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A social media revolution?

28 March 2011

Click to see the book

Today’s post comes from Professor Annabelle Sreberny, of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Her latest book, “Blogistan: The Internet and Politics in Iran” (with Gholam Khiabany) warns against stereotyping bloggers as dissidents, and argues that the Internet is changing things in ways which neither the government nor the democracy movement could have anticipated.

So the joke goes that Mubarak dies and meets Nasser and Sadat in the afterlife. They ask him, “were you poisoned or shot?” Mubarak shrugs and answers “Facebook!”  Actually, an Egyptian family did recently name their newborn daughter Facebook.

There is no doubt that we’re witnessing a world-historical moment.  The insurrectionary wave that started in Tunis in December and is still unfolding across the Maghreb and Middle East has raised important questions about the role of new media technologies and platforms in contemporary political mobilizations. There has quite possibly never been such a dramatic set of political changes in contiguous or close state formations ever in history.  The revolutions of 1848 in Europe were supposed to be inspired by each other; how much more is that the case in a 24-hour transnational news environment and world-encircling Internet. As Lenin said,  “sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.”

It is evident that both new and old media have played significant and fascinating roles in the recent insurrections to topple autocratic regimes from Tunis to Cairo and beyond. New media can no longer be considered the epiphenomena of political movements but are rather significant tools of political mobilization. This is NOT to repeat the fatuous claim that Tunisia was a ‘twitter revolution’, as had been claimed for the Green Movement in Iran after the June 2009 election, nor that such tools are indispensible for political change. Clearly people have made revolution without such tools. But in repressive regimes where face-to-face public politics is extremely curtailed, a platform such as Facebook provides a space where silence and fear are broken and trust can be built, where social networks can turn political, and where home and diaspora can come together. Whatever the intentions of their developers, social media are being used to provide news and information hard to come by from regime channels; to plan and coordinate action; and to tell the world what is going on.

But the conditions and mix of platforms differs from country to country. Tunisians faced a more pervasive police state than the Egyptians, with less latitude for blogging or press freedom, but their trade unions were stronger and more independent. The Kefaya movement had been blogging for many years in Egypt and numerous YouTube videos circulated about police torture and bread riots. Libyans have limited internet access but mobile telephony is widespread. The Egyptian Facebook pages We are All Khaled Said, set up by Wael Ghonim,  and 6th of April Youth Movement became important nodes in a growing movement; at the end of March 2011,  they each have over 100,000 ‘followers’.

Even the Egyptian military interim government announced the resignation of Shafiq and his replacement on their Facebook page. Twitter was another way to keep in touch and share useful suggestions across national borders, as the Tunisian who tweeted “Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas” or like the Egyptian feminist, Mona Eltahawy, telling the world what is going on across the region. These platforms provide the power of instantaneity, immediate diffusion of and access to information, and extensiveness, crossing national borders and addressing diasporic and foreign populations.

But perhaps as significant as the new social media platforms has been the role of broadcasting, especially Al Jazeera Arabic and English. The Arabic channel and BBC Arabic played a multiplier role in articulating the diverse events across the region.  Al Jazeera English kept the rest of the world enthralled, with strong on-the ground coverage and moments of brilliant television direction. These included the use of split-screen to broadcast Mubarak’s last speech live whilst showing the response in Tahrir Square, the scores of shoes being thrown in the air an unmistakable sign that his end was fast approaching. A sympathetic global public opinion may have played a role in the unanimous UN resolution to instigate the no-fly zone over Libya.  In the US, Hillary Clinton has berated the US media for poor coverage which was delivering audiences to Al Jazeera.

We know that the demographic across the region is youthful and, as everywhere else, where possible they have embraced new technologies to download music and film and keep abreast of events around the world. These movements are about the rising expectations and rising frustrations of unemployed young men and the social obstacles encountered by increasingly better educated young women, and ring with an optimistic universalism for human rights and economic opportunities.

There is evidently more to come, in Bahrain, in Yemen, in Syria where the Facebook page The Syrian Revolution has 87,000 followers.  And new policies to support a free press and internet access have to be written in to the new constitutions in Egypt and Tunisia.  Small, alternative media (neither controlled by states nor by big business) are not a simple answer to political repression as Clay Shirky style cultural optimists and Jared Cohen would have the Washington beltway believe. But neither are they so controlled and monitored by strong states that nothing can be achieved, as the pessimists like Evgeny Morozov would argue.

When used creatively within a rich mix of local face-to-face politics, configured in the languages and symbols of national traditions, and in contexts where the older generation simply doesn’t want to give up power, it is evident that small media can punch way above their weight.

Useful links

OECD work on the Middle East and North Africa

OECD work on the Internet economy

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