Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: January 2011 (page 1 of 6)

Blood, Sweat, and Tear Gas

An article I wrote for The European, published only in German on their site.  Below is the original text, in English.  Title is theirs.

All too often, Western pundits talk about digital activism in developing countries as if it were some phenomenon bestowed upon poor young foreigners by the moguls of Silicon Valley or worse, the US government.  To listen to the recent speech of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, you’d think they were right; after all, he found reason to credit the January Tunisian uprising to American social media companies.

If we dialed the clock bacssk to the summer of 2009, we would see that Qaddafi is not unique in his thinking: As young Iranians took to the streets in protest of what they deemed to be a rigged election, the global media was quick to catch onto their use of the Internet to disseminate information from inside the state to the outside world, dubbing the young people’s efforts as a “Twitter revolution.”

Indeed, from Tehran to Tunis, tech-savvy youth have taken it upon themselves to incorporate digital tools into political and social organizing, logging onto Facebook to create protest events or share videos and photographs from the streets.  During the January Tunisian uprising, young bloggers like Lina Ben Mhenni traveled the country, posting photographs and anecdotes to her blog, A Tunisian Girl.  Exiled bloggers Malek Khadraoui, Sami Ben Gharbia, and pseudonymous ‘Astrubaal’ kept the world up-to-date with dispatches from the ground on their citizen media site, Nawaat.  And perhaps most famously, Slim Amamou–the digital activist who would later be nominated to the country’s ministry–alerted Twitter followers of his arrest by checking in to the Ministroy of Interior on FourSquare.  As he attended his first cabinet meeting some week or so later, he tweeted throughout, the first minister to do so.

Less than a month later, as unrest spread to Egypt–undoubtedly influenced by the growing firestorm online–demonstrators were seen pre-planning online strategy nearly a week prior to January 25.  Egyptians on Twitter discussed the best hashtag to use days in advance, settling on #jan25, while the hundreds of thousands of members of the “We are all Khaled Said” group on Facebook collected e-mail addresses in a Google Doc in case of a Facebook ban.  As the demonstrations got underway, members of that same Facebook group posted updates from around the Web, sharing videos, photographs, and first-hand accounts.  Even after the government forced ISPs to shut down, individuals on the one remaining ISP–Noor–and using dialup still managed to send missives to the world.

Poring over the evidence, it becomes clear that social media has played an important role in all of the aforementioned uprisings, and then some.  With that in mind, it begs the question, “What’s so wrong about calling this a social media revolution?”

First, the implication of such nomenclature is that Twitter or Facebook can make or break a protest, turn a revolt into a revolution.  This is not the case: Neither in Iran nor Tunisia was social media the catalyst for uprising.  In Iran, it was the allegedly rigged election that brought Ahmadinejad to power for the second time that pushed the young leaders of the Green Movement to call for action, gathering thousands into the streets to chant for him to step down.  In Tunisia, it was unemployment and poverty and the self-immolation of young Mohammed Bouazizi that spurred citizens to take to the streets, eventually causing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

It is also important to take note of the nature of such rhetoric: Iran’s revolt wasn’t a Twitter one until the Western media said so, and Tunisians had taken to online organizing long before the West took notice.  In fact, so had much of the Arab world: In Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond, youth utilize online tools to organize against everything from widespread corruption to sectarianism.

It’s fair to say that the Internet has changed the game, but to credit it for revolutions is disingenuous and takes credit away from the blood, sweat, and tear gas that make up a revolution.

Boston for Egypt

Signs of protest, Boston

I went into Harvard Square this afternoon around 1:00 to join the protestors and take photos; seeing the hundred or so people gathered and ready to move, I asked what was happening and was told that an earlier delegation had already marched across Cambridge, through Central Square and into Boston, and were going to head down Boylston.  So, all hundred or so of us marched toward the T and took it to Park Street, then met up with the other crowd and marched back down Boylston through the Common, past the Capitol building and on to Government Center, ending at Fanueil Hall.

Bostonians marching for Egypt

The crowd was mostly Egyptian, judging by the chants (“Muslim! Christian!  We’re all Egyptian!”), with lots of the usual solidarity activists and the socialist crowd, as well as a strong contingent of students.  They were led mostly by a young man, but later an 8-year-old girl was given the megaphone and loudly called for an end to the regime as her mother beamed proudly next to her.

A young girl leads the chanting

The rest of my photos are here; they’re all Creative Commons licensed, so feel free to use them with attribution.

How are protestors in Egypt using social media?

Shortly after writing this, reports came in that the Internet in Egypt had become a black hole, entirely–or almost entirely–inaccessible.  Updates soon.

This question has been posed to me constantly over the past two days from journalists doing their best to understand the relationship between online and offline forms of protest.  I feel their pain – after the mainstream media went gaga over Iran’s 2009 protests, journalists must be considerably wary when tackling this subject: Go one way, and you risk overstating the influence, go the other and you’re dismissed as assuming individuals in the Arab world incapable of leveraging social media tools for organizing.

In thinking on this, I was inspired by these words, from “technosociologist” Zeynep Tufekci, in reference to Tunisia:

To say that social-media was a key part of the revolution does not necessarily mean that people used GPS-enabled phones to coordinate demonstrations; that is simplistic and misses the point in which social media shapes the environment in general. What it means is that the people acted in a world where they had more means of expressing themselves to each other and the world, being more assured that their plight would not be buried by the deep pit of censorship, and a little more confidence that their extended families, their neighbors, their fellow citizens were similarly fed up, as poignantly expressed by the slogan taken up by the protestors: “Yezzi Fock! Enough!”

Tufekci has repeatedly (and very thoughtfully) asked why journalists and bloggers insist on differentiating so strongly between “online” and “offline” and I think she has an extremely valid point: Though Egypt and Tunisia have considerably lower Internet penetration rates than the United States, young Egyptians and Tunisians use the Internet in pretty much the same way as young Americans, albeit perhaps more politicized at times.  And so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that, when organizing a massive protest, they might turn to Facebook to get folks to sign up.

Now, does any of this warrant Western reporters calling this a “Facebook” (or, insert your favorite social media site here) revolution?  I’d like to state a fervent “no.”  To do so is to take credit from the very brave individuals who’ve spent the past few days in the streets of Cairo and Suez, the individuals who’ve been shot at, some killed.  To do so is to ignore the brutality, the tear gas, and the killings.

So, how are protestors in Egypt using social media?

I’d like to delve a bit into what I’ve seen on these various networks over the past, say 48 hours.  Note that all of the following are merely examples, not the be-all end-all of what’s happening online in Egypt.  And I fully expect my Egyptian friends to jump in with corrections, additions, and anything else they might like to add.

Let’s start with the extremely popular (423,000 members) “We are all Khaled Said” Page on Facebook, started last summer after the murder of young Khaled Said at the hands of policemen in Alexandria.  Said’s murder resulted in a spate of loud, active blogging and tweeting, much of which was covered by Global Voices.

That solidarity page has morphed into what is perhaps one of the most central locations for information on the current protests in Egypt.  Over the past 48 hours, many of the group’s thousands of members have posted photos, videos, and various other updates to the page.

Some of the links serve no organizational purpose and are intended simply to be shared broadly; others offer actual assistance: Take, for example, an update this afternoon, posted by a young woman whose profile says she’s based in Cairo, sharing the download link to the circumvention tool Hotspot Shield.  An angry post from about 12 hours ago from the group’s admin ruminates on how the people of Suez were cut off from mobile networks when they needed them most.  A Google Doc posted yesterday asks members of the Page to submit their email addresses in case Facebook is censored or the group is taken down (note: this very same group was taken down a month ago by Facebook because its admin was using a pseudonym, a TOS violation.)

There are also events posted around Facebook.  This one, for example, calls for solidarity between Muslims and Christians on Friday, asking them to unite in protest.  A Google Doc (which I’ve been told is better not shared here) started prior to the January 25 protests, lays out a statement of purpose, explains meeting places, and offers practical advice: Egyptian flags only, no political emblems, no violence, don’t disrupt traffic, bring plenty of water, don’t bring your national ID card, etc.

Beyond Egypt, Beyond Right Now

To suggest that this type of organizing is limited to right now would be to ignore the existing use of digital tools in the region for social and political organizing.  To be honest, so much of the rhetoric around the use of social media in Egypt and Tunisia makes me want to scream — folks act like these American tools just dropped from the sky like humanitarian food rations, set to save the people from their (American-supported, natch) dictators.

As Sami Ben Gharbia so eloquently noted on Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan program last week, these networks have existed for a long time.  Are they enhanced by social media?  Of course, and I’m sure Sami would agree. But when did we go from referring to social media as a tool to calling it the catalyst of a revolution?

I will leave this with a final thought cribbed from Ethan Zuckerman, who wrote last week: “Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.”

Egyptians are not out in the streets because of Facebook, nor Twitter.  They are not angry because an American diplomat who spent a few years in their country revealed something that a nation of Egyptians already knew.  Egyptians are angry, and rightfully so, at a dictatorship that has been around for longer than I’ve been alive, a dictatorship that has been supported by the United States for almost as many years (see Alaa Abd El Fattah’s thoughts on that here).  And if their will is to bring that dictator down, then so be it.

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