The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising
There has been a lot of discussion as to what Twitter’s significance might or might not be. With a name like Twitter, it’s hard not to wonder. When Twitter first emerged on the Internet scene in spring 2006, technology gurus lumped it in with now-defunct websites Kiko, Imeem and Eyespot, as well as moderately successful sites StumbleUpon and Meebo. “Sounds like the cast of Pee Wee’s Playhouse: The Next Generation,” wrote Kevin Maney of USAToday. In 2007, social media genius site Mashable called it “an amazing new way to blog about your cat.” Just two years later, American media was citing Twitter as the driving force behind a revolution in Iran. Lev Grossman of Time Magazine wrote in June 2009, “When Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone founded Twitter in 2006, they were probably worried about things like making money and protecting people’s privacy and drunk college kids breaking up with one another in 140 characters or less. What they weren’t worried about was being suppressed by the Iranian government.”
The same could be said for Egypt in 2011. On January 25, then President Hosni Mubarak shut down Twitter in Egypt, provoking a reaction from the company’s founders (read more about here). While some argue that the fact that demonstrations continued after Mubarak shut down the Internet during the uprisings proves that social media could not have had a large role in the uprisings in Egypt, it is worth noting that Egyptians in civil society had a lot of practice operating under Mubarak’s radar.
Islamic fundamentalists including the Muslim Brotherhood have a long history of dancing around their government’s stipulations to operate on the legal sidelines or in secret (Ibrahim 2011). Some Egyptian tweeters, too, evaded the state’s oppression at that time, using foreign connections that would not be attributed to Egypt to sustain the flow of their tweets. Some also used a tool set up by Google in collaboration with the now defunct SayNow that allowed users to tweet from their phones. Not everyone had access to these opportunities. Several activists with whom I spoke in Egypt and Tunisia had not heard of the service. Regardless, it would be inaccurate to say that after Egyptians were disconnected from the Internet they stopped using Twitter.
Some argue that Twitter is a force for democracy and that it inevitably helps countries to democratize. To examine that question, it is important to keep in mind the definition of democracy. Setting aside the inherent problem that there are a myriad of schools of thought that define democracy differently, let’s assume this refers to the 18th-century ideal of democracy. Joseph Schumpeter identified democracy as a system that “realizes the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will” (1942).
By that definition, Twitter, itself, is undemocratic. It has no elected officials and is instead “ruled” by a team of four executives and a corporate board (Bloomberg 2012). That begin said, it is true that in an ideal democracy, every person gets one vote, worth as much as anyone else’s, and this vote can be compared to a voice in the same way that a Twitter user’s tweets can be seen as a voice. Each person who has access to an account starts off with zero followers, so they therefore have an equal voice to begin with, just like a citizen in a democracy. If a user decides they value another user’s voice, they will choose to follow it. How the tweeter attracts those followers – for example, by identifying as a celebrity – gives unequal advantage, but this theoretically has nothing to do with the infrastructure of Twitter and is also true in a democratic society. The only flaw in this theory is that Twitter does choose to verify some accounts, meaning they conduct an investigative process to confirm that the person tweeting is who they identify as being (more on that here), which influences a user’s assessment of the value of that account. So by and large there is no bullet-proof explanation for how Twitter itself is democratic.
To say, despite that flaw, that it is still a force for democratizing is not wholly without merit, but it is ultimately problematic. On the one hand, Twitter is, as the Internet has traditionally been, a tool for circumventing the traditional, regulated media. In Serbia in 1999, an Internet-based radio station demonstrated this power by reporting after the state shut down other media (Faris and Etling 2008). Tweeters in Egypt did this by dispersing information about protests even as the state television reported that those in the streets were pro-Mubarak (Aziz 2012). It also lowers the cost of participating in a democracy by giving activists a platform for speech in the media, which would normally only be accessible to a select few (Faris and Etling 2008). In a study of media coverage around politically-charged issues in China, Yuqiong Zhou and Patricia Moy determined that Internet users have the ability to change the way an issue is framed in public discourse and the amount of coverage it receives (2007). Though the researchers argued these results might not be applicable in other cases, it seems Twitter’s performance in Egypt would be a perfect example of this. My discussion of the foreign media’s use of Twitter demonstrates how it contributed to global discourse of the situation. Finally, Twitter protects those individuals who would normally be punished for speaking out against an authoritarian regime by offering them a degree of anonymity. When used by democracy-seeking actors, Twitter is no doubt a powerful tool.
On the other hand, to call Twitter “democratizing” excludes its potential to promote other schools of thought and ultimately gives it too much credit. If Twitter were an inherent force for establishing a democracy, there would be far fewer dictatorships in the world as many people in repressive regimes (Morocco, Bahrain, Iran) can attest. In fact, Twitter is just a tool for communication that can be manipulated by any school of thought, as we are now seeing through the presence of Salafi activists on Twitter. While it is true that Twitter can be used to reframe global and societal discourse, anyone can establish a web presence to switch that framing. During Iran’s upheaval in 2009, the world saw how an authoritarian regime used Twitter to further its own agenda. Evgeny Morozov writes in his book, “The Net Delusion,” that the Iranian government set up fake Twitter accounts to undermine its pro-democracy opposition and ultimately quashed the dissenters (2011). Its flexibility highlights another weakness of the argument that Twitter is democratizing: Twitter is only as strong as the activists behind it. Just as the printing press cannot be given full credit for the strength of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, tweets did not give January 25 its popularity. There must be other forces at play in order for any movement to be successful.
So while it is not only naïve but unfair and ignorant to say that Twitter was the straw that broke Mubarak’s back, establishing democracy in Egypt, we should not underestimate its importance, either. Egyptians are still in the midst of determining what form their government will take, and some, including presidential candidate Omar Suleiman, argue that the country is “not ready” for democracy, regardless of what might be tweeted (Karon 2011). Yet, Twitter is a tool with great power to motivate, organize and mobilize individuals. Despite its lack of saturation, both the Mubarak regime and the Western media were initially fooled into thinking Twitter usage was widespread and powerful. With its tendency towards speed and brevity, Twitter convinces the reader that it is full of activity, a force to be reckoned with. This false bravado confirms to Saul Alinsky’s first rule of power, “power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have” (2003). Further as Pamela Oliver and Gerald Marwell indicate, “the existing state of knowledge sharply constrains collective actions, and the discovery or invention of a new way of doing things [i.e., Twitter]…can suddenly alter activists’ choices” (1992). It is impossible to say whether activists would have stormed the streets of Cairo and stayed there, increasing in numbers, for 18 days without Twitter. That does not mean that Twitter caused a revolution, but we cannot rule out its potential for catalyzing movements in the future, based on its performance last spring.
To answer the original question, Twitter does not matter because some people say it creates democracy. Rather, Twitter matters, because of its power to expand democratic participation, organize movements, motivate participants and reshape discourse – its power to mobilize people; to organize them; to enhance information and thus solidarity in a movement. Twitter’s role in Egypt matters, because, to an extent, it demonstrated how this power could be used on a grand scale. In the future, activists could build on the Egyptian model to use Twitter in a more widespread, effective fashion. If that is the case, it could undoubtedly effect dramatic change. That is why the points I make and questions I raise in this website really matter.