Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Wikileaks (page 1 of 3)

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.

Qaddafi’s View of the Internet in Tunisia

In a speech today (full transcript in Arabic here), Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi addressed the Tunisian people. Amira al Hussaini noticed–and translated–a bit of the speech dealing with the Internet:

حتى أنتم إخواني التوانسة ، ربما أنكم تقرؤون في الكلينكس هذا ، والكلام الفارغ في الإنترنت . وهذا الإنترنت ، الذي أي واحد أهبل ؛ يسكر ويحط فيه أي كلام ، هل تصدقه !. الإنترنت هذا مثل الكناسة التي ترمي فيها أي حاجة ، فأي واحد تافه ؛ أي واحد كذاب ؛ أي واحد سكران ؛ أي واحد مخمور ؛ واحد شارب الأفيون ؛ يقدر يقول أي كلام في الإنترنت ، وأنتم تقرؤونه وتصدقونه .. هذا كلام بدون فلوس.. هل نصبح نحن ضحية لـ «فيسبوك» وضحية «الكلينكس « وضحية «يوتيوب»!، نصبح ضحية الأدوات التي صنعوها هم لكي يضحكوا بأمزجتنا !.. نحن نقرر مصيرنا ، حسب الحقائق وحسب حاجتنا.. ثم إن هذا ليس عصر الدم ؛ وعصر الدخان ؛ وعصر الحرق ، وعصر السكاكين ؛ و»الشيتات» ؛والفؤوس .. هذا عصر الجماهير ، المفروض عصر الديمقراطية ؛ كل شيء يا بـ «الإنتخاب ، يا «الاستفتاء» ، يا بالسلطة الشعبية المباشرة ؛ الديمقراطية الشعبية المباشرة .. وليس بـ «الإشاعات» ؛ وبـ «الفيسبوك» ؛ وبـ «اليوتيوب» ؛ وبـ «الكلينكس» ؛ و»ويكيليكس وبرقيات السفراء الأمريكان ، وشبكة المعلومات الدولية الإنترنت هذه هي التي الآن تضحك علينا ، ونهّتكوا في ديارنا ؛ ونمزق ملابسنا ؛ ونقتل أولادنا ، من أجلها .

This Internet, which any demented person, any drunk can get drunk and write in, do you believe it? The Internet is like a vacuum cleaner, it can suck anything. Any useless person; any liar; any drunkard; anyone under the influence; anyone high on drugs; can talk on the Internet, and you read what he writes and you believe it. This is talk which is for free. Shall we become the victims of “Facebook” and “Kleenex” and “YouTube”! Shall we become victims to tools they created so that they can laugh at our moods? We decide our destiny, based on facts and our needs. Besides, this is not the era of blood, of smoke, of burning, of knives and axes; this is the era of the people, and supposedly the era of democracy. Everything is by election and referendum, ie, through the people’s direct authority, which is the people’s direct democracy, and not through rumours, and Facebook, and YouTube, and the Kleenex and the cables of American Ambassadors. This world wide web Internet is laughing at us and damaging our countries; it is tearing up our clothes; and killing our children for it.

All Qaddafi jokes aside (and there are plenty of them), Qaddafi has essentially insulted the Tunisians and discredited their very real use of the Internet during the recent uprising. Now, I realize that I’ve spent the past two days doing some discrediting myself, of mostly Western journalists who were all too quick to dub the Tunisian revolution as an “Internet” (or Twitter, or Facebook, or WikiLeaks) revolution. But, as I’ve said, that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the very real role the technology played in getting news out of Tunisia and into the mainstream.

Of course it’s worth noting–in case any of my readers aren’t aware, and I would find that hard to imagine–Qaddafi is a regional joke. Nevertheless, we’re talking about a region that is very concerned with its citizens’ use of the Internet. Counting Tunisia, there are only three countries remaining in the Arab world that don’t filter the Internet (the other two are Lebanon and Egypt), and all three have a record of arresting bloggers. The rest of the region ranges from pervasive filtering–Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Syria–to less pervasive filtering with a dose of blogger crackdowns on the side (Morocco, Jordan). Most of the countries in the region have a blogger currently in jail. There is evidence of several using the Internet–in legal or illegal ways–to glean information on its citizens (phishing attempts in Tunisia and Lebanon, surveillance in Syria and Morocco).

So, while Qaddafi may not be taken seriously, any overtures he makes toward the Internet’s dangers could be well-taken by regional leaders. As we’ve seen with Tunisia (and Iran), this matters…and it doesn’t. Tunisians were operating under a strictly censored Internet, and yet still managed to disseminate information across a variety of social networks. On the other hand, any stakes a government can drive through its net-enabled civil society, it will.

Also worth noting (as pointed out to me by Amira) is Qaddafi’s prior support of WikiLeaks (which he now refers to as “Kleenex”*) and Julian Assange. Qaddafi referred to WikiLeaks as playing a “very useful” role in exposing American “hypocrisy and conspiracies”, stating that he was “for freedom and against curbing the voices and ideas.”

This time around, however, it seems that perhaps Qaddafi sees Tunisian Internet usage during the uprising as an American conspiracy (which I would state very strongly, it is not – such a suggestion is offensive to the large and longstanding Tunisian blogging and social media community).

*Others report hearing “Leakyleaks”; either way, he–maybe intentionally–mispronounced it.

Not Twitter, Not WikiLeaks: A Human Revolution

Beginning this afternoon, shortly after (former) president Ben Ali fled Tunisia, I started getting calls about the effect of social media on the Tunisian uprising. I answered a few questions, mostly deferring reporters to friends in Tunisia for their side of the story, and then settled in for the night…only to find rantings and ravings about Tunisia’s “Twitter revolution” and “WikiLeaks revolution” blowing up the airwaves.

Like Alaa Abd El Fattah, I think it’s too soon to tell what the true impact of social media was on the events of the past few weeks. I also think it’s a bit irresponsible of Western analysts to start pontificating on the relevance of social media to the Tunisian uprising without talking to Tunisians (there are notable exceptions; Ethan Zuckerman’s piece for Foreign Policy is spot on, Matthew Ingram does a nice job of opening the debate here, and Evgeny Morozov’s analysis–which starts with this great piece–is ongoing).

But for each thoughtful, skeptical piece, there is yet another claiming the unknowable. In this piece, for example, Elizabeth Dickinson of Foreign Policy writes:

Of course, Tunisians didn’t need anyone to tell them [about the excesses of the first family]. But the details noted in the cables — for example, the fact that the first lady may have made massive profits off a private school — stirred things up.

By all Tunisian accounts, WikiLeaks had little–if anything–to do with the protests; rather, the protests were spurred by unemployment and economic woes.  Furthermore, Tunisians have been documenting abuses by the Ben Ali regime and the first family for years, as Zuckerman notes.  In fact,  Dickinson seems to realize this herself, and yet for some reason still attempts to argue that WikiLeaks was a catalyst in the unrest.

Andrew Sullivan, who praised Dickinson’s piece, seems to have decided for himself that social media was used as a tool for organizing:

The core test is whether Twitter and online activism helped organize protests. It appears they did, even through government censorship. Wikileaks also clearly helped. So did al Jazeera, for those who see it entirely as an Islamist front.

I’m not sure by what means such an idea appeared to Sullivan, but I haven’t heard it said yet–not once–by a Tunisian.  Until I do, I’ll remain skeptical (though Sullivan’s praise of Al Jazeera is welcome).

Now, I’m not about to discount social media’s relationship to the Tunisian uprising.  For one, it most certainly played a huge role in getting videos, photos, and news out to the world–and not just to a public audience, but to news organizations as well.  Al Jazeera–which had some of the best coverage of Tunisia over the past few weeks–relied heavily on sources gleaned from social networks for much of its print work, as did other organizations.  Tunisian blogs and news sources–such as Nawaat and SBZ News–filled in the gaps left by the mainstream media’s shoddy reporting of the events. And speaking from personal experience, I was able to connect a lot of Tunisians–some of whom I’ve never met in real life–with journalists because of our connections on Facebook and Twitter.

But to call this a “Twitter revolution” or even a “WikiLeaks revolution” demonstrates that we haven’t learned anything from past experiences in Moldova and Iran.  Evgeny Morozov’s question–“Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter?”–says it all.  And in this case, yes, I–like most Tunisians to whom I’ve posed this question–believe that this would have happened without the Internet.

The real question, then, is would the rest of us have heard about it without the Internet?  Would the State Department have gotten involved early on (remember, their first public comment was in respect to Tunisian Net freedom)?  Would Al Jazeera–without offices on the ground–have been able to report on the unfolding story as they did?  Most importantly, would any of that have mattered?

Social media may have had some tangential effect on organization within Tunisia; I think it’s too soon to say.  No doubt, SMS and e-mail (not to be mistaken with social media) helped Tunisians keep in touch during, before, and after protests, but no one’s hyping those–e-mails and texts simply aren’t as fascinating to the public as tweets.  In fact, assuming SMS and e-mail did play a role in organizing (and again, I don’t doubt they did — Tunisian’s Internet penetration rate may be only 33%, but its mobile penetration rate is closer to 85%), then we ought to be asking what it is about social media that is unappealing for organization?  Could it be the sheer publicness of it, the inherent risks of posting one’s location for the world to see?  Given the mass phishing of Facebook accounts, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Facebook were seen as risky (Gmail accounts were also hacked, however, which undoubtedly led some to view digital communications in general as risky).

I am incredibly thrilled for and proud of my Tunisian friends.  This is an incredible victory and one unlikely to fade from popular memory anytime soon.  And I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight.  But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.

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