This is not an in-depth analysis. Just a rant for now.
The day Mubarak fell, NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel Tweeted the photo below, telling the world about an Egyptian protester holding a sign that said, “Thank you, Facebook.” The photo has been viral since then and has become a powerful symbol prompting the causal-effect of social media for democracy.
A critical eye, though, would see something slightly different. You don’t have to be fluent in Arabic to reveal that Arabic words in the sign would mean more than “Thank You”. The first line شكرا شباب مصر literally translates as: “Thanks … Egypt Youth” and second line translates more or less as: “Standing firm (or steadfast), we won’t leave.”
While no doubt the sign implies the role of Facebook in this uprising, a more careful investigation points out to an importance of youth, young people of Egypt, as the subject (main actor) of the uprising. Facebook is therefore not credited as an independent entity. Its importance is dependent to and embedded in its usage by the Egyptian youth.
My little anecdotal account above reveals a tiny fracture of mounting problem embedded in a huge amount of reportage and commentaries on the recent revolution in Egypt and Tunisia. Quick scratch on the surface of factual data has become a norm for media journalism. Scholarly pundits, while better, also rely on quick overnite investigation.
I have a luxury of acquiring prior knowledge about online activism in the Middle East as I have started paying attention to this region since 2007 (started with my research on Iranian blogosphere). In fact, I just submitted a research proposal (to NSF) on online collective action in the region 4 months ago. I was in the midst of researching social media activism in Middle East when Tunisian, followed by Egypt, revolutions happened. This was similar to the moment I had in 1998. The Indonesian revolution back then happened when I was researching (Indonesian) cyberspace for my Master thesis. It was more than a decade ago. I was on the street of Bandung, joining other hundred thousand Indonesians, in the mass protest against President Suharto. Certainly, nobody accessed the internet from streets and squares of Indonesian cities as wifi was not available yet. Also, the internet penetration was less than 1% at that moment so most protesters were not recruited online. And yet, Western media dubbed it the first Internet revolution. Social and political scientists, however, dismissed such claim and argued that 1998 Indonesian reformasi had nothing or very little to do with the internet. Much like the debate on social media and the Arab world.
Being quite aggravated by lazy politico-journalism and unsatisfied by socially deterministic analysis, I decided to do research on this event, which led me to the PhD dissertation. My research shows that the internet was not the only or even the principal source of information for social mobilization that led to the downfall of Suharto. However, the internet was not simply a tool. It was successfully used as a tool and space for political activism to break through barriers of state monopoly over the production of knowledge and flows of information from cyberspace to people on the street via other media and other networks. The most important factor was not cyberspace itself, but the intermodal linkages between cyberspace, cyber nodes (e.g. cyber cafes), and other media (e.g. xerox-ed copies of e-information) and (traditional) social-cultural networks (word-of-mouth), and the physical spaces of Indonesian cities, especially the urban regions and the ‘where’ and the ‘when’ these linkages, between the 1% elites and society at large, were created (see: Lim 2003, Lim 2006).
Back to the Middle East revolution. So, actually, I saw it coming. In my NSF proposal I argued that Middle Eastern Web 2.0 activism deserved an attention as it showed high activities of bottom-up resistance against repression and fights for freedom of expression.
As I am now in the midst of my writing on the revolution and social media, especially Egyptian one, I will not write a detailed commentary here. But in brief, I can summarize that current analysis/commentaries and speculations on the uprising in the Middle East suffer from several problems:
- either over or under emphasizing the role of social media — Twitter and Facebook)– both are deterministic
- focusing too much on the specific time frame (from jan25th onward for Egypt) — as if the social movement came up from nowhere.
- focusing too much on some specific actors — missing the big picture.
- nobody tries to locate what is the actual place/role of technology (social media/Internet) and what did these technological platforms do?
- many saw the event as being ‘unexpected’, mostly because these ‘people’ didn’t pay attention to (cyber)activism in the region, especially in Egypt before end of January this year, — of course, you cannot see what you have made invisible. the internet is vast and convivial, it can leave the invisible invisible until they are propelled into action by some events.
A continuing problem in understanding social uprisings is how can you predict them if you have kept the people who instigate them invisible by your epistemologies?
Some anecdotal accounts, especially from NYT, Wired, & PBS, are useful and interesting (better than most), but they are anecdotal accounts, which are fine in themselves. Beyond these, we need a more thorough analysis, not more speculations.
While social media played a significant role — the revolution itself cannot be understood as an independent event that occurred in a certain time-space nexus. We should break away from tendencies to either over or understate the role of social media in the Middle Eastern uprising and start to locate the actual role of these technologies in mobilizing these popular movements over a broader geography and longer space of time. Our understanding should be anchored in the larger context and history of online activism in this region.
I promise that I’ll share my complete article (and hopefully the recording of my talk, scheduled by the end of March 2011) later. At this point, what I want to say is about the actual role of the Internet, especially social media, in the uprising has started long time ago, as early as 2003 with the emergence of blogger activists in Egypt and the first independent digital newspaper MisrDigital in 2005, as well as some subsequent movements that linked cyberactivism to the streets (of Cairo and Alexandria) from 2005 to 2010. The emergence of Arabic version of Facebook in mid 2009 strengthened the online activism in the region. As for the role of Twitter, it’s mostly relative to a limited coordination on the ground and to make this movement visible to the (Western) world.
In brief, the actual role(s) of social media is that it facilitated:
- the emergence of new networks of oppositional actors (to the ruling regime)
- the brokerage of various networks (that previously weren’t connected)
- the diffusion of contentions
- the convergence of networks and narratives
- that eventually led to collectively coordinated mass actions (that led to the fall of dictators).
What online realm provided was the sphere where civil society could exercise their resistance, deliberate on issues, consolidate their movements, and prepared themselves in techniques and strategies to finally be ready to challenge the authoritarian regime(s).
For a more detailed analysis, please wait patiently until end of March or later. Thank you.