The Digital Roots of the Revolution

The scenes of jubilation in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and elsewhere in Egypt are nothing short of exhilarating. Particularly for those of us who have lived in Egypt and seen the suffering of Egyptians – the way they are treated at checkpoints, in police stations, and at other junctures of authority – today is a day to celebrate. Egyptians, using the power of peaceful protest and defiance, have brought down one of the world’s oldest tyrannies.

What has been the contribution of digital media to this revolution? To offer a full answer to this question I would need to be in Cairo, to meet and interview the organizers of the revolution. We should be careful not to attempt to write history as its happening. But this is what we do know – first, that the call to protest was amplified by this remarkable video by Asmaa Mahfouz prior to January 25th, in which she argues, “instead of setting ourselves on fire, let’s do something positive.” We know that calls to protest circulated and maybe indeed originated on the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook group, administered by the now famous Wael Ghonim, and were echoed on the April 6th Youth Movement‘s page (for a full background on that group, see my past work here), and that these virtual calls to protest almost certainly helped provide the critical mass that appeared in the streets on January 25th. We know that instructions for those protesters circulated both digitally (but not on Facebook or Twitter) and via old-fashioned photocopying, and that the tactics outlined in this leaflets provided the basis for the peaceful protests which followed. From there it was a self-reinforcing process.

Much has been made of the ballyhooed Internet shut-down that followed January 25th. While forcing ISPs to shut off service certainly cut the amount of Twittering and Facebooking, it did not completely eliminate it. The fact that the protests continued after the Internet was turned off does not mean (as Mary argued forcefully in a post below) that they were not an integral part of what happened.

What is even more puzzling is that even accounts that take into consideration the role of social media do so in ways that ignore our understanding of the networking dynamics at play here. So let me be clear – the digital tools used to organize and publicize these protests at once collapsed the cost of communicating ideas, frames, and plans, and simultaneously allowed that information to reach through online social network quickly and effectively. The way these protests went from idea to execution in a matter of days is evidence that what we saw was an informational cascade – a widespread change in attitudes toward protest. Yes, this built on years of hard organizing work in many different sectors of Egyptian society. But as a catalyst for what happened on January 25th, social media were not just ancillary but critical. That doesn’t mean we attribute to them some kind of magical, monocausal importance, but neither should we dismiss them as just the stuff people used to do this. Things happened over the past month that simply would not have been possible 10 years ago.

Finally, it is true that since the government shut down the Internet, Al-Jazeera may have played at least as critical a role in reaching global audiences. But let’s not forget that few people outside the Arab world get Al-Jazeera through satellite networks, but rather stream it … you guessed it…through the Internet. It is no longer possible to think of satellite TV, newspapers, and “the Internet” as separate domains of inquiry. They are linked together, in hybrid forms, that make their collective “digitality” more important than any aspect that separates them.

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