It didn’t take long after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down today for a commentator to dis the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution.
It was so fast that it is almost as if the Daily Telegraph’s Will Heaven’s declaration that “twitter had nothing to do with the Egyptian revolution” was ready to go with the column all ready written on his hard drive.
Lastly, it was the real human bravery – standing up to hired, camel-riding thugs – and persistence of the protesters that led up to this moment. New Media, if it played a part, was but the smallest of tools in comparison.
Heaven is apparently echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s early contention that social media has little to do with social change. In his original column in the New Yorker in September 2010, he used the example of the sit in movement in 1960, in Greensboro, when four young African Americans demanded an end to segregation by simply asking for a cup of coffee at Woolworths. News of the sit-in spread by word of mouth and by the media of the day, newspapers, television and radio. And as Gladwell correctly points out, the Twitter revolution in Iran, was less important than the Western media initially thought and, so far, appears to be a failure.
Galdwell points out the 1989 Romanian revolution took place before the Internet, but fails to note that the Romanian revolution took place at the end of the collapse of Communism in the rest of Eastern Europe, spread again by traditional media, word of mouth, in person or by phone, by radio (including broadcasts from the BBC and Radio Free Europe) newspapers and television.
The point of both writers, who seem have some sort of bee in their bonnets about new media, is that acknowledging the role of social media in the events in Egypt somehow takes away from previous revolutions or attempted revolutions.
To use an American example, how does the work of Wael Ghonim and his friends and colleagues in Egypt take anything away from Paul Revere galloping a horse through Massachusetts yelling the “The British are coming. The British are coming?”
It is clear that the young people in Egypt were able to organize themselves through Facebook, Twitter, text messaging. More important they were able to stay organized, even when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet. We will probably hear a lot more in the coming days of how that remarkable scene in Tahrir Square was kept alive through social media.
If the technology had existed on April 19, 1775, Paul Revere, a prominent and well off silver smith, would have had the money to have the latest smart phone and would have used Tweetdeck to send that “The British are coming” to update his status on Twitter, Facebook and Linked In. That status update would have immediately retweeted and the status updates shared faster than the time it actually took Revere to saddle his horse.
By coincidence I have been reading Stacy Schiff’s biography of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. When Julius Caesar and his legions landed in Alexandria in October 48 BCE, the people of the city rioted. The reasons were complex, resistance against an invader mixed up with the supporters of the various factions, supporting Cleopatra or her brother Ptolemy XIII.
According to Schiff, at the height of the crisis between December 48 BCE and Caesar’s final victory in March 47, Rome heard nothing from Caesar. It is not clear from the book why or how there was no communication, since even at that time, large sail-driven freighters regularly carried grain from Egypt,then the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, to Rome. One other reason for unrest that year was that the Nile flood was disasterously low and the harvest had failed. That meant few, if any, shipments of grain to Rome. As well the December-March period is not the best for sailing between Alexandria and Rome. But some merchant ships probably reached Rome. Any news they carried would have been rumours. It is likely that since in the beginning, things weren’t going well, Caesar was besieged in the royal palace by the citizens of Alexandria, that he couldn’t (or didn’t want to) get the news out. Compare that with getting the news out of Egypt today, even when Mubarak tried to cut off communications.
Even a century ago, with the steamship and the telegraph, that news would have gotten out. Even if a city was under siege, there would still be a way for a journalist or diplomat to get to a telegraph or cable head. Accounts of nineteenth century correspondents are full of harrowing tales of going hundreds of kilometres to get that telegraph point.
On Sunday night, half a world away from Tahrir Square, the Superbowl was in its final moments, the Pittsburgh Steelers were desperately trying to gain the lead from the Green Bay Packers, when the power in Kitimat failed. No lights, no TV. Just a few years ago, for the people of Kitimat, it would have meant scrambling to find a battery powered radio (or as one guy did, going out in the snow to turn on his car radio). As for me, I just launched Tweetdeck on my Android and within a minute or so there were a dozen tweets giving the final score Packers 31, Steelers 25.
The power was out for three hours, on for an hour and half, then out again for almost seven hours overnight.
The game over, the house dark, (luckily dinner was ready), Tweetdeck was active on my Android, so updates from Tahrir Square came up every few minutes. That is the difference, that is key. In the past, from the time of Caesar to the American Revolution, you would have had to wait until a sail-driven ship arrived with the news. After the telegraph, most people would have had to wait until the morning newspaper came out. Beginning in the late 1920s and even today, news would come through the radio (television is irrelevant during a power failure). Even the Internet was not a factor, even with two laptops with battery power, the router is powered by a plug in the wall.
Now with a smart phone, I could still keep up with events around the world. So someone tweets from Tahrir Square, someone else retweets it, a news organization picks up that tweet, and sitting in a darkened town thousands of kilometres away, I get that news.
I was tweeting the blackout, which resulted, the next morning, my former colleagues at CBC Radio calling me in my dark, cold (no heat) house for an update that they could air to CBC listeners.
Technology is a tool, and a tool can be used by anyone. So the critics who say an authoritarian government can try to use social media for propaganda and the secret police can use it to track down dissidents are correct. A desperate government, like Egypt, can try to cut off the Internet and world telecommunications, but that will likely fail. In today’s wired world, with a myriad of sources and providers, and millions of tech savvy users, it is less likely that all communications will be entirely shut down. In the old movies, you see someone climbing at telegraph pole to cut the only line to the outside world. Today there are not only cell phones, but good old land lines that were used for good old dial up connections. Then there are satellite phones and who knows what’s coming next.
US President Barack Obama just said the Egyptian revolution happened at “blinding speed.” That’s what social media does, it accelerates and amplifies events. So Malcolm Gladwell, yes, there have been revolutions and protests since the dawn of civilization, but social media is the game changer, it’s the difference between earphones from an MP3 players and a giant amplifier that fills a stadium or city square with sound. To use an old tech analogy, the trumpet sounds, and thanks to Twitter and Facebook that fanfare is head around the world in real time.
There has been a growing debate on the role of social media and what happened in Egypt.
Skeptics vs what they call cyber utopnians.
Jay Rosen of New York University, a participant in the debate, has created a curated summary. with lots of links