Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

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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  1. I think to deny the use of new tools as exciting and noteworthy in a revolution is a mistake. You will likely remain frustrated as it is an inevitable story, and rightly so. There are new capabilities at play, such as Facebook’s secure sign on that change the game (nice post on that).

    Framing the argument around using the tools to better activities that have predated technology makes a ton of sense. Carrier pidgeons and messengers were used before the telegraph and ham radio which preceded phone and email. All were used historically for revolutionary purposes, to galvanize human networks.

  2. It is really interesting to me that the analysis of the digital elements for Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen is taking much longer than for Iran and Moldova. Partly it is because we are not jumping to facile and inaccurate labels. But are there other reasons? Is the analysis actually more difficult in the current situations or are analysts just being more cautious?

    • I would actually think it’d be easier this time around. In any case, I think it’s out of caution; we’ve seen how early analysis of Iran and Moldova were mostly wrong.

  3. Although Egyptians are still offline, there are clearly savvy tacticians on the ground who know the the tactics of nonviolent civil resistance. This is the kind of knowledge that wins revolutions:


  4. I was pleasantly surprised to hear you speak on Sci-Fri. Go science!

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