Categories: Media issues

7 February 2011

5 comments

Muse on Egypt and SM

The story of the murdered blogger Khalid Said has been an inspiration for protest in Egypt in recent weeks. But many of the claims made in mainstream media about how this struggle played out on social media should be treated with care.

Here’s an example from the WSJ of 2 February 2011:

“Opposition activists rallied around a Facebook page called We Are All Khaled Saied [sic]. To call for a protest, Mr. Saied’s death became the focal point for people who hadn’t been involved in the rights movement before, says Ahmed Gharbia, an Egyptian activist associated with the page. “He was an everyman, and it was very difficult for people who wanted to paint him as an outlaw to do that.” In the past week, supporters of the page swelled from 75,000 members to over 440,000.””

Besides “misspelling” (I recognise that there’s more than one way to spell a translated Arabic name, however on Facebook it is spelled Khalid Said), we should note that the WSJ fails to mention that many, perhaps most, of the page’s followers are, understandably on a global network, not Egyptian. Moreover, as Wired reports:

“Ever since Mubarak restored internet service on Wednesday, the most important dissident Facebook page has seen a curious flood of pro-regime Wall posts, sowing disinformation.

“Some of the new up-with-Mubarak commentary at the Facebook page We Are All Khalid Said is classic concern-trolling: people wringing their hands over how Egypt’s dictator deserves better than calls for his downfall. Some is pure abuse, questioning the loyalties of the page’s administrator. And some are blatant attempts to disrupt the protests by claiming upcoming rallies have been canceled.”

Meanwhile the Twitter page Jan25 Voices, which leveraged plain old telephones to get around the blocked internet, has 7, 600 followers, most of them foreigners. And what’s interesting is that there are just over 14, 000 Twitter users identified as being located in the three countries of Egypt (pop: 84 million), Tunisia (pop: 10 million) and Yemen (pop: 23 million). Nevertheless their rebellious protests are routinely cited as being led by social media, particularly Twitter. Disregarding the glaring absence of factual support for the claim, Jared Cohen, Director of Google Ideas, sent a Tweet to his 300 000 followers saying:

“One Egyptian says, ‘facebook used to set the date, twitter used to share logistics, youtube to show the world, all to connect people’ #jan25“.

What’s amazing is how Cohen’s narrative has spread credibly through mainstream media. In addition, Google’s initiative in Egypt to hook up a few thousand Twitter users to answer phones has repositioned it as a social media champion. But as the CEO of betaworks, John Borthwick, one of the most influential architects of the social web, explained recently, Google is no such thing. Its IT architecture and business model are antithetical to social media. Though there’s no doubt that its response to Egypt’s protests was a PR coup, and maybe also a very decent and clever thing to achieve.

For instance, Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP Group, felt provoked to explore, in The Times, the responsibilities of Google and Twitter that arise from their new-found influence in battles between “the rulers and ruled”. In his piece, Google and Twitter enjoy a freedom denied to others, he opined:

“Google and Twitter are not just technology companies developing algorithms and using others’ content [they are, he says, really owners of new media]. They must understand that with incredible power comes incredible responsibility. You cannot stick your head in the sand and say you are only providing the pipework: you are responsible for the information that flows through it.”

He makes a point that we should only accept in part. When either Google or Twitter decide to actively circumvent censorship or other state interference, they make de facto editorial and political as well as commercial judgments. That, as Mr. Sorrell remarks, can have unintended consequences. One is that Google has much to lose from over-selling what it can do to protect its users. The reality is that Google – more often than it might like – may one day need to say at some point to some protesters:

“Sorry, we would have liked to help you, but we curtailed our normal service because we were threatened with the loss of our license to operate in your country; we didn’t think we should take that existential risk, and as much for your long-term sake as for ours.”

Google knows that if it loses either the trust of its customers or the cooperation of nation states, it no longer has a viable business. That’s a conundrum I examined in Google comes of Age in China, where I pointed out how Google’s idealism is tempered by its dependence on open access to an internet infrastructure it does not own or control.

In contrast, the trust that truly social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook require comes from their total commitment (not something that they dare mess with) to allowing freedom of expression behind their closed walls. Defending that freedom has seen them both banned in China, and there’s been bans imposed also at some point in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh.

Yet the first duty, surely, of the rest of us must be to retain a sense of perspective. And building on that point, here’s an example from an Egyptian media studies student, based in London, who has chronicled her struggle to stay in touch with events using mainstream and social media:

“As I open my Facebook [once the internet was restored] I find an overflow of information. Every person had a view on what was happening in Tahrir. Some were calling for an end to the madness and for a peaceful transition of power. Others were thinking that anyone who wants a peaceful transition was a coward and a traitor. Others were still calling for more people to go to Tahrir Square. Others posting videos and pictures of what happened in Tahrir.

“To my surprise there were peaceful demonstrations calling for the peaceful transition which was not at all covered by all the networks I watched. With hundreds of statuses and videos and pictures, I had no clue what is actually happening in Egypt. It was just as if every person of my 956 friends were pulling in different directions giving there own perspective of what they think should happen.

“One thing was clear no one was listening to what the other person was saying and I too stopped. I just completely shut down I didn’t know what to think or what to believe or who is in Tahrir square fighting who.”

She left Cairo for London on January 17, so she can hardly be accused of not being in recent touch with her homeland (she even went to school in Tahrir Square).

My point is that too many commentators have been too quick to pre-judge events and what is driving them based on evidence that does not amount to much.

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5 responses to “Muse on Egypt and SM”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by paulseaman, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog now: Muse on Egypt and SM http://bit.ly/fWpFY3 #PR#jan25 #Egypt #censorship […]

  2. Heather Yaxley says:

    Paul,

    You are right in highlighting the over-hyped claims for Twitter and other social media channels in such incidents. This is the narrative that mainstream media, and SM users, like to propagate without checking the actual evidence. I also agree with you that organizations such as Google have to prioritise the larger ‘licence to operate’ over any idealistic principles in the main. There is also an argument that supports instigating change from within rather than boycotting any regime (or organization, individual, etc) that we do not like or approve of. However, there should be a bottom line in any organization’s values where the benefit of business does not come before a bigger cause (I’m not saying Egypt is necessarily the case for that).

    One other bubble of modern mythology that I think deserves prodding is that people power can achieve anything and everything. Egypt is showing us that despite the best efforts of many ordinary people (arguably not the majority of the country by any means), those with the power – especially the behind the scenes sort – still call the shots. It seems disingenuous of the media (and others) to imply that popular uprising by itself effects change – there are many other factors, such as the zeitgeist, weakening power of those in control, and most importantly, the involvement in more powerful stakeholders behind closed doors.

  3. Josh Greenberg says:

    Excellent post Paul. I share your frustration with the cyber-utopianism that frames much of the media’s discourse about the recent events in Egypt and elsewhere. At the same time, it should be recognized that this utopianism has been counter-weighted (at least in the coverage I’ve read) by the arguments of skeptics like Gladwell and Morozov. While I find Gladwell’s writing provocative, it’s too detached from the current literature on social movements and technology to have more than just narrative appeal. Morozov’s thesis is more convincing as it keeps the analytical lens focused squarely on the relations of power that I sense you (and Heather) are reminding us to not forget.

    Regardless of the outcome in Egypt — which remains unclear — we would be remiss to not acknowledge that new technology does have an important influence on social movements and political protest. While the emergence of new forms of social media may affect the velocity of social and political change, there has always been a relationship between media technologies and contentious politics. This was true with the printing press, then radio, television, and in the early days of the Internet. So instead of exploring what effects technology has on the outcomes of political protest, we should focus more on how social actors use technology to alter the field of contention (even if we are talking about a very small number of highly committed people). Social technologies structure the chances of a movement’s success, influences its tactical repertoire, affects its (dis)organizational culture, and certainly influences the strategies the state will use in response.

    This last point is especially important in light of your argument above about the need for a broader perspective. When the Internet was “turned on” again in Egypt, the security forces turned to social media to identify and prosecute troublemakers. In Sudan, the security forces have been accused very recently of organizing a pro-democracy protest via Facebook, and then crushing it with force. And we all know how the Iranian regime treated bloggers and tweeters when the attention of the media and twitterverse shifted elsewhere. Of course, authoritarian governments need not use social media just for accelerating the velocity of repression: as an intelligence analyst noted in a report I read yesterday, “the real advantage of monitoring social media sites is that it can give those in authority the chance to detect public anger early and engage in the debate, hopefully heading off discontent before it reaches the streets.”

    I think the key in all of this is for journalists (many, but not all) to look at the relationship between technology and social change from as many different perspectives as possible to avoid lapsing into technological determinism. They need to avoid the kind of singular thinking that you rightly argue frames so much of the media discourse about Egypt. The Canadian author and columnist Dan Gardner draws on Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between “foxes” and “hedgehogs” in his recent book Future Babble. While foxes know many little things, hedgehogs are driven by a single and simple thesis. The problem, Gardner argues, is that hedgehogs, are the darlings of the media because they are “confident, clear, and dramatic. The sort who delivers quality sound bites and compelling stories. The sort who doesn’t bother with complications, caveats, and uncertainties.”

    So there is no question that when it comes to Egypt, the news coverage has been dominated heavily by the predictions of hedgehogs. It’s what the media demands and what the audience has been conditioned to expect. The foxes, meanwhile, are still busy gathering and weighing all the evidence. I expect we’ll hear from them in due course, but likely after everyone’s attention has moved on to the next big event.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Josh, you make some good points and I cannot but endorse them. Neither of us share Gladwell’s pessimism about modern digital technology and social media. SM cannot be easily dismissed. Instead, it needs to be properly understood. My critique here is aimed at striking a balance by avoiding the one-sidedness of Gladwell and of the digital-utopians at the other extreme. Hence, I agree with you absolutely about the dangers of technological determinism etc. and Gladwell’s myopia.

  5. […] by Paul Seaman (21st Century PR Issues, an online review) entitled, “Muse on Egypt and SM”. http://paulseaman.eu/2011/02/muse-on-egypt-and-sm/ He commented on the murdered blogger Khalid Said and how he has become an inspiration for protest […]