Revolution, social media, cyber protest . Live, on the Egyptian street
by Navid Hassanpour, Le Monde Diplomatique, febbraio 2012
The world saw the Egyptian revolution happen onscreen. It was broadcast live, in real time, through Twitter and Facebook status updates, a political thriller with millions of actors. The protest banners and placards were addressed to the lenses of the media and through them to the world. Satellite television channels became part of the event: Wael Ghonim, a Google executive briefly imprisoned, said: “If you want to liberate a society just give them the internet” (1).
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to interrupt all internet communications and mobile networks early on 28 January 2011 allows us to gauge the results of disruption. From that moment popular demonstration took off. The three-day Tahrir Square demonstration did not end and there were protests across Cairo and other cities, including Alexandria and Suez. The demonstrations overwhelmed Mubarak’s security forces by the end of the day and at around 7pm the military was brought in to replace the police. They refused to intervene. A few days later, Mubarak’s 30-year rule collapsed.
The arguments for the revolutionary role of new social media are well known: free online and print media disseminate knowledge and awareness about the conflict and extent of oppression. Informed citizens are more likely to act, and to seize any political possibilities. This view ignores the fact that seditious communication is invisible to the ruling elite. If they were aware of it, they would disrupt it. Free discussion in public media is more likely to result in more conventional political transitions, not sudden mass revolts. Also, “revolutionary” information is not always reliable. It is easy to forget that Prague’s velvet revolution began with false rumours of the brutal killing of a 19-year-old student (2). Or that the fall of the Berlin Wall started with a misleading statement at a news conference broadcast on East German television, prompting protesters to demand free passage to the western side of Berlin (3). In times of civil unrest, exaggeration and lack of information often work more effectively than realistic accounts of oppression and participation.
Spreading the word
Centralised state propaganda is thought of as pacifying, but social media can also stall collective risk-taking. What commands calm is not “visibility” to the incumbent, but perceptibility to everybody else. The status quo is not the result of the incumbent regime’s informed coercion but of common acquiescence, a common predictability built on a shared knowledge of the state of affairs. When that common knowledge disintegrates, crowds shape an idea of risk that is independent of the state. Disruption of customary means of communication on 28 January interrupted visibility, prompting Egyptians to create new and subterranean links in service of an anti-regime rebellion.
Full connectivity in social networks can, in fact, hinder collective action. If there is a risk-averse majority and a radical minority, adding more links among the majority does not necessarily help mobilisation. But removing regular communication channels provides radicals with more effective venues for organisation through local networks, decentralising opposition.
In Cairo, on 28 January, when the Egyptian government blocked communications, it forced Egyptians to find new ways of propagating, collecting and producing news. During the social media hiatus, older tactics were used together with new mass communication: satellite television stations such as Al-Jazeera broadcast news gathered through landline phones. People concerned about family members joined the crowds in streets to find out what was going on. Some ran messenger networks on Cairo’s metro lines. Everywhere, there were risky stand-offs and people gathered at local focal points — squares, strategic buildings, and mosques — instead of trying to reach Tahrir.
But over the next few days, the protests didn’t again disperse this way, despite the return of mobile communications and the internet and the further weakening of the regime. People went to Tahrir Square even when it was almost too crowded to get in.
The disruption of internet and mobile phone communications had exacerbated the unrest. It had implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; forced more face-to-face communication, more physical presence in streets; and decentralised the rebellion through new hybrid communications. The authorities found small revolts everywhere much harder to repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.
The government had deprived itself of credible means for indirectly communicating the possibility of retaliation. Protests proliferated as threats failed. The Lede blog, hosted by The New York Times, reported from Alexandria on 28 January: “‘It is clear that the very extensive police force in Egypt is no longer able to control these crowds. There are too many protests in too many places,’ said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch.”
Similar processes seems to have been at work in Damascus on 3 June 2011 (4). After several weeks of violent repression, the Syrian government decided to use the same tactic as Mubarak’s regime. On 3 June the internet was shut down for a day. An Associated Press correspondent reported from Beirut: “Friday’s protests appeared to be the biggest of the 10-week uprising, with people gathering in larger numbers in cities and towns that before had less participation. Protesters also gathered in several Damascus suburbs, as well as the capital’s central Midan neighbourhood, which has seen demonstrations in recent weeks” (5). Proliferation of protests and a discernable rise in the dispersion of the protests — the parallels with Egypt are intriguing. Could censoring Twitter be more revolutionary than Twitter itself?