as the underground literature circulated among Soviet dissidents helped establish a shared language of dissent and eventually subvert a wretched authoritarian regime, social media helped Egyptian activists establish their political position, build a community, and eventually bring people into the streets. The events in Egypt could still go in any number of directions-- it sounds like we'll know more tonight-- and we have to hope it works out well for the brave Egyptians who are just asking for a better life.