In his New York Times op-ed piece last weekend, Frank Rich came out will all guns blazing. He had so many arguments to make: against US media isolation, again the demonization of Islam, against US cable providers, against Donald Rumsfeld. And also against members of the media who said that digital technology was important in the Egypt protests. He critique just drips with disdain:
Three days after riot police first used tear gas and water hoses to chase away crowds in Tahrir Square, CNN’s new prime-time headliner, Piers Morgan, declared that “the use of social media” was “the most fascinating aspect of this whole revolution.” On MSNBC that same night, Lawrence O’Donnell interviewed a teacher who had spent a year at the American school in Cairo. “They are all on Facebook,” she said of her former fifth-grade students. The fact that a sampling of fifth graders in the American school might be unrepresentative of, and wholly irrelevant to, the events unfolding in the streets of Cairo never entered the equation.
And his crowing declaration that digital technology doesn’t matter is pompous:
The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”
No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere. But as Malcolm Gladwell wrote on The New Yorker’s Web site last week, “surely the least interesting fact” about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them “may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.”
Anyone actually interested in the empirical study of digital activism/digital repression could tell Mr. Rich that both operate along a tactical continuum (image link) of digital advantage and disadvantage (full post). Yet I don’t think Mr. Rich is interested in making that argument, which admits the accurate observations on both sides and argues for more study rather than making declarations about winners and losers. It is an argument that does not lend itself to bombast.
However, one thing Mr. Rich is interested in is how American views of Egyptian digital activism and repression reflect a cultural chauvinism:
The talking-head invocations of Twitter and Facebook instead take the form of implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism. How fabulous that two great American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses.
The real evidence of Western chauvinism, however, is Mr. Rich’s comfort with defining the use of digital technology without referencing the opinion of even one Egyptian in his article. If we listen to Egyptians and their allies, who are frequently interviewed on Al Jazeera English‘s live stream at http://english.aljazeera.net/watch_now and who broadcast their own opinions through the Twitter hashtag #Jan25 and put their photos on Flickr, we see a more subtle picture. Are the Egyptians in Tahrir Square using Facebook iconography in their signs (like the one above) because they are absorbing Western chauvinism? No, they are using these symbols because they have resonance, because they are useful to them. Facebook did not cause the revolution, but that is a straw-man argument that not even the so-called cyber-utopians believe. But, as even Mr. Rich’s own newspaper reported:
While it is almost impossible to isolate the impact of social media tools from the general swirl of events that set off the popular uprisings across the Middle East, there is little doubt that they provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support against police abuse, torture and the Mubarak government’s permanent emergency laws allowing people to be jailed without charges.
Facebook and YouTube also offered a way for the discontented to organize and mobilize — and allowed secular-minded young people to seize the momentum from Egypt’s relatively neutered, organized opposition.
But wait, Mr. Rich agrees with this perspective too:
No one would deny that social media do play a role in organizing, publicizing and empowering participants in political movements in the Middle East and elsewhere.
So why is he arguing in the first place? Maybe he just likes to argue.