Taking power through technology in the Arab Spring

Social media is no longer the domain of the liberal youth, empowering different agendas across the political map.

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Those popular on Twitter to speak about Egypt for example "may not even be in Egypt", yet are often widely re-tweeted and used as sources by some journalists, given the 24-hour news-cycle [Reuters]

[Editor’s note: Professor Srinivasan will be discussing the issues raised in this article on The Stream @19h30 GMT on Monday 29, October. He will be intermittently joining the discussion in the comments section at the bottom of the article.]

The Internet can make that which is on the opposite end of the world seem very local. Yet this can both distort or amplify reality. For example, while the recent “Innocence of Muslims” video served as a catalyst for the dissatisfaction felt toward the lack of Western support toward the Arab world, the protests and riots would not have occurred without YouTube and Vimeo. The ways by which newer and older media come together can turn slander into reality, changing what counts as truth in today’s world.

This raises a key question: Have the revolutions of the Arab Spring done more for social media than vice versa? After two years of fieldwork in Egypt, I have learned the ‘digital war’ is here to stay in Egypt. From 70+ year old military generals’ use of Facebook to release announcement, to the Muslim Brotherhood’s use of hackers, leaders from the entire range of Egypt’s political factions are striving for the upper hand in this fight.

We may forever debate the importance of social media in the uprisings of 2011 in the Arab world’s most populous nation. Some argue that social media empowered activists to coordinate and communicate the actions that sparked the revolt. Others, in contrast, argue that social media was a double-edged sword, and in some cases prevented activists from directly confronting the old regime. Skeptics point out that regimes are effective at using technologies to spy and subvert, citing Iran’s Green Revolution of 2009. Further, they argue that less than 5% of Egyptians use Facebook and/or Twitter. ‘Hiding behind one’s laptop’ or ‘being an IPad activist’ are the types of pejorative statements I hear in my interviews with activists and organizers over the past two years. I have also noted that a reliance on social media technologies often makes ‘real’ that which may not exist for most or any, as was the case with the “Innocence of Muslims” video. Those popular on Twitter to speak about Egypt for example may not even be in Egypt, yet are often widely re-tweeted and used as sources by some journalists, given the 24 hour news-cycle. Scholars and critics understand that revolutions happen in waves, and that at certain early stages social media technologies play a more salient role.

How do we step away from these binaries? By looking at Egyptians today. Unlike what we hear from most Western media, social media technologies are no longer the domain of solely the left, liberal youth, but instead empower different agendas held by parties across the political map. More than ever, many realize that via social media they have an opportunity to shape the political future of a nation in a way they never have before. This does not mean that their ‘digital actions’ substitute for their physical ones – but that instead they work in tandem, and are used to reach diverse audiences. Social media, perhaps thanks to the international and domestic hype, has a cache in Egypt that it did not have before the events of 2011. These technologies, seen as modern and ‘liberating, have been embraced by many throughout Egypt’s population, including by those without a computer or Internet access.

How has technology changed power in Egypt?

I believe in four major ways:

1. Infiltrating the media elites: Egyptians recognise that ‘older media’, such as television and radio, though accessed by most, tend to be biased. Still State TV, run by the ruling military, remains most popular, and domestic corporate media channels are self-serving and volatile in their coverage. Yet activists have explained to me that they can influence some of these media from the ‘outside in’ by documenting videos of protests, creating credible blogs, and tweeting stories to influence both international and domestic journalists. I saw these strategies in action in July, 2012 at a recent 23000+ person sit-in in Mahalla, the birthplace of Egypt’s labour movement. While this protest was sparsely reported on by the mainstream media, I observed how activists were using video cameras, blogs, and Facebook/Twitter connections to force this coverage from the outside-in. These forces can potentially bring new voices into the mainstream media culture.


 Listening Post – Egypt: Revolution revisited 

2. Who needs Internet access?: Though more Egyptians than ever have begun to access the Internet particularly after last year’s uprising, activists have realised that they can shape power and their perception within working class communities without an Internet connection. Media activist collective Mosireen, for example, uses low-cost video cameras and projectors to train community members throughout the nation to document military abuses and project these videos on walls within their own communities, in a project called Askar Kazeboon (aka; ‘The Military Are Liars’). Realising that they can make a difference as a media arm to various progressive and leftist issue-driven campaigns, Mosireen has used tactics of media production and distribution to disrupt false propaganda, fight against military trials, and promote living wages and rights to housing. While these are issue-driven rather than parliamentary or presidential ones, they speak to the use of social media to affect to short-term profound changes. Tools of telling and distributing stories are in the hands of local communities.

3. Linking the Street and Digital Worlds:  Despite being seen by one leader I met as a ‘sissy man’s game’, the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to enhance its social media presence via Twitter and its websites. The Brotherhood see their power in their ability to ‘work the street’ and organise via Mosques throughout the nation. Yet they also realise that their media presence is seen as archaic, and that their international reputation is now increasingly important with the election of President Mohammed Morsi. Brotherhood members have begun to embrace tools of outreach to engage with domestic and international audiences, building diplomatic connections, and hoping to influence older mainstream media.

4. We need new tools: “We were the kings of social media, and now our enemies are catching up with us.” With these words, Ahmed Maher, 2011 revolutionary hero and co-founder of the April 6th Youth Movement, explained to me that today’s battle for political power has two-fronts. While liberal and leftist parties need to gain more power in the street to catch up with a 50+ year military regime and 80 year Muslim Brotherhood, they also need to discover new tools that can continue to influence the political environment. Blogger and activist Hossam Hamalawy of the Revolutionary Socialists, for example, explained to me an effective website could serve as a real-time organiser for the labour leaders his party is starting to network across the country, and thus make possible more powerful strikes and future uprisings. What for Lenin was the newspaper could be a website for Hamalawy. And a website’s ability to connect leaders real-time could shape the power of a movement.

Activists and politicians in today’s Egypt have now fully embraced the tools of social media not just to support the creation of political capital but also to subvert the competition. Technologies to spy, hack, and leak are all part of the environment, and all actively used by the different political activists with which I spoke. The all too easy narrative that liberal/leftist youth and their technologies are out of the game simply doesn’t stand up to reality. Instead activists understand that their longer and shorter term strategies must both exist, and that they must engage the digital and physical worlds to achieve their goals.

I have never been in a nation where Marxism, Islamism and militaristic authoritarianism are on as many people’s lips at the same time. All these destinies and futures are possible, and are all being contested in the public sphere, which increasingly is intertwined with new digital technologies. As one friend, a cab-driver from inner-city Cairo neighbourhood Imbebba told me, “We will watch, listen, and if we do not like what we see – we will rise again.”

Ramesh Srinivasan is an Associate Professor in Media/Information Studies at UCLA. He has given several major invited talks, including recently at LIFT in 2009 (http://vimeo.com/5520100). He holds an engineering degree from Stanford, a Masters degree from the MIT Media Lab, and a Doctorate from Harvard University.

You can follow Ramesh on twitter @rameshmedia