Saturday, 29 January 2011

A Twitter Revolution? Social Media in Egypt’s Uprising

As the protests in central Cairo, Suez, Alexandria and other Egyptian conurbations gained momentum in the last few days, the Mubarak regime resorted to a new tactic to thwart the will of the people: severing the internet and mobile networks to stop protesters communicating with each other to coordinate further protests and tell the world about them. But can a 140 character long tweet really help bring down a strong-man government entrenched for 30 years?

 Young Egyptians make up the bulk of the demonstrators, and they are tech-savvy, educated and socially mobile.  Egyptians have been using social media including facebook , twitter and blogs for a while to galvanize support for campaigns against police brutality such as we all are Khaled Said, and the campaigns for former IAEA chief and Nobel peace laureate ElBaredei to become president

Social media is exciting because it makes the average citizen a reporter; armed with just a mobile phone and an internet connection, he can upload the raw, unedited footage of the latest protests in Cairo to youtube or facebook and disseminate them to millions before CNN reporters are even on the scene. Twitter users have been crucial in spreading important technical info on how Cairenes can circumnavigate the internet ban and get online. Crucially, these postings are also informing fellow activists of where the latest action is happening, and provides a ‘live feed’ of the events, and also gives practical information that can generate spontaneous gatherings as well as attract larger media outlets.  Often the media giants will use the clips posted by mobile devices when press freedoms are squeezed and filming by professional reporters is impossible, as has been the case during the Tunisia and Egypt protests. Aljazeera has been pioneering this.

 Although every blogger has his/her own political motives, the spontaneity of tweets and social media postings means there’s little time to edit the material. I think what is so great about tireless bloggers and twitter users such as Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) is that their work helps counterbalance the ideologically spun reportage of news houses like Fox news who droned on about the threat of Islamism whilst Egyptians of all creeds were protesting together in solidarity.

Egyptian internet access plummets suddenly as the fearful government cut of access

No doubt the Egyptian government realized the potency of social media when it downed all internet and mobile communications. It couldn’t have been an easy decision; the economy will suffer sorely for it and the stock exchange will fall further. Unfortunately for Mubarak, a number of smaller internet service providers were still operative despite the internet blackout, and Egyptians can still access social media via smart phone apps.

 But not all Egyptians read blogs and have twitter accounts. Out of 80 million people, only 20 million have internet access, although this easily covers the population of the Egyptian metropolis where most bloggers are based. Egypt has the biggest facebook generation in the Arab world and the largest number of blogs. What is more, much of the twittersphere activity has been in English (reflecting the international nature of these events), though not all are comfortably fluent in it or able to benefit from it. Yet social media successfully quashed reports deliberately spread by the regime that looters were descending upon the National Museum where a third of the world’s priceless treasures are housed. Twitter feeds revealed that in response to these claims, students and activists headed for the museum and formed a human ring around it to prevent looters from entering, although mainstream media reported that it was the army that had secured the building.

Some of the major broadcasters including the BBC and Aljazeera have been providing a continuous live feed of events, composing a picture of the latest on the ground from the continual flow of eye witness reports, twitter activity and official press reports that keep coming in. A facebook group set up to coordinate worldwide protests outside Egyptian embassies has attracted over 3,000 members, and on Twitter, the hashtags #Mubarak, #Egypt are trending.

The ongoing events in Egypt highlight that, even when attempts are made to shut down the internet, social media still helps disseminate coverage, coordinate events, and provide much needed moderate perspective on fast-developing stories. 

See also Egypt Protests Fueled by Youth, Social Media by Laila Hassan
and Tunisia, Arab Youth, Rebellion and Twitter a video comment by Mona Eltahaway

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