The Social Media of the Egyptian Uprising
Prior to the Arab Spring, social media was given little credit as a means for communicating information and news. That role was left to the broadcasters, print writers and magazine editors of old. In any society, however, there must be publications that write outside the margins of what is traditional and accepted. These nonconformists are called the dissident press. During the uprising that ousted Mubarak, social media tools Facebook, YouTube and Twitter acted as venues of dissident media, which allowed the general public to enter into the marketplace of ideas, considerably shaping the outcome of the uprising in Egypt.
In most modern nations there is a mainstream press that maintains institutional control by dispersing a popular message into the collective marketplace of knowledge, but there is also a dissident press that creates an alternative narrative, which can have a significant effect on the framework of a society. By marketplace of knowledge, I mean the sum of all the ideas that are produced, accepted and reproduced within a community. Until recently, this marketplace was still a difficult place to break into. Sarah Sobieraj wrote just last year about the pandering tactics activists adopt to appeal to the mainstream media. But the mainstream media rarely shows support for dissident movements. In the United States, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution were all propelled by dissident publications (Streitmatter 2001), after previously being excluded from the mainstream market. American media expert and historian Rodger Streitmatter wrote in his book about revolutions in the U.S. that, “the dissident American press has, for almost two centuries, served as a robust and effectual force that has had substantial impact on the social and political fabric of the nation” (2001).
In Egypt, laws pretending to preserve freedom of the press while simultaneously restricting it have made dissident media nearly impossible since Emergency Law went into effect three decades ago (Hussein 2008). Yet in the U.S., dissident press has traditionally taken the form of magazines and newspapers printed and paid for by a volunteer staff. With the advent of the social media platforms Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, distribution has suddenly become faster and cheaper. Activists have less of a need to use the pandering techniques Sobieraj observed. On top of that, Naila Hamdy of American University of Cairo points out that the Internet is a harder medium for Arab dictators to track (2010). These alternative outlets provide those who would normally be marginalized the chance to share their experiences across continents. “The introduction of new interactive digital media to the Arab societies has unleashed energy, creativity, and bottled up ideas that simply did not have an outlet before,” Hamdy wrote, months before demonstrations erupted across the Arab world (2010, 58). Over the past year, Twitter and Facebook have served as the Ms. Magazine and North Star of the Arab world. Their unique accessibility accelerated the growth of social movements beyond any predictions. Through linking, coordinating and informing people around the world, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter assisted those making great change in the Arab World.
Before Twitter and Facebook came to fame in the Arab world, a large Egyptian blogging community with a strong political slant arose (Etling, et al., 2010). Egypt had one of the highest concentrations of bloggers of all Arab countries, and when the uprising came, these long form writers found their voices in shorter media like Facebook and Twitter while continuing to blog. @Arabist is an example of one blogger who crossed over into social media when these tools emerged.
One element that dissident media brings to the table that social media venues also bring is a sense of belonging. In the past, newspapers dedicated to those with a certain set of beliefs or common history united those groups by working as a forum to discuss their common issues and organize events. Facebook groups created a community that was similar to that element that is inherent in these other dissident media. As can be seen in the examples on the Facebook portion of this site, groups offered Egyptian users the opportunity to discuss important, practical issues and to encourage each other with emotional declarations of pride and solidarity. These examples do not show one other usage common to both Facebook and more traditional media: Facebook groups helped to organize protesters by establishing a common setting and time for events. This could be comparable to finding a listing for a yard sale in a mainstream outlet or the specifics of a protest in a dissident medium. Facebook’s ability to provide these aspects for protesters enabled them to both build a circle of followers and to sustain it during the uprising.
Twitter serves as another example of a new form of dissident media used to enact social change. Like Facebook, Twitter gives a platform to anyone who has a message to convey. Acquiring a Twitter handle is free, and once created, theoretically every tweet has an equal chance of getting read. Read more on that here.
This is changing with the addition of “Promoted Tweets” – tweets that occur organically but can be paid for so that they appear at the top of searches or other newsfeeds. Yet these tweets are in the minority. For the time being, an 18-year-old unemployed Islamist’s tweet has the same starting chance of being read as one from the Minister of Justice.
Skilled tweeters in the Arab World such as Middle East blogger, Mahmoud Salem, also known as @Sandmonkey use easily searchable terms and catchy usernames to acquire more readers. Salem, like some on Twitter, also uses fame garnered from his blog. At that point, however, it is not money, education or social status that increases tweeters’ ability to be heard in the marketplace of ideas; they have as much chance of success in circulating their message as anyone. All tweeters are theoretically on equal footing, making Twitter a formidable weapon in the battle to be heard.
Through Twitter, international supporters can have a clear window into meetings, protests and the everyday lives of those motivating the reform movement in Egypt. Up-to-the-minute descriptions of protests in Egypt kept those in solidarity informed during protests this spring, but it also emotionally engaged those who were oceans away without fear of censorship to tone down the accounts of pain and violence. The same is true of YouTube where videos ranging from protest songs to police brutality spread like wildfire on Twitter. Both these sites continued to be popular tools in Egypt, long after Mubarak left office.
Unlike blogging, tweets are short – less than 140 characters. This requires the authors to be concise, but it also forces them to be more engaging. A long story in a blog entry can build up to an emotional reaction, but tweeters use short, hardhitting statements to make an immediate impact on readers. Read more on how this played into the social movement’s organization here.
Beyond conveying a message, Twitter and Facebook were used during the movement as organizational tools. Families tracked their sons and daughters in Tahrir through Facebook and Twitter (Maher & Rashed 2011). Organizers used Twitter first to tell protesters where and when to meet, then to throw security off the trail by distributing false information. In this case, the lies were spread deliberately as a tactic of protest.
But back in 2009, when Twitter was still in its infancy, a Virginia-based science writer picked up on the one drawback to these tweets. “When news of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak surfaced in late April, many people on Twitter spread panic and misinformation about the virus,” Elia Ben-Ari wrote (2009). The lack of a censor means that it is easy to mistake bad information for the truth, whether or not it is distributed with that intention. This is one of the fatal flaws of citizen journalism.
Despite this susceptibility, it also means that all people can begin contributing to the construction of the truth, previously a privilege reserved for those in authority.
In 2007, the questions on the minds of the interactive media community in Austin, Texas were, “How do we build community? How do we use these tools to change the world?” (Gallaga). Tweeters, bloggers and Facebook users in Egypt have done just that.
The media they produce is powerful, but it is not always balanced or fair. As Arab media expert Lawrence Pintak wrote of the Egyptian blogging scene earlier this year, “The explicative-laced personal attacks on, and unproven allegations about, politicians, journalists, and other figures in ‘official’ circles…by many bloggers were meant as an electronic slap in the face for regimes that had long kept the media in chains to keep themselves in power” (2011).
Statements like these were used as part regime slap, part rallying battle cry during the uprising. Whether intentional or not, falsehoods spread via social media. They contributed to the movement and must shape the way historians consider their sources in studying these events.