Foreign Policy Blogs

In Egypt, social media fuels the evolution of revolution

Protesters gather in Tahrir Square for a 'Day of Departure' rally aimed at ousting Egyptian President Mubarak

Advancements in communication technology have often foreshadowed civil unrest and revolution

Advancements in communication technology have often foreshadowed civil unrest and revolution

Last October, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article, “Small Change,” that was subtitled “Why the revolution won’t be tweeted.”

The main thrust of Gladwell’s piece, citing historical examples of social activism that did not use social media, was that services such as Twitter and Facebook foster “soft ties” between people. People may comment on a subject – saving baby seals, for example – but not actually do anything about it. Gladwell argued that social networking was not an effective way for people to create “strong ties” that would get something accomplished, as sit-in protests did during the 1960s.

But recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and other spots in the Middle East could indicate otherwise. Social media tools, and the Internet itself, have played significant roles.

Tunisia, where protests started in December, in many ways served as the precursor to what has been happening in Egypt. When people needed to communicate to organize demonstrations that ultimately led to fall of the regime, they went to Facebook as a primary news source. Facebook served as a place for people to tell each other where they would be, whether that was fleeing from the anarchy or rushing into it, or keeping track of changes from thousands of miles away.

The Tunisian government under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali saw the power that Facebook had in helping citizens against the government and had its Internet censorship group, nicknamed Ammar by Tunisians, write a script that allegedly stole the login information for Facebook users in the country.

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic wrote “The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks” outlining how Ammar stole Facebook login information and how the company went about fixing the security problem that allowed the government to do it. The article also describes what an important tool Facebook became for Tunisians.

“All kinds of information passed between Tunisians,” Madrigal writes. “For activists as well as everyday people, Facebook became an indispensable resource for tracking the minute-by-minute development of the situation.”

The overthrow of Ben Ali was completed Jan. 14, when he stepped down and flew to exile in Saudi Arabia. But Tunisia appeared to be just the beginning.

Egypt is in chaos. There is a strong movement by the people of the country to force president Hosni Mubarak, in power the last 30 years, to step down, and within the past couple of days violence has picked up in Cairo as tensions mount. As of this writing, Mubarak has said he will not run for re-election but is refusing calls to resign immediately.

Throughout history, a great engine of change has been the pace and availability information. Gutenberg’s printing press is the modern precursor. Facebook, in a convoluted way, and to a lesser extent Twitter, is a descendant of that legacy.

But the journey that has eventually led to this current turmoil in the Middle East (Yemen, Sudan and Jordan, among other countries, are now seeing heavy protests) can be traced to the 1980s.

Ben Ali and Mubarak came to power in that decade — in 1987 and 1981, respectively. Personal computers, more or less starting with Apple’s Lisa, Apple II and Macintosh projects, were just starting to ascend. In many ways, the rise of the personal computer and the change in communication that it led to has coincided with the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

“The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in an interview with Playboy in 1985. “Weʼre just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people — as remarkable as the telephone.”

Jobs has proved to be a visionary. His work on the personal computer and later on the advance of the smart phone (the first iPhone was released in July 2007) has been instrumental in changing how people communicate, and thus the pace and quantity of dissemination of information.

Gladwell might be correct that Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Sudan may very well have undergone revolutions without the Internet, Twitter and Facebook. But would those events all have happened within weeks of each other?

In his most recent NewsDesk blog post at the New Yorker, Gladwell states his case:

“People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along,” Gladwell writes. “Barely anyone in East Germany in the 1980s had a phone — and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years — and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other.”

True enough, but he may be overlooking a key piece of each particular era of important civil strife – new means of communication. The American Revolution was spurred along by a newly popular form of newsletter – pamphlets, such as Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Pamphlets and broadsides were also important in the French Revolution, as was a new trend that had been growing in France during the 18th century, that of the salon. Although it wasn’t a technological innovation, was a newer manner of bringing people together for the purpose of communication, not unlike a chat room or Facebook page.

The East Germans may not have had telephones, but they did have televisions and radios that were providing new outlets for information dissemination in the 1980s.

In each case, information that reached an otherwise uniformed people helped lead to a change in the way of life, and eventually in the regime they lived under.

The timeline of computer and Internet communication brings us to Egypt, today. The technology spread from the United States and has only recently become ubiquitous in places in the Middle East within the last five to 10 years. The free access Americans and Europeans enjoyed was slower to reach places with de facto dictatorships. But no matter how much Ben Ali or Mubarak wanted to keep people from accessing information, eventually there was really no way for them to stop it.

Not that that stopped Mubarak’s administration from trying.

The government of Egypt, in an unprecedented move, completely shut down Internet and cellular service in Egypt. It is now back up, sporadically. The government forced its telecommunications companies to cease all routing into or out of the country, in part to keep people from communicating through blogs, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, all of which had become important amplifiers and modes of organization for protesters.

Egypt even used the telecomm companies to forcibly spread information on behalf of the government, as cellular provider Vodafone revealed Feb. 3.

China, which has the tightest control over what its citizens can or cannot read, watch or write about in the world, has made attempts to restrict what people can see coming out of Egypt and has blocked searches for “Egypt,” according to the New York Times. It is in China’s best interest to control this dissemination of information, lest its large populace start getting the same types of ideas as have been spreading around the Middle East.

“The revolution will not be tweeted,” Gladwell wrote. Yet, if we can call what is happening in Egypt, or what happened in Tunisia, a revolution, it is being tweeted. Even when the Internet in the country went down, the tweets still kept coming, either from journalists who would relay to their headquarters or other ways, such as Google, Twitter and SayNow (owned by Google) providing a phone number where people in Egypt could call and leave a tweet via voice mail, which would be transcribed and sent out with the hashtag #Egypt. Information is getting out, which means that, in one form or another, information is getting in.

There is no way to tell if these civic eruptions would have happened if the Internet had not become such a ubiquitous entity. But Internet communications and social media have contributed to communications and creating the strong ties that have bound the people of various nations together to question their authorities and act.

With new technology and new ways of communication, times change.

Just look at Egypt.

Source: http://gcn.com/Articles/2011/02/04/Egypt-Social-media-evolution-and-revolution.aspx?Page=4