Social Media as a Tool for Uprisings in Egypt

Introduction

About a week ago in the morning, a bomb, which was placed in a trash, was exploded near a bus stop in Etiler, İstanbul (Sabah, 2011). The bomb squad, police and the ambulances came to the area and I was very close to the scene as I was on my way to the office I work. When the traffic was shut down I could not help myself looking at all that mess in the area where people were curiously looking at the bomb scene and asking each other for what happened. Then I realized soon that everybody would be talking about this bomb on the internet whether they know the exact truths or not. With a sense of public responsibility, I took off my mobile phone, connected to Twitter and tweeted a couple of information about the event I was watching. I had more than 350 Twitter followers at that time but when my tweets about the event were retweeted by tens of people, I realized that the action I took for to enlighten people against false information reached more people than I had guessed. It was the power of social media. But was it all about social media? What about my self-courage to tweet about the event?

With the rise of Web 2.0 and the social networks like Facebook and Twitter, every internet user now has a chance to be an active participant for the events or demonstrations that are happening around them. Web 1.0 evolved into 2.0 and the result was the evolution of the internet consumers to become producers and participants in the digital sphere. All in all producing and participating were parts of communication which has now turned into an enormous shape. The uprising in Egypt early this year can be shown as a great example of using social media but the question is can all that demonstrations and marches be shown as a “social media revolution”? My argument is that social networks like Facebook and Twitter were not the real reasons for the Egypt revolution, but they were the accelerators and the tools for the needed communication to bring protestors together. In this paper, first you will find a brief summary about the rise of Web 2.0 with a support from Jurgen Habermas and its understanding of public sphere in the sense of social media. Then I will summarize a couple of academic essays from Bernard Berelson, Brian McNair and Evgeny Morozov to form a ground for the reader to better understand the social media’s role in Egyptian revolutions. And lastly you will find an analysis of a text from an Egyptian blogger in Global Voices which focuses on the role of social media and digital activism.

Evolution of Web 2.0 and The Digital Public Sphere

Before understanding the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and the social media’s positioning as a tool for the uprisings, the evolution of the web from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and its consequences and the digital sphere it is created, which can be a model for the public sphere understanding of Habermas, should be briefly explained. Simply the outcomes of this change to Web 2.0 resulted in a more user participated digital nature which is much more different than the previous digital interactions in the past. The phrase “Web 2.0” was first mentioned in a conference in San Francisco, California in 1994, where the leading figures of online innovation community met each other (Graham, 2005). They had already observed the upcoming changes and challenges in the online world and so they divided the internet history into two: Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.

It should be underlined that the virtual social media community of what we understand today is basically a result of the evolution happened between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. The fundamental difference between the two is the increased participation of the internet users through several different digital platforms and networks. It is the reciprocity which makes the difference now where the users can produce and share the data with the help of social media. This exchange of information, in addition to the ability of easily communicate, created a digital sphere of force for not only fun, but also for journalism, political participation, creating public opinion, establishing awareness and also gathering together for particular motivations. Blogging services like Blogger and WordPress, micro-blogging services like Twitter and Tumblr and networking sites like Facebook and Foursquare are some examples of today’s digital evolution which made significant changes in our lives. In my opinion, all these user-based content production and ability to spread it with the increasing communication ability of individuals, there happened a digital sphere to be carefully observed and understood.

To better understand digital public sphere that is created by the social networks, we should quote the concept of public sphere drawn by Habermas: “a body of private persons assembled to discuss matters of public concern or common interest” (Fraser, p. 58). What Habermas claims all the time can be summarized as the deliberative democracy model in simple terms as he is a democratic theorist who is looking for the members of the society to come together and discuss in deliberation. He aims for the parts of the society to be in communication with each other to reach a consensus where they construct the public sphere. What he importantly claims is the difference of these parts of the society and the necessity for these parts to accept each other in deliberation. The need for the “dialogue” is the key for all these different parts along with the understanding of equality between each member.

In my opinion, the rise of the internet in 21st century can be shown as a concept model for the deliberative public sphere of Habermas. What internet brings to our lives is the chance to broadcast ourselves in blogs and videos and an interactivity between users in return. Forums, urban dictionaries like Ekşi and İnci Sözlük, blogs and social media networks like Facebook or Twitter… There goes a massive number of interactivity among users of the internet with the help of the improving technology which can be shown as a model for public sphere of Habermas. What is catchy here is that the evolution of digital public sphere brings not only deliberative communication, it brings an habit of understanding and knowing each other with the addition of ability to get together for the common purposes with the use of social media as a tool. So we can look at the uprisings in Egypt from this viewpoint but I firmly believe we should not forget that the sphere that is created by social networks is only an accelerator for the uprisings which were already waiting to happen as in the examples of French or Bolshevik revolutions. Although, digital sphere looks like to embrace citizens’ lives, it can never replace the deliberative public sphere model of Habermas in reality. Still both spheres have strong links of interaction as the internet users are also real people living in a real society.

Role of Communications and Journalism in Digital Delusion

In this part, I will try to give brief summaries of articles written by Bernard Berelson about the role of communications in the society, by Brian McNair about the history of journalism and by Evgeny Morozov about the digital delusions internet users experience. To start with, Berelson asks the question if communications influence public opinion. He sets five sets of variables which are communications, issues, people, conditions and effects (Berelson, p. 531). The most important two frames to be discussed here, in my opinion, are personal contact of communications and the way the content is diverted. First, he highlights the difference between radio and the newspapers as the former one has an advantage of being more personal and more effective. “The more personal the media, the more effective it is in converting opinions” he writes (Berelson, p. 531). Second, he draws a distinction between reportorial and interpretive content where the latter one has less significant effect on the public opinion (Berelson, p. 534).

What makes Berelson’s writings some kind of “nostalgic” is the fast nature of the digital century of ours. Although he has very striking points about the role of communications, in which I will be redefining the two points mentioned above, the digital journalism of Web 2.0 make his opinions to be revisited. The feeling of personal communication with radio compared to the newspapers used to influence the public opinion in the past but now, I am quite sure Berelson would agree with me, it is now much more personal with the social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. It is the digital public itself that is creating and influencing public opinion which is much more personal than radio, TV or newspapers. Second point of Berelson that I find important to mention is the rate of interpretation of the news. He finds direct telling of events more influential and interpretative telling less effective. But in the digital world, they are mixed unlike in any time before in history. In Facebook or Twitter, you can post a news article to your wall with a short comment or you can even write a long blog post or just a tweet of 140 characters. Those are cannot be labeled simply as reportorial or interpretive which is the result of the chaotic flow of Web 2.0 content production. All in all, the role of communications in the aspects of personalization and the type of telling the news are still important in our digital world but from a different perspective.

Brian McNair, whose article is written in 2009, looks at the history of journalism in his article named “Journalism and Democracy”. Apart from his association of journalism and democracy, I will only look at his five types of journalism in historical context which are journalism before democracy, journalism as a source for deliberative democracy, journalism as a watchdog, journalism as a mediator and journalism as a participant. What catches me first is the very obvious similarity of digital Twitter and Facebook journalists of today with these five types of journalism in the history. First, journalism before democracy was seen as useful but potentially dangerous (McNair, p. 237) just like nowadays’ situation where governments are finding the internet useful but are needing to control it in case of any future danger. Second, journalism is a source of information in a deliberate democracy (McNair, p. 238) which is quite similar today where every Web 2.0 participant deliberately joins the conversation in the digital sphere, the one that can be a model of Habermas’ public sphere mentioned above.

Third, journalism is like a watchdog to prevent the abuses of authorities (McNair, p. 239) which reminds me the role of Wikileaks (Fildes, 2010) and the spread of news by the social media users that threatened the governments’ policies that are hidden behind the curtains. Fourth, the journalism as a representative who ensures that the voice of public is heard (McNair, p. 239), which we can be seen as a model in social media where the politicians and citizens, which are the new digital journalists, meet for public debate on the internet to create public opinion. The last one, journalism as advocates that defend the rights of the people (McNair, p. 240), can be seen in today’s Twitter and Facebook users who are producing content for and against the news items in a continuous digital process. To sum up, it seems that the types of journalism in McNair’s article quite resembles the positioning of social media users of our time, which means that internet users are not only people that are having fun unconsciously but rather use it in an effective and influential way through participating and producing content. Actually more than that, they get together with social media while being voluntary journalists which I will mention in a couple of paragraphs later.

Similarities of significant thoughts from Berelson and McNair about communications, personalization and types of journalism with new digital sphere and players of our century are the ones that should be kept in mind to better understand the spirit of digital time. To conclude this section, the last review will be from the article named “Why Kierkegaard Hates Slacktivism” from the book “The Net Delusion” written by Evgeny Morozov which, in brief, is about the delusional positioning of the social media users for being proactive in the virtual world and its consequences of passiveness in the real world due to the virtual satisfaction. Morozov tells more about the psychological sides of the virtual pro-activity where social networkers are looking to promote themselves by joining groups and events virtually and not taking action in reality (Morozov, p. 186). It is useful to create awareness by creating groups and events on Facebook or tweeting about issues that are worth discussing about but he criticizes that this awareness is only valuable when it is converted into action “and this is where tools like Twitter and Facebook prove much less successful” (Morozov, p. 191).

So the digital activism become an habit for social media users which is also supported by the moderators of related digital groups who are looking for more visitors, not for more functionality. Morozov defines them as “dissidents without dissent” (Morozov, p. 198) who create a lot of digital buzz around the subject and not being able to channel the conversations into an effective consequence. This situation also closes the way for the social media tools to become tools for communication that creates public opinion and political activism. Rami Khouri, editor of the Lebanon’s the Daily Star is generally concerned about the long-term effects of the digital influence: “Such activities essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism, mobilizing, demonstrating or voting into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment” (Morozov, p. 202). All in all, it is quite simple to label the digital users as only virtually active where they feel virtually satisfied and not really participate. But the question is that is it the fault of the social media or the people that are using it? When we think of the social media as a tool for the revolution in Egypt, we define it as the success of people as activists and success of the social media for being a very effective communication tool. And to be against Morozov, it seems that there is this good example of how people in Egypt can become active in both real and virtual worlds.

The Role of Social Media in 2011 Egyptian Revolution

“In the 21st century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.” says USA President Barack Obama about the role of internet after the revolution in Egypt. (Banks, 2011). What he means by “active” is the masses’ participation in both real and virtual worlds and what he means by “informed” is the power of social media as a tool to spread the word of information as quick as possible. In Globalvoicesonline.org, Gilad Lotan collects several pieces of blog posts written by Egyptian blogger Hani Morsi which are about the technology driven activism and the role of social media in societal changes. In order to prove that digital participants in social media are more than spectators, Morsi shows examples of April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt and Green Revolution in Iran as political movements that are grown out of social media (Lotan, 2011).

Morsi also replies to Malcolm Gladwell’s article named “Does Egypt need Twitter?” that is published in New Yorker in which Gladwell claims that Egyptian people did not need any social media tool to revolt against the government and showed examples from revolutions in history, that had no social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, like the French Revolution and the fall of Berlin Wall (Gladwell, 2011). It is in fact true that the past revolts had not social media networks, rather they had the necessary communication tools like telephones, telegraphs etc. What they needed was not a better communication tool, it was the courage they needed and so, for today, the social media was the accelerator and the tool for the events. Morsi agrees with the point of Gladwell and says that the uprisings and demonstrations would eventually bring down the aging, coercive and non-democratic governments. But he adds that the social media tools helped to accelerate the process in the case of communication and also helped the awareness and ability to revolt of other Middle Eastern and North African countries (Lotan, 2011). According to Morsi coercive regimes have the fear of open and fair dialogue which takes us back to virtual sphere that is modeled by Habermas’ understanding of public sphere where people exchange ideas and opinions in a deliberative way. So the fear of governments become real with the awareness that is established by the social networks.

“What I refer to here as the virtualization of dissent is what happened when the popular desire for change was shifted from real space, where it was in long somnolence, and cultivated it in a space that the Patriarchs do not understand: virtual space” says Morsi to prove that the unhappiness of Egyptian people goes back to Presidential elections in 2005 and the boiling point was January 25, 2011 (Lotan, 2011). To show as an example of shift to virtual space we can mention the Facebook group named “We are all Khaled Said” which gathered more than a million people at the time of the events (Villareal, 2011). Khaled Said, a symbol during the uprisings, was a young Egytian who died under disputed circumstances after being arrested by the police. His corpse’s photos was spread through the social networks and it incited an outrage through the 2011 Egypt revolution. What accelerated the process was the Facebook group that brought people together with his photos but the reality is that people, with another photo or event, would still had the courage to come together to be against the government’s unfair actions.

According to a 2010 report entitled “Middle East and Africa Facebook Demographics”, there are 15 million Facebook subscribers in the area which is more than the newspapers circulated in the region (Feuilherade, 2011). Despite the fact that newspapers are read by more than one person, still this really shows an huge digital potential for communication. On the other hand, although both Twitter and Facebook was very helpful to mobilize the dissidents, these social media tools did not invent the courage the Egyptians had. Both Twitter and Facebook was blocked on January 2011 (Bold Mayers, 2011) but the dissidents still found a way to keep the communication through digital channels via DNS and proxy changes or chat rooms in online gaming and dating web sites (Villareal, 2011). It is certain that without the richness internet brings to the sphere of communication, none of these would happen that fast. But it is certain that people would find another way to communicate with each other. This is because the people in Egypt, for a long period of time, had been suffering from poverty, rising prices, unemployment, social exclusion, corruption and personal enrichment among the political elite (Nguyen, 2011) which already made them ready to protest, with or without the social media.

Conclusion

Throughout the paper I tried to convince the reader that the revolution in Egypt was not all about the use of social media. My argument was that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook were not the reasons, but the accelerators for the uprisings that established awareness among people with the high-tech communications and the ability to mobilize after that. The evolution from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 made internet users to create content and share it through various channels which made it possible for people to easily communicate and share knowledge. I firmly believe that this evolution of web created a digital sphere of people, which is a model for Habermas’ public sphere, where people deliberately and equally share opinions and exchange ideas. Berelson’s article was to define the role of communication which pointed out that personalization and interpretation of news that is very well adopted by the new digital nation. Also the types of journalism McNair underlined is shared by today’s social media members in several ways. Although, as Morozov explained, the feel for being virtually satisfied can be an obstacle for the real world political activism, the uprisings in Egypt proved it wrong that if the courage is enough, it does not matter if they had social media tools or not. Tools like Facebook and Twitter are very strong accelerators but the 2011 Egypt Revolution would not happen if the masses would not be unhappy about the ongoing political, social and economic negativity.

Bibliography

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business dev, content marketing, native advertising // former product manager @yemekcom & @yemeksepeti

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