In Egypt the authorities have imposed curfews, restricted access to the internet, Twitter and Facebook. Even mobile phones are not working properly. That’s what states do in a crisis; close-down the streets and cut communication links. Let’s explore this some more.
Egypt’s population is more than 80 million. According to the ITU, internet penetration stands at around 21 percent, much of it narrowband or very poor broadband. According to a comScore survey, there were just five million users of Twitter in the whole of the Middle East and Africa in August 2010.
Facebook, according to internet World Stats, is more popular than Twitter, with more than four million users in Egypt alone, some of whom are bound to be radicalised campaigners. Early on in the crisis a Facebook group attracted 80,000 members pledging to protest on January 25. It has influence, then, but hardly a major one.
The masses in Egypt are not connected to the internet. They are not social media users. Of course, the early protesters in Egypt were, as US Vice President Joe Biden said, mostly middle class. So, yes, they are the ones with most internet access.
Meanwhile, the much more massive working class stood back, restrained, perhaps, by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which wishes to avoid provoking the army. Even now that they are more visible, reports suggest that the crowds are large rather than huge. We are seeing tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, but not millions of people on the streets: so far, anyway.
Now, when it comes to IT, the really powerful communication tool in Egypt is the mobile phone. In common with many developing countries mobile phone penetration is above 100 percent. That’s because most people have more than one phone from more than one provider. Moreover, a combination of 2G, 2.5G and 3G services allows for a measure of multi-media interaction between users; particularly when it comes to sharing videos and pictures.
The most effective application for organising protests, however, is low-bandwidth text messaging. Texting is fast. It is mostly written in street-speak on the street. It is difficult for the authorities to monitor or control its influence in real-time (a lesson the British police learned when Prince Charles’ car was recently attacked by students in London). But phones – like the internet – are easy to cut. They also leave a trail that can be traced.
Rather than being a revolutionary’s ideal hub, social media forums are a secret security service’s dream haunt. They are asymmetrical in an unexpected way. Though guerrilla in some respects, they allow spooks to observe and track down users without being noticed; eliminating the risk that following people on the street poses. On social media virtually everybody is undercover, or seemingly anonymous, in the sense that you can never be sure people are who they claim to be. The state, though, can find out nearly anybody’s true identity. This gives them ready-made lists of people, knowledge of their intended actions and actual opinions, not to mention their network connections.
In short, social media allows a dictatorial regime to deactivate activists at will, as this Egyptian case highlights:
“Khaled Said was a shy, soft-spoken 28-year-old who ran a small business in Alexandria.
“Last summer, he came across a video that appeared to show local police officers dividing up the spoils of a drug bust, so on June 6, he posted it on his blog.
“A few hours later, two plainclothes officers emerged from a nearby police station to pay Mr. Said a visit. They found him in an Internet café [internet cafe’s are not safe havens] by his house, just off the harbour, and dragged him to the street.
“Twenty minutes later, Mr. Said was dead, his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of the building next door.”
Of course, that incident itself provoked a backlash on Facebook. Around 30 000 people joined a page which proclaimed “We Are All Khaled Said”. So, undoubtedly Facebook has been become a rallying point for some activists and a means for them to spread their word at home and abroad.
But what’s really striking to me is how outside Egypt social media users have become voyeurs. Some of us have also become delusional cheerleaders of other people’s struggles. We feel involved – even when we are not really even aware of the real issues or possible outcomes – because we’re all apparently linked via social media, or because we saw some appalling violence on YouTube or here.
There’s something very narcissistic (not to mention morbid) about watching video-clips of demonstrators getting tear-gassed and shot. Commenting on it all has become a kind of social media sport. It is not about Egypt, but mostly about us and how we feel about the supposed power of our new toys. The complexity and the nuances and the shades of grey – the fact that we mostly know virtually nothing about the forces, or who the good or bad guys really are, behind the protests – gets obscured in our social media forums and self-obsessed minds.
But let’s not get carried away. According to Jared Cohen, based in New York, a former State Department tech guru and now Director of Google Ideas, “one” (yes, just one) Egyptian claimed: “facebook used to set the date, twitter used to share logistics, youtube to show the world, all to connect people”.
Well, contrariwise, I’ll give my expert opinion on organising protests and taking on the police; my credentials are (the insight of a misspent youth) fairly credible on this point.
The reality of revolt is that old-fashioned word-of-mouth communication is the best form of communication in any confrontation with one’s nation state. That communication takes place in real-life social networks inside living communities, rather than in virtual online ones. It takes place between people who look each other in the eye and then trust each other on the street when the going gets rough. Of course – and I don’t know how much experience I had of this – protesters may be subject to deep undercover observation by the state. (And even, to be vulgar for a moment, and apropos the UK’s climate protest, the prospect of deep-throat undercover treatment by the organs of authority.)
Soon, I hope to post on the important role of new-old technology: Al Jazeera may be spreading a wholly new understanding in the Arab world. It is communicating vividly and continuously that the state may attempt to be omniscient, and is powerful: but it is not – perhaps – omnipotent.