The protests in Egypt have been front and center in the American media over the previous two weeks. We were greeted with daily updates about former President Mubarak’s grasp on power, and, ultimately, his resignation. Buried in all the rapidly unfolding events were numerous stories about social media and its role in the revolution. I think it may be useful to aggregate all these stories as we begin to analyze how important social media was (if at all) to the revolution – and, also, whether the revolution has significant implications for social media.
As a prelude to the unrest in Egypt (and Tunisia) several cables conveying communications between US diplomats and the State Department were leaked to Wikileaks. The connection between these leaks and the protests in Tunisia was covered in the Guardian and the Village Voice. Journalists, ever eager for a sexy headline, quickly labeled Tunisia “The First Wikileaks Revolution.” The cables also brought global attention to “routine and pervasive” police brutality under the Mubarak regime, giving increased legitimacy to dissident groups.
After Tunisia’s President Ben Ali fell, unrest quickly spread to Egypt. Largely unprepared to cover the event, the Western media was forced to rely on Twitter feeds (as well as Al Jazeera) as a primary source for reporting. (For an excellent analysis of the most watched Twitter feeds see Zeynep Tufekci’s “Can ‘Leaderless Revolutions’ Stay Leaderless: Preferential Attachment, Iron Laws and Networks.”)
Social media sites like Twitter in Facebook became the primary tools employed by protest organizers. Of particular significance, is a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said” (named for the young 28-year-old techie and businessman, who in 2010, was dragged out of an Internet cafe and murdered by Egyptian police), which we now know was started by Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and “geek-activist.” Ghonim was arrested and detained for 12 days during the protests but was eventually released. He is rapidly emerging as a leader in the new Egyptian political environment. Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, publicly stated that the company is “very proud” of Ghonim. The New York Times also reported:
In an interview with CBS News after his release last week, he said he had not discussed his participation in the protests with Google in advance and would be honored to return to the company “if I’m not fired.”That prompted a message from the company’s main Twitter account that read: “We’re incredibly proud of you, @Ghonim, & of course will welcome you back when you’re ready.”
Egypt’s Internet has long been censored, though workarounds were quite pervasive. For a period during the protests, however, the Egyptian government shut the Internet down altogether, severing the Egyptian people’s main line of communication with the outside world. A graphic circulated by Arbor Network illustrates the drop off in Internet traffic. The shutdown in Egypt highlighted the tenuous nature of the politics and infrastructure of the Internet in many authoritarian countries. When Egypt’s Internet was disconnected from the outside world, it was revealed that the internal Internet was hardly able to function because sites rely so heavily on information from outside servers. Moreover, the Mubarak government proved that was easy to force Internet service providers into compliance, by threatening to that measures that would require costly repairs.
Shortly after the Internet shutdown, Google and Twitter made news when they teamed up to offer a service that allowed individuals to tweet by leaving voice messages on their cell phones. The messages were translated into text and posted with the #Egypt hashtag. Google acknowledged that this is was an overtly political act on its official blog, saying:
Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.
In contrast to Google and Twitter, Facebook executives largely remained silent about their position on the protests, despite their “starring role.” Facebook, purportedly, seeks to avoid the appearance of taking sides, and thus, possibly prompting other authoritarian regimes to block their site. Ethan Zuckerman, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, explained:
It might be tougher for Facebook than anyone else. Facebook has been ambivalent about the use of their platform by activists
And, in fact, Facebook has been an equal opportunity host for pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators alike. Other industry leaders are less shy about celebrating Facebook’s significance for democratic movements. Google’s Eric Schmidt said collaboration tools like Facebook “change the power dynamic between governments and citizens in some very interesting and unpredictable ways.”
What all these events have highlighted is that the very existence of social media is a political act. As much as such companies might prefer to remain neutral to avoid alienating their potential clientele, their every decision (or non-decision) has potential political consequences. Given that the very existence of such companies depends on the free flow of information, the goals of these companies and the goals of democratic movements are often aligned.