Categories: Media issues

14 February 2011


New muse on social media in Egypt

Now Mr Mubarak has fled Cairo the significance of social media in Egypt should become plainer to see. Its work in fomenting and facilitating popular revolution has been done. Was it anywhere near as great as its fans suppose? I think not.

Misguidedly everybody right now is focused on what can only be termed as a technological determinist account of what’s gone on. Yesterday’s Sunday Times, for instance, raved in its leader column that “More revolutions will be fuelled by Twitter“. It said the free flow of information, which it rightly urged us to welcome, changed the game not just for dictators but also for the West. It opined:

“We heard, through Twitter, Facebook and good old-fashioned reporting what was happening on the ground. This was much more, however, than technology providing the outside world with the opportunity to witness an important global event. This time it was technology that drove the change and it did it through the free flow of information, passion and opinions.”

I’d rather stress that it is the social conditions that influence the content and usage and meaning given to technology (social media etc.), than the other way round.

As Norman Lewis, an expert on user behaviour around voice and messaging and digital lifestyles, rightly pointed out when he commented on my views last year:

“The debate about the social media, by concentrating on an exaggerated technologically-determined sense of change, misses these critical points. Yes, the introduction of these technologies is going to have an effect (and has some enormous potential). But the outcomes will not be determined by the technologies per se, but by the underlying social context. This remains paramount and understanding this will allow us to gain an historical perspective so lacking in the contemporary debate.”

Lewis added, the history of technological innovation is the history of unforeseen transformations:

“Technologies clearly invented or conceived for one clearly defined use have acquired other unexpected uses over time and have become part of the social evolution and progress of human society. When humans have created tools they have excelled at finding new usages for them. As David Nye puts it in his excellent Technology Matters: ‘latent in every tool are unforeseen transformations’.”

I couldn’t agree more.

It is my view that while everyone gets excited by new media as though nothing could have been achieved without it, old media – and the social conditions in Egypt – were very important to this revolution. TV news from elsewhere (that means overseas) seems to have popularised it in the mass mind. TV news may well have been very important in the degree of daily support the protest in Tahrir square was given. So TV was an energiser of an already rebelliously-minded public.

SM looks to have been important also, especially to some of the hard core leadership of young dissidents. Indeed, we are told that, as we shall explore below, they have been formulating their cause and plotting, perhaps with friends overseas, their approach on Facebook.

There’s no doubt that in Egypt social media did indeed provide some of the most inspiring symbols of the uprising in the form of murdered blogger Khalid Said and his Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said”, not to mention the imprisoned Google executive Wael Ghonmin.

Nevertheless, we should also note that whatever social media’s role in setting things off, when Mr Mubarak fell it was old-fashioned TV that brought the news to the masses. It was old-fashioned print material and word-of-mouth networking that distributed the opinions of the protesters to the people. It wasn’t social media.

It would appear that in Egypt TV remains the most powerful journalistic influence that shapes the mood of the masses. For sure, the most viewed news programme across the region, and in Egypt, is Al Jazeera in Arabic. Reaching millions of Egyptians, it is available even to the poor. Its radical reporting-style has made regional events, such as the uprisings in Tunisia, accessible and transparent. It has won admiration for doing so:

“Long live Al Jazeera!” chanted Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square on Feb. 6. Many Arabs — not least the staff at Al Jazeera — have said for years that the Arab satellite network would help bring about a popular revolution in the Middle East. Now, after 15 years of broadcasting, it appears the prediction has come true. There is little question that the network played a key role in the revolution that began as a ripple in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and ended up a wave that threatens to wash away Egypt’s long-standing regime.”

Mubarak recognised that threat. During the protests, the network was dropped from the government-run satellite transmission company, Nilesat. In an act of self-preservation, Egyptian Information Minister Anas al-Fiqi ordered the offices of all Al Jazeera bureaus in Egypt to be shut down. The accreditation of all its network journalists was withdrawn. Six of its journalists were detained, others were beaten. Mustafa Souag, head of news at Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language station, told Arabia Today:

“To the rescue came at least 10 other Arabic-language TV stations, which stepped in and offered to carry Al Jazeera’s content. They just volunteered…. They were not paid, and we thanked them for that…”

I would argue that that act of solidarity by Arabic TV channels was much more significant than Google’s clumsy – but nevertheless admirable – efforts to circumvent the internet’s shutdown using landlines and answer phones.

But as the uprisings went on things got really hot for Al Jazeera. It was accused of being an alien enemy of the state (along with the US and Iran):

“One supposed ‘foreign agent’ was shown on Egyptian state TV with face obscured, claiming that she had been trained by ‘Americans and Israelis’ in Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based.”

There’s some evidence that foreign hands – including the positive influence of Al Jazeera – were in some form encouraging and aiding the protesters.

For instance, we all now know, something which WikiLeaks higlighted, that the US government staffers had been meeting with social media activists from Egypt since 2008. It all supposedly began when an Egyptian activist was invited to attend a conference in the US. It was organised by James Glassman, under secretary of State for Public Diplomacy under George W. Bush, and Joe Rospars, Scott Goodstein and Sam Graham-Felsen, Obama’s top social media gurus.

US foreign policy at the time was seemingly pro-Mubarak, though the US has always also advocated the spread of democracy. When questioned about the meeting’s aims, Glassman described the event as “public diplomacy 2.0” and said it fitted:

“…into an overall strategy in Egypt, which was to support civil society and to encourage people to promote democracy as much as they could.”

Perhaps the US was aiming to be useful to the Egyptian middle class’s dissidents. However, exactly how far it was prepared to go remains a mystery.

Right now all we know of the US involvement is what the leaked cable says. For example, the activist attending the 2008 conference was offered advice about maintaining internet security. But it seems that the activist told the organisers that April 6 members did not own computers. The cable also mentions that the same activist alleged that several opposition parties and movements had accepted an unwritten plan for democratic transition by 2011. However, the leaked cable reveals that US officials doubted that claim.

We also know that the conference in the US the cable refers to was never secret. The agenda was publicly available. Whoopi Goldberg even added some high-profile celebrity glamour to the proceedings.

Was the US in some form actively backing the online protesters? I don’t know. Certainly, the Egyptian SM activist, from the influential April 6 Youth Movement, who attended the meeting in the US, denies it:

“This is so ridiculous….They [Mubarak’s regime] are going to try to [portray this as] an American conspiracy, and so forth”

Though given that he said this in the middle of an uprising, his statement may have been a matter of expediency. Time will tell.

So I’m sceptical but not dismissive. If it turns out that SM did importantly help the tiny proportion of the protest which was its leaders, and did so for years before the eruption, and if even only some of the eruption was aided by SM, and if it was spurred on by George W Bush and then by Barack Obama, then SM and the two Presidents will have had their historic moment.

Meanwhile, the clerics in Iran have been trying hard to win acclaim for their so-called conspiratorial role in stirring up the public in Egypt. On the 32nd anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, they view events in Egypt (more for home consumption than anything else) as an extension of their overthrow of the Shah.

I think it is fair to insist that it was not foreigners or new technologies that set out to actively overthrow Mubarak: it was the courageous Egyptian masses, informed mostly by 20th Century TV, which played a surprising new role in their world, and somewhat by SM. Of course, they were backed – eventually – by real-world international politicians who recognise generational change when it’s slapping them in the face.

Now let’s review briefly the real state of Egypt’s on-line world. The truth is that Egypt has only one and a half million broadband subscribers out of a population of 84 million. A Euromonitor International report issued in July 2010 found:

“Household ownership of broadband computers remains amongst the lowest in the region and is hindered by low incomes and illegal sharing of internet [meaning that most broadband subscribers have poor quality connections].”

Even the multi-media mobile phone connectivity to the internet in Egypt is extremley backward. As one report that’s just six months old commented:

News last year that Egypt would issue triple-play licenses — for companies to offer the voice, data and video service — excited analysts and firms, but their limited scope and reliance on Telecom Egypt infrastructure later muted interest.

While common in the UAE and other Gulf countries, as well as the US and Europe, triple-play is yet to be offered in Egypt.”

Broadband connectivity in Egypt remains an upper middle class tool. The masses of Egypt, a large percentage of which are on low incomes – an average annual disposable income of LE 12,429 ($2,240) per capita in 2009 – and illiterate, are excluded. Of course, one of the real drivers of the uprisings recently has been that Egyptians have been getting poorer, not richer.

The idea that unreliable and low-level connectivity could be used to coordinate an uprising among 84 million people is just farcical. There might be 4 million Facebook users in Egypt but if even one-tenth of them wanted to interact at once, they couldn’t do so effectively for technical reasons to do with bandwidth.

As to Twitter, well, there’s just 14,000 Twitter registered users spread between around 120 million people in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Its significance has to be more in the Retweets made by foreigners than Tweets from Egypt interacting with each other while attempting to organise the masses in their own land.

Now let’s look at how Zdnet reported on how the internet was used to circumvent the censorship when the government cut off connections to the Web:

“Thanks to dial-up modems, some Egyptians are able to login to international modem pools outside the government’s control. Internet activist groups like Werebuild and Telecomix are publishing lists of international modem-dial up numbers. While there are several Egyptian ISPs that offer dial-up, these, at best, still keep their users locked in Egypt. I’m told by sources in Egypt that these sites often don’t work even for connecting with other Egyptian sites.”

So while it was very romantic to imagine how innovative Egyptians were side-stepping the censors, one has to remain sceptical about how much that meant in practice.

The middle class, many of them Facebook users, I acknowledge, hit the streets first and took first blood. However, now the struggle involves wider forces including the Egyptian masses (the ones who rallied to the middle class’s aid in Tahrir square) under the management of the military.

Nobody knows where Egypt will go next. But it will be also interesting to see how influential social media remains in Egypt as it redefines how the country is ruled and how it moves toward democracy.

It is my dream that the new Egyptian government does what the old one never did: enables freedom of speech by investing massively in a broadband infrastructure that delivers a ubiquitous service the masses can afford to purchase. (BTW: for a good exploration of these issues, see Charlie Beckett’s blog, who happens to be a fellow West Ham United fan.)

3 responses to “New muse on social media in Egypt”

  1. Judy Gombita says:

    Paul, although I can appreciate where you would like to put the focus of the Egyptian uprising–on the people themselves–I think you are a bit too quick to dismiss social media both as an inspirational channel for dissemination of information *and*, even more importantly, as an organizational or mobilizing force.

    On last night’s episode of 60 Minutes, Wael Ghonmin.gave much credit to the success of the people to the stupid decisions of the Murabrak regime. In particular, he said that shutting down the Internet had the exact opposite effect than intended–because passive individuals could no longer get information updates through his Facebook page and external* media, they took to the streets in greater numbers to find out what exactly was going on. (And he credited his employer, Google, for the massive influence it had behind the scenes, to get him out of prison. He called it an amazing “public relations effort.”)

    When you talk about television providing the news (not social media), you haven’t taken into account that the official Egyptian television station was operating as if it was business as usual–not reporting on any information about the uprising and people’s demands. Ergo, most turned to Al Jazeera and other, external media sources to receive information.

    When I attended a panel session at the Munk Centre for Global Studies (University of Toronto) on “Understanding WikiLeaks: Diplomacy, the Media, and the Public Interest” it was right after the Egyptian government had effectively shut down the Internet. I was chatting with Rafal Rohozinski (who has some involvement with Munk’s groundbreaking CitizenLab project) after the session and he told me that necessity being the mother of invention, Egyptian protesters were already moving to organizing and getting out information via pods of satellite mobile phones, which were unaffected by the government decree. Yes, dial-up connections and fax machines were also being used.

    We agree more than we disagree: social media serves as a great information channel (albeit the accuracy of the information is often suspect and passion often overtakes sense) and organizer. But it is still the people, not the platforms or software, that actually effect change.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Judy, great comment, thanks. I certainly don’t dismiss social media in Egypt or anywhere else. I end my piece calling for broadband to be delivered to the masses along with the right to use it as they see fit! I’ve tried, though, to put where it is at today in context.

    Regarding the TV, the authorities tried to shut down Al Jazeera but it found solidarity forthcoming from its rivals and it kept broadcasting to the masses throughout the conflict.

    I’m also certain that Wael Ghonmin speaks the truth when he tells of how the internet ban brought more people onto the streets. When the tide of opinion is running so strongly against the state, such moves just strengthen resistance.

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