Broken promises: New media revolution in the Arab world

The idea of the Internet as an intrinsically democratic medium should be left behind.

Social networks are often forums for like-minded people leading to further polarisation of society [Getty Images]

One day in September 2013, discussing on Facebook the events of Rab3a, Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd el Fattah complained about the collective inability of revolutionaries to accept the idea that, “There is a pre-Rab3a world and a totally different post-Rab3a world.”

In the aftermath of the Maspero massacre in October 2011, citizen journalists, thanks to alternative media, had been able to build up a narrative contradicting the version offered by the military. Why, Abdel Fattah asked, has the massacre in Rab4a, although bigger in proportion, been almost ignored by net-activists and their media?

Three years after the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the enthusiasm towards the role of new technologies as tools of democratisation seems to have faded away. Marc Lynch, one of the first scholars to highlight the role of bloggers on the political scene, has even spoken of “Twitter Devolutions”, stating that new media in today’s Egypt are encouraging hyperboles, polarisation of public debate and a fragmentation of the pan-Arab public sphere.

The role of new media within the 2011 uprisings has certainly been exaggerated by some, among both activists and observers. However, no one can deny that the Internet has been, and still is, a crucial space for a new generation of citizen journalists to raise awareness about the repressive nature of authoritarian regimes. In Syria, civil movements continue to rely almost exclusively on the web to get visibility and to express their views. In Egypt, after June 30, new media constitute once again the most used space where dissent can be expressed in reaction to the inadequacy of traditional media.

New media helped to internationalise the protests in 2011, creating a bridge between Arab audiences and the international community. In addition, the possibility to “organise without organisation” – enabled by the web – has empowered social movements, poor in resources and structures.

Learning curve

Why then do many Arab activists complain about social networks today and sometimes perceive them as a problem, rather than an opportunity?

Arab spring update [Al Jazeera]

The events of the last three years have indeed showed some limits of these forms of communication and their political implementations. In Egypt and Tunisia, social networks proved to be powerful instruments for mobilisation and for expressing dissent under Mubarak and Ben Ali, but they are much less effective in more articulated political systems where institutional processes such as elections take place. We know how to use new media to react and to exert pressure on authorities, but we don’t know yet how to make them suitable for developing long-term political projects and for competing with parties and other more structured organisations.

Social networks tend to rapidity, fragmentation, emotion and individualisation (sometimes narcissism) and these elements are very well suited to promoting issue-oriented campaigns. But they also encourage a discontinuous political engagement and a partial attention to political issues. In other words, we risk caring about too many things at the same time. On Facebook, the Tunisian blogger Azyz Amami, among others, has complained about the excessive decentralisation of web contents, saying that, “We risk a myopia because of the rapidity of current affairs and the emergence of buzz-politics. We need a centraliser of information to create an active memory.”

Uniter or divider?

To many activists, the Internet does not appear any more as a tactical medium, but rather as a space for endless discussions where each opinion has the same value and no real change is achieved. The ideal of “everyone is a pamphleteer” turns into a nightmare: A cacophony of expression that exacerbates ideological and strategic divisions among revolutionary social movements.

In the same way, in Syria the production of creative and political contents circulating in social networks has become so overwhelming that it is difficult even for expert activists to filter and contextualise them.

In post-Mubarak Egypt, the Internet itself as a political space has changed: It has been colonised by ordinary citizens, traditional political forces and professional journalists. And this happened while the first generation of net-activists took a step back.

From Morsi to the Armed Forces, everyone seems to feel the necessity to have her/his Facebook and Twitter account. A blogger told me that after a group of Salafis met him during a sit-in at Tahrir, they added him on Facebook, and so he discovered a completely different virtual world to which he did not have access before. This democratisation of the Internet has positive effects, of course, making it a better mirror of society as a whole, but the tendency of social networks to shape “echo chambers” of like-minded people can also encourage polarisation and extremism in society.

The moment has arrived to experiment with more structured forms of political organisation that can coexist better than old parties with the logic of the networks.

In Syria, the civil war was already visible on social networks before it became a reality on the ground. In Egypt, pro and anti- Muslim Brotherhood supporters seem to live in two different virtual worlds. The same, albeit with different nuances, can be said in Tunisia. 

Filter, then publish

As James Curran says, “Society has changed the Internet before the Internet could change society.” This seems to be true in the Arab world as well as in Europe and the US. New media did not meet our expectations, and we have to accept it.

But even if we have to abandon the idea of the Internet as an “intrinsically democratic” medium, this does not mean that it cannot still play a relevant role for democratic change in the near future. For this to happen, we have to rethink critically the practices behind the use of new technologies: using social networks, producing hashtags and promoting single campaigns is not enough anymore.

One key point goes under the name of centralisation: The need to develop a generation of intermediaries capable of filtering and contextualising the overwhelming, amateur content produced through the web. This operation requires a slowing down of the frantic interaction which characterises networked communication: The contents are there, but we need to manage them properly and use them to serve democratic logics. If the rule of new media production is “publish, then filter”, we have to reverse it.

In this sense, the Arab world is an extraordinary laboratory for experimentation: web aggregators, citizen media outlets, portals for archiving contents are flourishing day after day, testing new ways to deal with contemporary flows of contents. This would help to develop a pluralist networked public sphere while at the same time avoiding some of the problems intrinsic to digital forms of communication.

On the other hand, we need to test new forms of political organisations. Horizontal and loose protest movements showed their potential but also their limits, within the Arab uprisings as well as with protest movements in the US, Spain and Greece. The moment has arrived to experiment with more structured forms of political organisation that can coexist better than old parties with the logics of the networks.

Rethinking new media practices and their political applications can restore the Internet’s role as an instrument to make our societies better.

Enrico De Angelis is a media researcher at CEDEJ (Egypt-Sudan). He has lived in Cairo since September 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @anomiamed