The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising
If we recognize social media as a form of dissident media, we can also see how it works as the ultimate grassroots campaign, giving voice to anyone and everyone with access to the internet. This uprising drew on the strength of disenfranchised youth like Asmaa Mahfouz. It could not go through mainstream institutions because that was exactly who it worked against. For those reasons – both access and need – citizen journalism played an important role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. But professional journalists, too, helped spread the story of the young would-be revolutionaries to the rest of the world (read more about how foreign journalists used Twitter here). In order to understand the role of each, it is important to explore the benefits and drawbacks of both techniques.
Benefits of Citizen Journalism
As I mentioned before, especially in the case of a grassroots movement, it is important to get a version of events unfiltered by the state-run media. Tweets from those protesters on the ground in Egypt act as incredible primary sources. They are powerful, visual pieces that circumvented the mainstream narrative.
One advantage citizen journalists had over professional journalists at the time was access. At the beginning of the riots, the government went after journalists, and as the protests wore on, even some of the protesters began to attack the professional press, though I will refrain from theorizing about their motivations for that. Acting as a citizen journalist, however, was as easy as calling an international number on your cell phone or tweeting from your lap top.
These protesters did not have to hunt through tweets to try to track down sources; they could talk to their neighbors and friends or even just share their own experiences. It was a direct and pure form of reporting that brought the reality of the uprisings to readers across the world.
But aside from the positive possibilities of citizen journalism, there are some factors that have caused media analysts to question whether it is truly valuable. The most difficult problem to get around is the question of accountability. There is no way to say who is actually there, on the ground, speaking the truth if there is no publicly-known identity connected with that user. Those who became prolific recorders of the uprising would try to establish credibility by linking YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts with blogs, as if to establish a consistent identity. This corresponds to what Twitter recommends for those wishing to verify their identity for readers. Twitter has a verificiation service itself which it uses for well-known figures – generally Americans. Egyptian revolutionaries and bloggers – even those with thousands of followers, like Mahmoud Salem – do not have verified accounts. The exception to this rule is Wael Ghonim, who worked as an executive for Google before being arrested for his participation in Egyptian protests. Twitter suggests that for users to individually demonstrate that they themselves are who they say they are, they should link to official websites with which they are associated, such as the New York Times. Clearly this is a problem for citizen journalists who have no way of linking to any such website.
This question of reliability flew to the forefront of the mainstream media last summer when a blogger who had claimed to be a Syrian lesbian revealed that he was in fact a 40-year-old American man studying the Middle East in Scotland. His entries detailed a fictional daily life, including being put under arrest in Syria. He was convincing enough even to an Associated Press reporter after a month of communicating. For some, the sheer falsity of his heart-wrenching stories called into question the reliability of all bloggers. Others, like American University Communications Professor Deen Freelon and NPR Social Media Senior Strategist Andy Carvin say this incident was simply a fluke that will help media consumers be more careful overall.
Even if there were a way to know that everyone tweeting was telling the truth it would not rule out the question of bias. An individual’s personal feelings on an issue color the way they frame narratives, whether on purpose or not. Protesters tweeting during the movement had a clear goal in mind, making social media at times more like propaganda than journalism. As Waleed Rashed said at an address on American University’s campus in Washington, D.C., organizers were “selling” the uprising. They had no responsibility to point out the flaws of the movement or to critique themselves. In the context of studying these pieces of evidence after the fact, it would be very easy to mistakenly slant a narrative of events in favor of the protesters as they were, for the most part, the ones proliferating the message about the events, not the army, police or Mubarak, who does not even have a Twitter account.
Finally, citizen journalists themselves face a basic problem in that they at times lack access to places and sources. Though citizen journalists can go places where professional journalists are barred, they likely do not have access to necessary fact checking materials, contacts in the media or resources to assist in palliating their work for the masses. Professional journalists work for years to cultivate their contacts and reputation. Their reward for this is the trust of their readers and sources. Citizen journalists lack the experience necessary to demonstrate their trustworthiness and quite frankly lack the credibility as well.