The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising
While many in the media have asserted judgments as to how important Twitter was during the uprisings, few have recognized the sheer challenge this question presents. How can we retroactively measure what drove thousands to enter Tahrir Square while others stayed home? How do we know what factors motivated Egyptians to take unfamiliar risks? To answer these questions – or at least to understand what potential answers to these questions could be – it is useful to return to established social movement theory and to compare Twitter’s usage and capabilities with historical expectations for organizing in Egypt.
To start, we need a basis for understanding how Twitter works in Egypt. It is also worth noting that none of the techniques exercised via Twitter alone could have engendered an uprising of this magnitude. Certainly, the Twitter phenomena directed political change in Egypt. Yet the word direct, as used here, does not mean “force” or “solely cause;” it indicates that these activists pushed certain actors in a direction. During a trip to Tunisia with a delegation of American students, I participated in a series of debates with Tunisian students this March, in which we discussed this idea. Our groups became stuck on this idea: was social media the driving force behind the Arab spring uprisings, or was it simply a guiding factor? One of the reasons it clearly was not the former is because of the small number of Internet and Twitter users in the country. As Adel El-Adawy and Adel Iskandar both note in their interviews, Egyptians with access to the Internet are in the minority. Though Egypt makes up the second-largest chunk of Internet users in Africa, that chunk comprises less than 27 percent of the country’s total population, according to Internet World Stats. Between January and March 2011, the Dubai School of Government reports that .15 percent of Egyptians actively used Twitter – less than 150,000 people. Though the report does not say how researchers determined a user’s location or level of activity, it is safe to say that tweeting is not widespread in Egypt. This lack of what media experts call “saturation” indicates that there had to be other factors in the organization of these protests. Empirical research should be done to further determine the numbers involved with Twitter’s role in the uprising. The following information describes how the website was used in Egypt and how it could work, rather than how many used it.
During the January and February demonstrations, the Twitterati in Egypt used Twitter in three main ways as outlined by DC-based Egyptian computer scientist Alaa Shaker, “Twitter serves as an instant call for help, whether to rally people, grab attention, or call for assistance/supplies” (2012). Within this framework, tweets use news articles, personal opinions and connections to other types of media to complete these functions. Shaker went on:
“Picture this example, a member of the parliament says a few controversial words regarding a certain topic. Twitter goes crazy with comments from people watching it, drawing more attention to the issue. A few hours later, those few minutes are available on YouTube, and that clip goes viral on Facebook. People go into a huge frenzy of comments, analysis, speculations, criticism and sarcasm on the three social media tools. A little later jokes come from Twitter, caricatures flowing in Facebook, and funny voice-over clips on YouTube. Next step would be notes shared on Facebook discussing the topic, along with screenshots of consecutive tweets from Twitter. Hours later, an official statement comes on behalf of the parliament, minister, state, or a political party regarding what happened, in response to the people – that’s how social media shapes politics in Egypt as we speak!”
To deconstruct this a little, users posted political commentary on Twitter and also used it to interact with other social media that provide avenues for communication beyond text. This spread awareness of each event and as each of those who originally saw the event reacted, others then reacted to their reactions. This is just one example of the category of content posted on Twitter, but it is a good example of the evolution of a tweet in Egypt’s social movement sphere.
How Protesters Usage Fit with Established Theories of Contentious Action
Emotions of Protest
Because of Twitter’s imposed limit of 140 characters, tweets are often simplified, punchy statements that provoke emotion, which can be important in starting and sustaining a movement. The tweets coming out of Egypt during this time used the few characters allotted to produce especially emotional messages that fulfilled those requirements for motivating acts of contention. Ron Aminzade and Doug McAdam, sociology professors at University of Minnesota and Stanford University, respectively, argue “that otherwise favorable environmental circumstances…will not produce a movement in the absence of heightened emotions” (2001). They continue to argue, and I agree, that emotions are not the opposite of rationality, but rather they are used to help make logical decisions. Philosophy Professor at University of Colorado-Boulder Alison Jaggar wrote that an “individual experience of emotion focuses our attention selectively, directing, shaping and even partially defining our observations,” and therefore the decisions we make based on those observations. Gigi Ibrahim (@Gsquare86) provides us with an example of one of the emotion-evoking texts on Twitter from the uprising.
On February 2, she tweeted, “ I WILL NOT LEAVE TAHRIR TONIGHT so stop telling me to do so! We need more people in TAHRIR NOW!! Get here for our freedom!!! #Egypt.” This emotional text works on two levels. First, it appeals to those who had not yet come to protest by dangling as bait an open-ended, positive concept, “freedom,” and implying blame if that goal is not achieved. It says that if the reader chooses not to come out, that will result in a deprivation of freedom for an undefined but collective “we.” In addition to the emotional “push” needed to draw an individual into a movement from the get go, McAdam and Aminzade emphasize that emotional kicks are necessary to keep an actor motivated throughout the doldrums of a movement. The fact that Ibrahim was herself being told to leave the square signals that she could have been hoping to motivate others to stay as well. If so, her use punctuation and capitalization would have the potential to do so by exciting readers. Linguistics professors Marianne Celce-Murcia and Elite Olshtain write that exclamation points usually denote intense emotion. In online speech, capital letters are generally taken to signal intense emotion as well and are in fact accepted as the virtual equivalent of shouting. California Partnership for Achieving Student Success bans this rhetoric in its online forums, lumping it in with “insults, name-calling or inflamed speech.” Thus Ibrahim’s conveyed emotion would have been contagious for protesters being forced to consider leaving the movement as she was by people who told her “to leave Tahrir tonight.” This is just one example of techniques used to draw out protesters through emotion. Other tweets throughout the period also used emotional punctuation and language. They further included mentions of family members and graphic photos and video at times that could provoke emotional reactions necessary in social movement mobilization.
Social movement theorist Sidney Tarrow says that in addition to mobilizing emotions, the framing of a situation is also an important factor in creating a cohesive movement (2011). Tarrow, building on the work of David Snow, uses framing to mean the setting of parameters for what is occurring in a given environment: who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? Is a government committing a crime, or is it acting in the best interests of the people? Those in favor of the people’s movement in Egypt had the advantage in terms of framing the conflict on Twitter, because Mubarak’s government underestimated its power. They acted in contrast to 2009 Iran where government officials created fake accounts to disrupt the narrative protesters attempted to create (Morozov 2011). The anti-Mubarak tweeters sent out messages that cast their movement as the underdogs and the regime – extending to the police and military – as Goliath. Blogger Mohamed El Dahshan tweeting from the handle @TravellerW did this in his tweets by describing the soldiers as “vicious,” the protesters as “unarmed,” and the counter movement as “armed gov thugs.” Twitter gave the anti-Mubarak movement a free forum to set the terms of the conflict.
Another way in which Twitter contributed to the practice of contentious action in Egypt was by working as a tool for organization. To understand that a movement must be organized falls under the umbrella of rational choice and resource mobilization theory, as Myra Marx Ferree noted (1990). Twitter allowed organizers to build emotionally- and politically-linked communities, through following and retweeting. In 2007, anthropologist Jon W. Anderson wrote that in the post-911 world, regime repression had dashed hope for the Internet as an “opportunity for democratic participation, or at least for more participation, in a region sorely wanting such opportunities,” in the eyes of many scholars. But Anderson went on to describe the Internet’s potential for creating a sense of community as it did in Silicone Valley during its infancy. Seeing messages tweeted and retweeted, as well as hashtags like #Jan25 that linked tweets to a specific cause, established the idea that there was a collective group not just in Tahrir Square but in cyberspace, dedicated to ousting Mubarak.
In addition to organizing a feeling of comradery, Twitter helped with everyday organizing such as information dissemination. Just before 11 in the morning on January 25, 2011, Manar Mohsen said to her followers, “Those tweeting about the protest in Egypt, please use the hashtag #Jan25 in order to spread any information.” This and other hashtags enabled those observing or participating in the protests to easily find information that those involved in the movement wanted them to know. Mariam Aziz, a young Egyptian student who was studying abroad in the U.S. said that Twitter was a good tool for simply knowing whether her friends were alive or dead. Individual status updates like this are important in a community setting and in an institution like a contentious social movement. A tweet from Nevine Zaki on February 5 about her “ID, tear gas mask & trash bags” prepared other activists for what they should bring to the protests. There was also notification about dates, places and plans such as Wael Khairy’s tweet on February 5: “Christians will pray in Tahrir tomorrow and we shall circle them and protect them as they have protected us.” The downside to this aspect of Twitter was that any monitoring activists’ accounts could see this information, and there have been reports that government actors would spread false alerts to throw off the movement. This very same thing, however, can happen with traditional forms of organization and thus does not delegitimize Twitter’s power to promote these events.
As far back as April 2008 the Egyptian protesters were labeled a “leaderless movement.” This phrase is still used in contemporary coverage of the January 25 uprisings, but it is problematic. In an interview with Britain’s The Times Wael Ghonim reflected, “Having no leadership was a big plus because the regime had no leader to negotiate with. If we had had leadership we might have ended up with a different kind of dictatorship.” But of course, he himself was one of the leaders, before being kidnapped by the Egyptian police. He ran the Facebook page “We are All Khaled Said,” which is often credited with being one of the first social media rallying points for Egyptians. Ghonim’s name was unknown while he ran that site, but such invisibility did not make him less of a leader. Those tweeters who disseminated information about protest locations, rallied supporters with inspirational messages and passed along recordings of the protests’ realities directed the shaping of the movement and with it the course of history.
Another notion in the Rational Choice/Resource Mobilization schema is the idea that in order for individuals to join a movement, they must understand it as being more beneficial for them than maintaining the status quo. In the case of Egypt this took two forms: tweets seeking to persuade readers that the protesters’ victory was imminent and tweets indicating that those who were not already out were missing something spectacular and unique. An example came from Hossam, @3arabawy. On Feb 4. He tweeted, “come to tahrir if you can and watch history in the making. #jan25.” In a way, this speaks to both types of cost/benefit defining tweets. Telling readers they have the chance to “watch history in the making” implies that this is an important, unmissable opportunity, and the use of #jan25 indicates that those who support the other side will be on the wrong side of the history he mentions.
Tweets that worked within cost/benefit structures also fit in with theories of emotion, because McAdam and Aminzade indicate, based on Saul Alinsky’s teachings, that events and communication can change the way an individual perceives potential for his or her own success. They can be “generators of hope, while simultaneously undermining the fear that ordinary citizens had understandably felt in the face of what seemed to be arbitrary and all-powerful regimes” (McAdam & Aminzade 2001). The reason these two fields overlap is because emotions can be thought of as essential parts of rational decision-making processes.
Of course there are many reasons why these tweets were not the only factors behind the uprising. As I stated before, lack of access alone made Twitter a limited tool. But beyond that, the people of Egypt could not have mobilized had they only read about oppression recently. There are factors we can discern went into the uprising: a history of sustained oppression throughout the country despite promises of reform, pre-established institutions that were prime for mobilizing groups and of course, the spark that Mohamed Bouazizi lit in Tunisia in December 2010. Beyond these there are still questions as to why certain events evolved the way they did.
The first factor that unquestionably contributed to the coalescing of a social movement to overthrow Mubarak was the oppression that his rule symbolized for Egypt. His critics portray Egypt under Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule as a bleak picture. The Emergency Law that he put in place restricted basic rights, and a lack of police oversight meant that there were few assurances that a hardworking, honest citizen could live life without interruption. When accused of violating human rights, Mubarak’s regime at times offered concessions. Any reforms the state offered came back hollow. For example, in 2004, Egypt’s legislature agreed to give up its state security courts. Steven Cook writes that this decision, however, had very few tangible results, essentially just changing the name of the court handing down the decision rather than offering a more relaxed rule (2007). In 2006-2007, a textile company paid off its dissatisfied workers and fired one employee rather than dismissing the entire trade union committee as protesters had asked (Beinin 2011). Alaa al-Aswany gained fame for his fictional portrayal of how a lack of social mobility under the corrupt regime could drive youth to Islamic extremism (2004). In January 2011, Egyptians turned that strength and emotional resolve on their oppressor.
Oppression was especially acute for the youth in Egypt. Aldon Morris sets up his “Origins of the Civil Rights Movement” by saying that Southern blacks in the 1950’s experienced a “tripartite” of oppression: political, economic, and personal (1986). Youth in Egypt experienced that same tripartite. In political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, they were largely ignored because of their age. They were disenfranchised economically because of a bulge in population and a system that values age and experience. In 2007, Ragui Assad and Ghada Barsoum wrote, “Young people are among the lowest-paid workers, often taking poor quality jobs in which they receive few benefits…and do not earn enough to start families and complete their transitions to adulthood.” Diane Singerman argues that this lack of economic agency prevented Egyptian youth from marrying, moving out of their parents’ living quarters and establishing independent lives, essentially prolonging their childhood (2007). That led to personal limitation in terms of sexual freedom and self-determination. The youth bore the brunt of oppression in Egypt, and perhaps that is why they were so ready to engage on January 25.
Despite the repression of opposition groups that Egyptians endured under Mubarak, multiple active institutions flourished under his rule. Among these were the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jama’a Al-Islamiyya and the combination workers/youth movement. The Muslim Brotherhood is widely regarded the largest and oldest religious organization in Egypt, drawing on mosques to gain the trust of members and establish ties while repaying its supporters with the social services lacking from Mubarak’s state. The Jam’a Al-Islamiyya – though more radical and relegated to the margins than the other movements – practiced elements of social movement theory for four decades (Meijer 2011). The workers’ movement in Egypt predates the April 6 movement, but that name generally encompasses them both. According to Joel Beinin, over two million workers engaged in contentious action between 1998 and 2009 (2011). As Beinin and Frédéric Vairel noted, April 6 drew on the popularity and organizational power of the Facebook group “We are all Khaled Said,” which had 130,000 members (2011). When it came time for these separate movements to organize and act in solidarity, each of the groups came together, both in spirit and in person. The verdict is still out on whether emotions can be as strongly provoked via the Internet as they are in person. Internet users tend to be less inhibited in their comments to people. This would seem to imply an emotional disconnect from what is experienced virtually versus in person. But from the other perspective, those on the receiving end of these comments do not seem to experience the same gap. Professors at a research center in the U.S. coined the term “cyberbullicide” to refer to “suicide indirectly or directly influenced by experiences with online aggression.” Even still, this history of meeting in person that most of the groups had could only strenghen their ties when added to their digital presence. What’s more, they had practice avoiding and confronting the regime, which meant they had an understanding of how to work largely in secret and of what the outcome would be during direct interaction with Mubarak’s forces. Without that knowledge, experience, and pre-existing network of actors, the uprisings in Egypt would have amounted to nothing.
Tunisia’s unexpected revolution was the straw that broke the camel’s back in Egypt. The two countries shared geography, ethnicity, language and religion. When Egyptians saw that a grassroots movement made primarily of peasants could oust a corrupt dictator, it broke the idea impressed upon them that they should have to live under oppressive rule, upsetting the status quo. In Marsha Posusney’s assessment of moral economy theory, that recognition that people are being denied fairness, either as a discrepancy between past and present state responsibilities or from one community to another, is essential for inciting protest (1993). Of course, another aspect of Posusney’s theory is that protesters will not seek to “redefine the terms of exploitation,” and Egyptians did just that (1993). Her theory, then, does not explain why Egyptians have continued to protest, even after overthrowing Mubarak, which put them at the same level as Tunisia, in a sense. Posusney does help us understand why the uprising happened at that moment in history. Essentially, Tunisians’ success gave their Egyptian counterparts hope.
Having explained the three reasons we know for certain contributed to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in addition to efforts on Twitter, it is time to turn to those unanswered questions. It is without a doubt that a lack of opposition from the military enabled Egyptians to achieve what they did (Pollack 2011). It is unclear why members of the military turned their backs on the Mubarak regime and chose not to shoot on protesters. According to Steven Cook, the military’s identity largely revolved around the officers’ willingness to “march in lockstep to counter perceived challenges” to the president’s power (2007). Why then did they validate the movement by letting it persist? Looking further into Cook’s assessment of the military offers one option. He wrote that the militaries in Egypt, Algeria and Turkey dedicated themselves to self-preservation; this could have been a motivating factor. Some analysts argue they did not want to stand on the wrong side of history. Others say those protesting in the streets had personal ties to the military; they were neighbors, classmates and family members. But none of the evaluations I have seen assess in an empirical way what influenced the individuals. No one has approached the soldiers one-by-one and asked, what turned you against your leader? How did you decide whose life was worth saving? In the future it would be helpful to understand the media that the Egyptian military followed. If they had Internet and engaged in tweeting, it would be within reason to assume the same emotional evocations that brought members of the public into Tahrir Square would sway the decision-making facilities of the SCAF.
It is also important to ask how word of these protests spread. Georgetown Professor Adel Iskandar described being in Egypt during the demonstrations and seeing movements explode in size, very quickly. He said he saw people running out of houses, even as he was trying to run away from the danger. If word was not coming from Twitter, was it cell phones? Word of mouth? What does the method of communication say about the organization of the movement?
Finally, if Twitter had been more widespread, it is interesting to wonder how events might have unfolded differently. Now that we are beginning to unlock the capabilities of Twitter as a tool for social movement organization, what can we expect in the future? Will oppressed groups outside the country expand access to Twitter and learn from the Egyptians? Should Egyptians themselves fight to increase the number of followers and tweeters in their country? Or will state powers like Egypt’s new military regime use this knowledge to develop better techniques for repressing political change? One thing is certain: time will tell.