Social media’s role in the Egyptian revolution

Whilst Egypt is in the throes of revolt there has been another kind of unrest going on across the online networks, one that has risen with every uprising over the last few months; the debate over the power and influence of social media on the revolutions in question.

Both sides of the argument have come out in full force however it is the naysayers who have unfortunately received the most traction. Nonetheless it has stirred up a continued debate around the power of online mobilisation (or ‘slactivism’ as the cynics say) and it’s role in non-Western political advocacy. Can a few tweets and some facebook posts really have that cause a revolution?

When Obama ran his campaign by successfully utilising every corner of the online platforms, social media networks and online-to-offline mobilisation structures available at the time, there was worldwide admiration (and some might say envy) for the all-encompassing process that allowed people to take part in the political process regardless of ability, age or knowledge.
The campaign was heralded as one of the first ‘e-Elections’ (although Australia had seen eCampaigning as a crucial part of it’s 2007 election through the online advocacy group GetUp!) where the power of technology came out in true force to ensure not only a victory for Barack Obama but a seemingly genuine sense of public involvement in the win.
Perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention at the time, or I was caught up in the hype and excitement of the political change across the Atlantic (or rather Pacific as I was in Australia at the time) however there didn’t seem to be the criticism of online tactics and use of social media that now engulf other political actions in the rest of the world – most notably those in the non-Western world.

I don’t think that anyone is arguing (and from the comments I’ve seen they’re not) that twitter and facebook were the driving forces behind revolutions in Egypt or Tunisia but I, like many others, find it hard to doubt the role that these social networks have had to play in not only accelerating the revolutions but also opening them up to the wider world.

As E.B.Boyd commented in her blog: “…it takes a lot more than the 21st century version of a communication system to persuade people to take to the streets and risk harm, imprisonment, or death. But that doesn’t mean social media didn’t play a role. It did. Given the magnitude of grievances in each country, revolt would almost certainly have come eventually. But social media simply made it come faster.”

Boyd goes on to argue that social media had a role to play in 3 areas:

  1. Organising protests – the power of mass-organising tools such as facebook and twitter not only allowed great numbers of Egyptians to find out about the protests and attend them but also brought their attention to the wider world.
  2. Shaping the narrative – allowing voices other than the Government or media to be out in the public arena through social networks, bloggers in particular have been given a prominent voice since the Egyptian revolution began and have helped reshaped the narrative and description from ‘chaos’ to ‘unrest’.
  3. Putting pressure on Washington – with so much information ‘escaping’ the country and being placed in the public eye via social media networks, Washington, Boyd argues, was forced to address rather than play down the issues occurring in Egypt.

I would agree with Boyd’s 3 defining roles and add that these perhaps happened in sequence.
Firstly social networks allowed protesters to spread the word online amongst civilians and attract higher numbers to convene in planned offline mobilisations. The word of these protests and growing momentum behind them was able to be seen worldwide through these networks and the word spread, as did the commentary from both within Egypt and outside.
Trending topics on twitter increased and journalists looked for on-the-ground reports via twitter streams and blogs. These in turn allowed the narrative to be shaped by those closest to the action and dispersed across the web. With the word spreading across social networks and the media picking up on this, Washington and other world leaders invested in Egypt were forced to address rather than distract from the issues at hand.

One of the most noticeable things of the Egyptian revolt is that the media’s portrayal of events has prominently featured twitter and blog streams from Egyptian voices.
When the government cracks down on media the social networks continue to flourish, when the government cracks down on the internet amazing new technologies are driven such as Speak2Tweet that allowed people to call a number and record a tweet, thus getting around the internet blockages in Egypt this week.

Something I firmly believe in is the role that social media has had to play in bringing both the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions to the attention of the wider (Western) world. As a Westerner based in the UK, it was hard to avoid tweets or facebook posts about the revolts. Even being offline abroad and only checking into these 2 social networks did I stay up-to-date with events without ever having to visit a news site.
The prominent use of facebook and twitter by protesters and commentators opened up these revolutions to the world outside their relative countries and meant that as a member of the twitter or facebook community you felt part of what was happening there.
Would we have seen this mass media coverage or felt as engaged with what was happening to such a degree had there not been the crossover onto social media networks?

Jillian C. York raises some interesting points on her blog which argues that whilst it is too early to tell, the Tunisian revolution was not a ‘twitter’ revolution but a ‘human’ one – but I wonder; do these two have to be mutually exclusive? What commentators seem to forget is that behind the twitter streams and facebook postings are actual real people. Just by being behind the facade of the internet doesn’t make you any less real – does it?

So did the Egpytian (or indeed Tunisian) revolution start as a result of social media? No of course not, otherwise we’d be revolting here in the UK or USA if you go by number of social media users. But was it accelerated and more widely covered worldwide as a result? Undoubtedly so.

With thanks to E.B.Boyd’s blog for inspiration.

3 responses to “Social media’s role in the Egyptian revolution

  1. Why is it that these sophisticated tools of communication come under such scrutiny as the cause for social change, not a tool of social change?
    Where is Gladwell’s critique of the “Signal Telegraphy Civil War” or the “Horse and Rider American Revolution“?
    Movements always harness the latest technologies available. The US civil rights movement was no less legitimate for its use of the telephone than modern activists are for their use of Twitter.

    • Thanks for the great article Brie!
      To Ed while I partially agree with your argument, I do think that social media platforms and the way we use them is part of the social change we are in. It’s the move away from controllable one-to-many communication (or even one-to-one as the telephone in it’s early days) to totally uncontrollable many-to-many channels (like twitter and facebook). Everyone – who can write and access internet – can participate in the conversation. As Wael Ghonim (!/Ghonim) tweeted:
      ‘As This is Revolution 2.0: No one was a hero because everyone was a hero.’
      and ‘The Power of People is Stronger than The People in Power’

  2. Interesting article. Social media as a force for political pressure adds another dimension to the concept of pluralism in which most Westernised societies live. The positive impact of social media on the Egyptian revolt (without getting into how that can be quantified) is that it represents another channel for the democratic voice to vent its frustration and seek to rally support outside of the stifling autocracy in which they live. It is a medium (as previous blogger mentions ‘tool’) for individual and group expression and debate. Another, as Ms R-L notes, is that international influencers (not just politicians) now react faster and become more transaparent in condoning or condeming events as part of the globalised dialogue. The downside is that so-called ‘sheeple’ can espouse seemingly virtuous causes without doing more than the simple muscle movement of tapping a trackpad – which may be more to do with building their own casual online image than their true conviction and which could therefore lead to overstating the real power behind the social movement. In the case of Egypt however, this is clearly not the case.

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