15 Apr 2011
The role that social media played in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions is one question among many in understanding these profoundly important social events. But perhaps it is a particularly important one for Meedan - after all we are strategically wedded to the idea that the web makes possible a more networked world in which information and ideas can be exchanged more freely. That this debate has gathered such steam through the Arab revolutions is in part a feature of the newness of social media, but also the extent to which non actors in these revolutions can begin to try to understand them. We increasingly access each other through social media - it is right and fitting that we should try to understand the implications of that.
To delve deeper into these questions, I took part in a seminar at the Oxford Internet Institute with the brilliant Noha Atef, Khaled Hroub and Miriyam Aouragh titled Facebook Resistance? Understanding the role of the Internet in the Arab Revolutions. The seminar was recorded and the full podcast is available here.
I presented my provisional observations (which can be read in full here) with a number of important caveats. First and foremost, revolutions existed before Facebook - and in Yemen exist even today largely without Facebook - and depend on a number of factors coming together, not least the existence of deep seated economic and political grievances and a sufficient number of people who are willing to die.
I also tried to distance myself from the trap of the causality debate (did social media 'cause' these revolutions?) and instead focus on the ways in which the growing use of social media over a number of years in Egypt had begun to erode attested forms of regime power - particularly the state's repression of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech and its efforts to clutter public space with its own propaganda. My goal was to locate my argument within a debate about how authoritarianism sustains itself. Particularly influential on my thinking has been the work of Lisa Wedeen.
One word I did not refer to was 'fear' - mainly because I think the revolutionary fervour that overtook Egyptian society in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution was the biggest factor here. Perhaps in a sense revolutions are a collective overcoming of fear. Miriyam Aouragh was keen to emphasize this point, which might otherwise seem trivial: the revolutionary protests spreading across the Middle East are related.
Noha Atef has a lot to say about fear, and in fact shared some very personal memories of threats she and her family encountered when she began to document torture and other human rights abuses on the website she runs TortureinEgypt.net. With six thousand followers on Twitter, Noha has built an international reputation for herself against all odds. It is humbling to speak alongside someone of her bravery and vision. She brought an invaluable insight into the Egyptian Revolution to this gathering, even though she had spent the 18 days of protests in the UK where she is studying for an MA in Social Media at Birmingham City University. Her argument was: this revolution did not begin on 25 January 2011, but started long before, in large part thanks to a cadre of activists horrified by events such as the murder of Alexandrian blogger Khaled Said. You can find out more about Noha in this interview or on her Twitter page.
Khaled Hroub has a wide reputation as director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project and author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (2000) and Hamas: A Beginner's Guide (2006). He spoke eloquently about the regional political backdrop to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and gave a very clear explanation of how social media added fuel to the growing political disillusionment of an increasingly young population. Importantly though, he stressed the role satellite television channels - particularly Al Jazeera - had played in broadcasting powerful images of protests to a wide audience and harnessing social media content on YouTube to report fast moving events.
In sum, revolutions are complex events that we cannot boil down to some simple recipe or formula in which social media function. But, social media are worthy of dedicated research - both quantitative (gathering data sets) and qualitative (doing deep ethnography with texts and users) - which can help future generations understand the broader impact their widespread use presents.