The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising
One of the Twitter’s greatest benefits to its users is the ease with which it allows them to share visual media such as photographs and videos through interactions with other media platforms. In 2005, the video sharing site YouTube launched with a video of one of its founders in front of an elephant. Since then, the site has grown so that as of February 2011, it had 490 million unique users collectively spending 2.9 billion hours on the website per month.
YouTube videos became an integral part of the uprising as they popped up not only in blogs and on Facebook but in mainstream media coverage in January and February. But YouTube videos were also often spread via tweets. Looking back on the escalation of the movement in Egypt, visual media offers an amazing plentitude of empirical, primary source data but with some definite downfalls. Consider these benefits and drawbacks before using YouTube videos and Flickr photos in your research.
Visual media is useful from a historical perspective, because it offers clues to determine the validity of the information given about it. For example, if a blogger claims to be reporting from Cairo, but we can see the White House in the background of one of his videos (or some other landmark distinct to one place) we know this information is false. It is easier to verify visual media as a lie than it is to show that it is real, but it can be used to support claims. As long as there is concrete evidence in the video or some other form of credibility attributed to the person posting, YouTube clips can be used to explore a myriad of facets of the uprising.
In April, Egyptian blogger Zeinobia demonstrated one way this can be useful. She posted YouTube videos of demonstrations outside of Tahrir Square to show that the movement was not geographically limited to central Cairo. The videos show specific places that can be tracked to a location, either supporting or undermining her claim. TIming, on the other hand, is more difficult to peg using landmarks. How do we know that Zeinobia gathered these videos from the time that she says? Sometimes newer buildings or sites of destruction can help determine this, but often outside verification must be done to see if an event happened at the time the author claims.
Aside from its benefits as a historical tool, visual media contributes to an emotional reaction from those on the ground, those who were there and those who are on the fence about joining the movement, which can be necessary to sustain a movement. Seeing a woman’s face contorted in agony, bent over her son’s corpse is more powerful than reading the name of one dead man. In an interview with CNN, Wael Ghonim noted the ease with which a video could be spread to “60,000 people on their walls” using Facebook, and even went so far as to thank Mark Zuckerberg for giving Egypt the power to do this (Cohen 2011). There is a collective effort to name each of those who died fighting in Egypt last year in a Google Doc that is very moving to read. But even that is just words on a page. The simple act of adding a face to a name gives a target audience – in this case, the Egyptian public once indifferent or reluctant to join the movement – something to relate to. This is the logic behind advertisements for charities that show faces of children without explaining the particular conditions of that individual.
This same emotional pull works in the process of developing foreign allies for the demonstrators, both during the uprising and in the rebuilding of the Egyptian state. Would Google have purchased SayNow and teamed up with Twitter to bring the revolutionaries a way to tweet via phone if they could not see the thousands of protesters filling the streets? Perhaps. A better question: would President Clinton have been able to ignore the genocide in Rwanda if there had been YouTube videos of men with machetes murdering their neighbors? Visual media can be embarrassing to authoritarian states, because it concretely reveals the operations of their nations. It evokes an emotional reaction in those thousands of miles away, engendering support for the actors in the videos who appear to be victims.
Finally, visual media tells a story rich with details that can help historian and others studying the uprising from afar to get a true sense of the movement’s atmosphere. It gives them the chance to see through the protesters’ eyes and better understand the conditions in which they were living. This can help us guess at motivations and mental states of actors in the movement at particular times in the uprising. It may also offer the clues to determining why a regime that was thought to be so strong and stable collapsed in a matter of weeks.
Despite these definite advantages to using social media to study the uprising, there are some factors that point to the fallibility of that data. As Melanie Moore Kubo argues, media analysts are often wary of “emotional manipulation and…technical manipulation.” This is the flip side to the advantage of being able to reach out emotionally. The sadness a consumer of visual media may feel looking at that photo of the mourning mother can cloud the viewer’s judgement. April 6 organizer Waleed Rashed spoke about “selling” the idea of a revolution at an appearance at American University this fall (Maher & Rashed 2011). The organizers did just that. Using visuals to draw on a consumer’s emotions is a key technique of both sales and propaganda.
But there is another element of control on the part of the medium’s creator. When Kubo uses the phrase “technical manipulation,” she refers to the doctoring or misappropriation of images that can be done to purposely mislead viewers. Historians and others studying the movement from afar can be easily manipulated by staged demonstrations or conflicts, speaking to the reliability question inherent in all online media. Read more about that here.
With the powerful nature of visual media comes the idea that it can make an issue seem more widespread than it actually is. For example, if a video demonstrating police brutality against one young protester (such as this very graphic video) goes viral, it changes the way viewers think about police officers in Egypt in general, even if this was an isolated incident.
The last downfall of visual media has nothing to do with its effectiveness as a tool for historians and journalists. Rather, it could be unfortunate that visual evidence now exists with the faces and voices of many who contributed to the fall of Mubarak. Though he is out of power, arrest of protesters is a very real possibility. This was the case in Iran in 2009 (Morozov, 2011). In the U.S., the CIA is using Twitter to help piece together a picture of what is happening all over the world. The collection of words, twit pics and tweeted video all led the organization to predict the Egyptian revolution, according to the director of the CIA’s Open Source Center (Dozier, 2011). This information is a powerful tool for those who would use force to maintain their own interests.