Wednesday 07 December 2016

Digital Insights from Egypt’s Revolution

A shop in Tahrir Square is spray painted with the word Twitter after the government shut off internet access on February 4, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Less than eight months ago, I wrote a post about statecraft in a digital 21st century and mentioned Egyptian teens who were organizing political strikes via Facebook. Now, I’m not an expert in world affairs or political turmoil, but I am a true believer in the impressive abilities of today’s connective technologies to bypass government-imposed communication barriers and accelerate the spread of information to dispersed groups.

The recent political and civil unrest in Egypt has refocused the world’s microscope on the political power of social media. There are those who argue that Egypt is a “Twitter revolution,” while others maintain that the “uprising in Cairo appears to be very old-fashioned” – spurred onward not by Facebook groups, but by Egyptians choosing to join demonstrators in their streets.

Wired’s David Kravets warns against confusing social media tools with root causes, or the “means with ends.” Pundits will likely continue to analyze and debate social media’s impact on the Egyptian protests for years to come. However, there are some points worth highlighting now:

  • Connective technologies are a growing force in Egypt. According to U.N. statistics, Internet use in Egypt increased from less than 1 percent to 21 percent of the population during the past decade. Thirty percent of Egypt’s 17 million Internet users now subscribe to Facebook, an increase of 10 percent since just May 2010. In fact, with 5 million users, Egypt leads the Arab world in the number of Facebook subscribers. Additionally, the Egyptian government reports 60 million mobile phone subscribers out of a population of 80 million people, although smartphone penetration in the country is still low.
  • Governments have taken note. It’s been put quite simply, and I agree: “If the Internet didn’t matter, the Egyptian government wouldn’t have felt it necessary to shut it down.” Perhaps due to Facebook groups with rapidly increasing numbers of “Likes” or due to a surge in relevant Twitter conversations, the Egyptian government made the unprecedented decision to cut off Internet access. Yes, the revolution continued, but social media had already enabled and accelerated protest organization. The Egyptian government’s decision acknowledges the real impact and threat of connective technologies’ ability to allow committed groups to communicate quickly and on a large scale. Stateside, the Obama administration has emphasized the human right of free speech, and is also promoting the Internet and social networks as core tools for individual expression.
  • Revolution inspires technological innovation. As I noted above, I’m consistently impressed with human innovation and the power of today’s connective technologies to bypass government communication barriers. Egypt is no different. Faced with suspended Internet service and disabled text messaging, protesters used proxy servers and third party apps to access Twitter and Facebook. Google also launched a voice-to-tweet workaround to help people in Egypt send Twitter messages. The service allows users to dial a telephone number and leave a voicemail. The message is then translated into an audio file and uploaded to Twitter with the hashtag #Egypt, giving the world access to firsthand accounts of the protests.
  • The level of social media reporting and message amplification is historic. From news organizations’ curated Twitter lists of users tweeting from Egypt, to YouTube’s promotion of Al Jazeera English’s live stream and its Citizentube channel, the level of reporting and message amplification surrounding the Egyptian protests is groundbreaking. News organizations have dedicated live blogs to the protests. Tumblr created an Egypt page that aggregates short updates from journalists. A TwitPic of Egyptian protesters on Cairo’s Kasr Al Nil Bridge was viewed more than 70,000 times in the first four hours after it was posted. Almost 5,000 images have flooded Flickr in the days since Internet access was restored in Egypt. Even the document sharing service Scribd is doing its part with an “Unrest in Egypt, 2011” shelf filled with relevant petitions and memos. Perhaps most notably, social media has brought the Egyptian protests and political upheaval in smaller, traditionally less-covered countries like Tunisia to the forefront of American media attention.

We are all witnesses to this historic revolution – a revolution that attempts to force a regime change, but also a communications revolution that is redefining how we gather and disseminate information around the world. It’s unclear where Egypt will land politically and this article isn’t meant to speculate on the outcome, however it serves as yet another data point which makes the case for media revolution. Connective technologies like social media have altered the public sphere, allowing dispersed citizens to organize and collaborate more rapidly, and bringing firsthand accounts of civil unrest to users thousands of miles away.

Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


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