For decades, armed soldiers have guarded the Egyptian Radio and Television Union building in downtown Cairo, apparently to protect the country’s formidable broadcast assets from being commandeered in an attempted revolution.
But Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power earlier this month after three decades of rule showed that the power of social media sites and mobile phone technology proved a far bigger threat to the former Egyptian president.
Now with protests spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and Libya, the catchy notion of a “Twitter Revolution” or a “Facebook Revolution” is being debated – and tweeted, of course – from Washington to Cairo and beyond.
Coincidentally, I had spent several months before the protests studying the role of social media in the Arab world – a subject that seemed of interest mainly to my colleagues in international media development until it suddenly became part of the biggest story on the planet.
But how essential is social media in these uprisings? Is all you need to topple an entrenched autocratic regime a collection of Facebook updates, YouTube videos and Twitter hashtags?
To listen to 30-year-old Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim – one of the heroes of the protest movement in Tahrir Square – the Egyptian revolution was born on Facebook.
“This revolution started . . . in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content,” he told CNN on Feb. 11 . “We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I’ve always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet.”
Ghonim was formerly the anonymous administrator of a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said,” named after a 28-year-old man who was fatally beaten by police after he posted video online showing police divvying up seized contraband. Once the protests in Egypt began last month, Ghonim was arrested and held for 12 days blindfolded. After his release, he was hailed as a hero of the protest movement for his online efforts.
As a Google executive, Ghonim clearly grasps the power of social media. Speaking last December at a Google event in Cairo, he said that more than 100 million Arabs – out of 351 million region-wide – are expected to be using the Internet by 2015. Ghonim also told the conference that 24 hours of video were being uploaded to YouTube every minute from the region, this well before the revolutions.
Few can deny that social media has enabled the most significant advance in freedom of expression and association in contemporary Arab history. During the protests, social media aggregated, disseminated and accelerated vital news and information. But in the end, Facebook and YouTube are tools – and tools alone cannot bring about the changes the world has witnessed in recent weeks.
Deep-seated social ills – repression from the top and political and economic frustrations from below – are at the core of protests sweeping the Arab world, much as they have been in revolutions throughout history.
The success of today’s largely peaceful revolutions in the Arab world is beginning to change perceptions of the region and of the determination of its citizens to seek democracy on their own terms. In part through social media, the Arab people are rewriting their own narratives, individually and collectively, and announcing their ability to peacefully foment change and demand universal rights.
So do not confuse tools with motivations. Thinking of this moment as a “Facebook Revolution” only demeans the challenges the protesters and populations are overcoming. Had Facebook or Twitter – or the Internet itself – not been around, would the revolutions still have happened? With large segments of Arab populations unemployed, marginalized and feeling powerless to change their futures under authoritarian regimes that were increasingly out of touch, all the elements for upheaval were there; social media helped make the grievances all the more urgent and difficult to ignore.
Ironically, Facebook, which according to the Arab Social Media Report has a following of more than 21 million people in the Middle East (with 5 million in Egypt alone), is a platform not particularly friendly to protest. Its messages and updates are largely disseminated only to those who belong to certain groups or who know where to look.
Twitter, by contrast, allows users to reach audiences worldwide through the use of hashtags on messages, such as the ones that defined the revolutions – #Tunisie, #Sidibouzid, #Jan25, #Egypt and now #Bahrain, #Algeria, #Yemen and #Libya, among others.
Arab leaders have long recognized the threat posed by the Internet, and most have instituted filters and legal restrictions in attempts to control online activities. From Morocco to Bahrain, scores of activists and ordinary citizens have been arrested and sentenced to prison for their online activities and writings.
It’s also important to note that Egypt’s “Day of Anger” protests on Jan. 25 had been promoted in advance on Facebook, but when Egypt’s Internet and mobile phone services were shut down, protesters still found ways to communicate and assemble en masse in Tahrir Square in Cairo, along the seafront in Alexandria and in other Egyptian cities.
In Tunisia, former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did not shut down the Internet during the four weeks of protests in his country. His regime did block Twitter and other sites, but Tunisians regularly used proxies to bypass the government controls. If Ben Ali had pulled the plug on the Internet, the outcome may have been different, some activists insist – but just how different is very hard to tell.
Social media’s ability to let millions in on our communications provides massive reach and impact. But more traditional media also played an important role. Arab satellite channels also broadcast nearly nonstop coverage of the protests, relying on ubiquitous satellite dishes in Egypt and throughout the region. Indeed, Tunisian activists and others credit a triangulation of media – new and old – with successfully mobilizing and informing the country’s masses.
Sami Ben Gharbia, a co-founder of the Tunisian blog collective Nawaat, told an interviewer from Radio France Internationale that a good deal of the content from the revolution that appeared in traditional media originated on Facebook. Activists aggregated content, including video and photos from Facebook pages, and translated it into multiple languages for posting on other platforms.
Content was reposted on Nawaat and broadcast on Twitter with links to video and other content that journalists and activists could draw upon. Broadcasting on Twitter enabled wider dissemination of this content than Facebook allowed, Ben Gharbia said, mainly because Facebook pages are not necessarily open to all. Finally, satellite networks – most notably Al-Jazeera, according to activists – picked up the social media content and rebroadcast it into Tunisia.
The convergence of social media, satellite networks and traditional media proved pivotal to spreading the protesters’ messages. “That was the echo chamber of the struggle on the street,” Ben Gharbia said.
Social media’s continued role in Mideast politics seems assured. People under age 25 comprise nearly 50 percent of the populations in Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt. In the rest of the region, the under-25 Internet generation makes up 37 percent to 47 percent of total populations, according to the Arab Media Outlook, 2008-2012.
These youth appear to be taking the region in a new direction, enabled with the technologies they know best. But the events that have gripped the region aren’t easily distilled into sexy catchphrases. These are not social media revolutions. Social media is chronicling and amplifying the revolution that is happening on the streets.
Indeed, if the pen – or the click – is mightier than the sword, then social media and mobile technology represent a new and welcome way forward in the Middle East. It’s uncertain where these revolutions will lead, but if millions of Arabs have anything to say about it, we’ll be certain to hear of it online.
By Jeffrey Ghannam, a lawyer, journalist and media consultant. He is the author of Social Media in the Arab World: Leading up to the Uprisings of 2011, a report from the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance.