Arab revolutions ain’t all about Wikileaks or censorship but damn fine bravery

Despite what Wikileaks may claim – the release of US embassy cables undeniably revealed the depravity of the relationship between Washington and various dictators but they hardly sparked the Arab Spring – social media played a part in the uprisings and subsequent changes. As I argue in the recently released and updated edition of my book The Blogging Revolution, blogging, Twitter and Facebook were important to galvanise support for democratic movements but they didn’t bring down any regimes on their own.

Take one (via Global Voices):

After seeing the huge impact of social media on the Egyptian revolution, Egyptian blogger and Twitter user, Mahmoud Salem (@SandMonkey) decided to collaborate with a local non-profit organisation to help them raise funds using the power of Twitter to offer basic services in an impoverished neighborhood of Cairo.

Ezbet Khairalla is one of the largest unplanned communities in Egypt, with a population close to 650,000 inhabitants. It is a sprawling area of about 12 square kilometres on a rocky plateau that lies in the southern part of Cairo. Although Ezbet Khairalla is located within the boundaries of Cairo, most basic services are missing; not only sewage and garbage collection, but also inadequate education, poor health and social services. Hence the densely populated area is considered fertile soil for crime and social unrest.

To help improve the quality of life in Ezbet Khairalla, Khair Wa Baraka (Peace and Plenty), an organisation founded in 2004, started working on educational, health and environmental programs, especially after their research showed that the most important issue in the community was dealing with both solid and liquid waster (sewage). They also provide medical caravans and pilot educational centres.

With the support of people on Twitter, Peace and Plenty and raised EGP 2 million Egyptian pounds (over $330,000 US dollars as well as awareness for the community. Salem called his initiative “tweetback” (@tweetbackevent), and it relied on the social capital of 20 of power-Twitter users who collectively have around a quarter of a million followers. They each raised money from donors in exchange for giving contributing companies PR among their followers. They also created a buzz about the initiative and helped explain to people how they can help.

Peace and Plenty held a fundraising event on July 26, 2011 at the Marriott hotel in Cairo, where they announced that EGP 1,349,000 ($226,600) had already been raised.

Take two (via Lebanon’s Daily Star):

Finally, social media, the impact of which has been so widely publicized, is unlikely to be pivotal in the elections. World Bank figures show one-fifth of Egyptians use the Internet overall, let alone access sites such as Twitter or Facebook. Despite claims to the contrary, Jan. 25 itself was not a ”social media revolution”; only 8 percent of Egyptians say they used Facebook or Twitter to get their news about the protests, according to Gallup’s data. Social media was not then, nor is it now, the core information medium for the average Egyptian. There are no shortcuts in reaching out to that “man on the street,” and all parties must be perceived as trying to do just that.

Take three (via the New York Times):

The mass media, including interactive social-networking tools, make you passive, can sap your initiative, leave you content to watch the spectacle of life from your couch or smartphone.

Apparently even during a revolution.

That is the provocative thesis of a new paper by Navid Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale, titled “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest.”

Using complex calculations and vectors representing decision-making by potential protesters, Mr. Hassanpour, who already has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford, studied the recent uprising in Egypt.

His question was, how smart was the decision by the government of President Hosni Mubarak to completely shut down the Internet and cellphone service on Jan. 28, in the middle of the crucial protests in Tahrir Square?

His conclusion was, not so smart, but not for the reasons you might think. “Full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action,” he writes.

To put it another way, all the Twitter posting, texting and Facebook wall-posting is great for organizing and spreading a message of protest, but it can also spread a message of caution, delay, confusion or, I don’t have time for all this politics, did you see what Lady Gaga is wearing?

It is a conclusion that counters the widely held belief that the social media helped spur the protests. Mr. Hassanpour used press accounts of outbreaks of unrest in Egypt to show that after Jan. 28, the protests became more spread around Cairo and the country. There were not necessarily more protesters, but the movement spread to more parts of the population.

He called this a “localization process.” “You can say it would be hard to measure that,” he added, talking about his research, “but you can test it, what happens when a disruption goes into effect.”

“The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways,” he writes. “It implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.”

In an interview, he described “the strange darkness” that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. “We become more normal when we actually know what is going on — we are more unpredictable when we don’t — on a mass scale that has interesting implications,” he said.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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