How the Internet Kill Switch Didn’t Kill Egypt’s Protests

Editor’s Note: Between January 28th and February 2nd, the Egyptian Internet was partly or totally inaccessible. Mobile SMS was also blocked during this period. Yet, despite using this “nuclear option,” the protests continued and even grew. How was this move such a tactical failure for the government, seeming to hardly affect a movement that had strongly relied on digital tools in earlier moments of their struggle? Alix Dunn, a researcher based in Cairo, provides some insight into how Egyptian activists worked around the block.

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The aggressive media shutdown during the January 25th uprising in Egypt forced activists and politically engaged citizens to creatively disseminate actionable information to others. Though it is too early to provide a comprehensive analysis of all of the cross-platform information sharing that took place (if it ever will be possible), there are three examples of particularly interesting hybrid communicative acts that allowed for the spread of information despite the government’s attempts to prevent it.

1. Satellite News Broadcast of Tweets

Though satellite television news has used Twitter to assist in real-time documentation of events, the broadcast of Tweets during the Internet shutdown partially reactivated the Twitter feedback loop in which users can share information and receive it in real-time. On the ground activists were able to share information to those outside (via international voice calling and eventually Google and Twitter’s Speak2Tweet Platform) but the information shared on Twitter was not fed back to those activists during the period of the Internet shutdown. While there were some reports of activists within Egypt receiving Twitter updates via landline communication, the real-time feedback loop was shutdown by the internet service disruption. At this point, the broadcast of Tweets on satellite news, particularly Al Jazeera, made it possible for the information feedback loop to continue though in a limited fashion. In addition to providing those within Egypt with actionable information, Al Jazeera also consistently publicized multiple hotline numbers for Google’s Speak2Tweet system, increasing the likelihood that activists could continue using the Twitter platform to provide and receive information.

2. Transmission from Satellite Television to Radio to People on the Ground

An interesting trend that was shared anecdotally several times was the impact of the radio on demonstrations. Al-Arabiya satellite news fed its content to a radio, and as the satellite news was broadcast via radio, Egyptians in cars listened in. When stuck in traffic, drivers shared information with pedestrians who shared the information with their social networks. The rebroadcast on radio and dissemination in traffic jams led to actionable information being distributed between formerly disparate networks.

3. Distribution of Leaflets

Paper leaflets 1) countered government propaganda during the uprising and 2) increased awareness of the January 25th demonstrations in poorer areas of Cairo

Egyptian state television towed the government line and broadcast an alternative reality to viewers until just two days before President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. To counter propaganda – ranging from “foreign elements” organizing the protests to undermine the stability of Egypt, to denial of the size of the protests – pro-democracy demonstrators distributed leaflets widely about the reasons behind the demonstrations. This method was not obstructed by any media shutdowns though some private printing companies refused to produce the materials for activists.

Though the Internet was an important tool for mobilization, leaflets were used by organizers to call for more demonstrators and to spread awareness of the demands of the protesters. These leaflets were largely distributed in areas with low Internet penetration rates, and these areas were well represented in the first day’s demonstrations.

Other creative uses of information during the media shutdown:

The Threat of Anonymous

Before the full internet crackdown, activists used the threat of unleashing the loose-knit hacking community known as Anonymous on media corporations in Egypt that were cooperating with the censorship and media blackout perpetrated by the Egyptian government. While it is difficult to determine the impact of these threats, the hacking of Egyptian government websites and the threats to companies like Vodaphone, Mobinil, and Etisalat provided activists with an economic weapon that required only two Tweets back-to-back: the first calling on Anonymous to attack companies that complied with the government directives, and the second threatening the companies with a cyber-attack if they continued to comply with government directives.

As documentation emerges we will undoubtedly learn more about the coordination and sustained activation of the demonstrations and the innovative ways in which information was disseminated when social and commercial media was almost ubiquitously disrupted. Hopefully as more examples emerge, Egypt’s successful revolution can provide insight and best practices in the use of both digital and organic media to support pro-democracy movements.

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