New Media and the Arab Spring

Michael Teague

The widespread unrest that has gripped the Middle East in recent months came as a shock, even to those of us who follow the region closely from afar.  This is not so much because the events were unforeseeable or impossible, but rather because it was difficult to create a mental image of a successful massive popular uprising, much less several of them at once.  Most likely out of despair, we had come to believe in the sadistic efficacy of ruling families and their dreaded Mukhabarat.  Many of these leaders, if they may be so-called, have held the reins of power for several decades with few serious challenges, and no insignificant amount of Western support.  It had become very easy to take this deplorable state of affairs for granted. 

Now, however, it is becoming apparent that the rulers themselves had also been taking the status quo for granted.  Years of repression, nepotism, corruption, and social and economic disenfranchisement are the all-too-obvious root causes of the frustration that is now spilling out onto the streets and squares of the Arab world as never before.  Against unfavorable odds, much skepticism, and brutal violence, these uprisings have already scored a number of significant and dramatic victories, as well as a great deal of world-wide attention and solidarity.  Indeed, the speed with which Zein Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak have accelerated into irrelevance is astonishing.

With the protests in the wake of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, we saw how young people literate in the use of new media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, and cellular phones – essentially internet-based tools that allow for the quick and relatively unregulated sharing of information – could confront a disproportionately advantaged opponent and even catch them off guard.  Since that time, debate about these new communications technologies has rightly had a ubiquitous presence in the overall discourse, especially with the more recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and so on.  All too often, and somewhat predictably, the infotainment-oriented media has largely missed the point and muddled this debate.  Instead of informed discussions about how these relatively new means of exchanging information have contributed to the increased flexibility, or vulnerability, of civil society, activists, establishment journalists and pundits have spent a great deal of time sensationalizing terms like “Iran’s Twitter Revolution” and “Egypt’s Facebook Revolution” into irreferential and meaningless sound bites.  Often, one gets the impression that what is being implied is that all one needs to do to spread democracy is give people cell-phones and computers.  Some of the punditry even seems to be suggesting that since these new resources were made in the U.S.A., Americans are entitled to some credit for the uprisings that have so aptly made use of them.  More informed observers, however, are accutely aware of how this presumption might stand in contrast to the powerful symbolism of teargas canisters that also bear the label “Made in the U.S.A.”

More serious versions of the discussion have focused on measuring the extent to which the use of new media has actually been effective in galvanizing popular participation, and helping to create the conditions for meaningful change.  A more constructive and reasoned enthusiasm for the role that social networking sites can play is exemplified through and through by Wael Ghonim, Google’s top marketing executive for North Africa and the Middle East, as well as the creator of the popular Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said.”  By now the Khaled Said affair is widely recognized as the last straw for Egyptians: on June 6, 2010, Said was abducted by Egyptian police in an internet café in Alexandria, and dragged to a nearby empty building where he was beaten to death.  The police initially claimed that Said was involved in drug dealing, and died choking on his stash of marijuana, which he was presumably trying to hide from authorities by swallowing.  However, shocking images of Said’s mangled face soon surfaced, suggesting a very different story.  As it turns out, Said was in possession of video footage of police sharing the spoils of a drug bust.

In response to these events, Wael Ghonim created the “We Are All Khaled Said” page anonymously, and used it to share the gruesome images of Said’s dead body with other activists and the Egyptian public.  It quickly became a forum for sharing all manner of visual evidence of the petty and violent corruption that ordinary Egyptians had been tolerating for far too many years, and that never seemed to find its way into state controlled television and newspapers.  Now, it must be said that Egyptians had been publishing this sort of damning evidence on the internet for some time, but Ghonim’s page became a virtual rallying point, consolidating popular anger and bolstering feelings of solidarity, and he also used it to encourage folks to take to the streets.  Ghonim is widely recognized as and admits to being one of the first organizers of the protests that eventually sent Hosni Mubarak on his way.

But there is a less pleasant side to this story, and one that does a good job of displaying the double-edged sword that internet activism has shown itself to be.  As the unrest in Egypt was starting to take on proportions that were becoming overwhelming for the regime, Ghonim himself was abducted by the secret police and detained for some twelve days, even though he had not yet publically admitted that he was the creator of “We Are All Khaled Said” (he did so after he was released).  Perhaps because of his high profile, Ghonim did not disappear permanently. Nevertheless, the fact that he was arrested in the first place begs the question: how did the authorities know of his connection to the Facebook page?

Jillian York and Evgeny Morozov have considered these dangers most realistically.  In an Al Jazeera article titled “The Dangers of Social Media Revolt,” York points to the growing trend of authoritarian regimes that have not been caught off-guard for long by internet activism, and in fact have learned how to use services like Facebook and Twitter to conduct a little counterrevolution on the “tech-savvy” opposition.  So far we have seen this in places as diverse as Iran, China, Morocco, and Egypt as well.  It does not help matters that, even in light of recent events, Facebook has stuck to its policy of requiring users to sign up with their real names, leaving activists online extremely vulnerable to reprisal (Facebook eventually shut down the original “We Are All Khaled Said” page, despite its popularity, when it came to their attention that the page was created by an anonymous user).

Morozov has made the same point.  Speaking of Tunisia in an interview with Mother Jones, he explained the danger quite succinctly: “We can be relatively certain that if Ben Ali didn’t fall, his police would now be carefully studying all tweets and Facebook messages posted during the protest and arresting everyone involved.”  Morozov knows this well from his native Belarus, where the government has been involved in these very same activities.  Beyond this, Morozov points to other inherent problems with the use of new media outlets for revolutionary activity.  He has been dismissive of journalists and intellectuals that have reflexively propagated ideas like the “Twitter Revolution.”  In the case of Iran in 2009, he highlights the fact that the majority of those “tweeters” and “online activists” were folks who were not even present in Iran during the unrest, and furthermore were posting their messages in English rather than Farsi.  To make matters worse, many of these presumably well-meaning expatriates were actually slowing down the Iranian internet – assailed as it already was by regime interference – with the traffic created by all of their digital outrage and cyber-cheerleading.  Also, many high-profile journalists and commentators (Andrew Sullivan is but one example) invested a great deal of time and energy in extrapolating information from the blogs and postings of these “activists,” and thus presented a distorted image of events in Iran to the rest of the world.  Furthermore, with the Obama administration’s request to Twitter to postpone going off-line for routine updates so that the service would remain available to Iranian protestors, social media became politicized, ensuring that no repressive authority would ever again leave the net as unregulated as it had been.  That it was only a matter of time before this happened irrespective of the administration’s request is inarguable, but it is certainly not helpful to be giving tips to embattled autocrats who we would otherwise like to see washed away by the tides of change.

The danger here, as Morozov so eloquently states it, is that we run the risk of engaging in “a gigantic exercise in collective transcontinental wishful thinking” that lends itself well to unrealistic hopes and expectations, as well as unpreparedness in the event of government backlash.  We need not even use brutal Middle Eastern dictatorships to illustrate this point, for activists in the United States are already quite familiar with official reprisal along these lines.  In fact, the federal government of the U.S. has been very creative in setting precedents for using new media in order to criminalize dissent.  At the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh of 2009, two anarchists were arrested for posting tweets to fellow protestors about the positioning of riot police (one of the most immediately practical applications of Twitter as well as text messaging in terms of street protest), accusing them, among other dubious charges, of “criminal use of communication facility.”  More recently, the justice department has ordered Twitter (as well as a handful of other sites such as Paypal) to hand over the personal information of users affiliated with Wikileaks.

Another aspect to consider along the lines of skeptical thinking is the “kill switch.”  Indeed, not only are regimes fast becoming more literate in online communications, it seems that they can also just slow down or shut off the internet and text messaging if things get out of control, as we have seen in Iran, Egypt and elsewhere (the U.S. government is also seeking federal legislation that would define the appropriate circumstances under which the internet could be shut off).  If Wael Ghonim exemplifies the successful use of social networking sites and the internet as a tool of resistance, the Mubarak regime exemplifies the increasingly sophisticated understanding that authoritarian governments have of the internet.  Indeed, the shut-down of the Egyptian internet that took place on January 28th, and that lasted for five days, was not a simple matter of pressing the “off” button.  Renesys is a New Hampshire based outfit that describes itself as “an internet performance and intelligence company” that monitors internet connectivity and data routing trends worldwide.  They closely monitored the Egyptian internet blackout, and have been quoted in many articles written on the subject, which they describe as “an action unprecedented in internet history.”  This is because blocking the net on such a large scale is an extremely complex process that cannot be accomplished with the mere flick of a switch, and it indicates that the authorities had no insignificant amount of preparation for such an eventuality.  Surely, the process was made easier by the fact that all Egyptian telecommunications companies are controlled by the state.  Shutting off the American internet, by comparison, would be exponentially more difficult to do without much preparation, hence the vocal attempts by some of our more shamelessly authoritarian-minded politicians, Senator Joe Lieberman for instance, to legislate a “kill switch.”

In other words, we should not fall into the trap of underestimating the potency of old-fashioned organizing.  Indeed, the participants in Iran’s Green movement did not just emerge from a vacuum once new media came along, but rather were the product of years of patient activism on the part of the movement’s organizers, and the very same is true in Egypt.  Many of the original participants of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page were experienced activists.  They undoubtedly made very effective use of Facebook to rally support, announce demonstrations (as well as faux demonstrations in order to confuse and misdirect the police), and create solidarity at home and abroad, and surely this helped to amplify pressure on the Mubarak government.  But for all of Mr. Ghonim’s pronouncements about an “internet revolution,” one need look no further than David Kirkpatrick’s February 10 article in the New York Times to see how much Ghonim and his associates themselves built their movement, albeit with a good deal of innovation, on traditional methods of organizing.

Prior to the January 28th protests, Ghonim, as part of a group of about 50 people, set out into the poor neighborhoods of Cairo to rally support for their cause.  They entered cafes and engaged the citizenry, eschewing ethereal platitudes about democracy, and opting instead to harp on more immediate, working-class issues like unemployment and food prices.  This leg-work netted them about 7000 supporters in one swoop (as well as two charred police vehicles), by their estimations.  Encouraged by this positive result, the intrepid organizers reconvened to draw up more detailed plans in anticipation of the protests that were to take place a few days later.  These included setting a public relations trap for the regime, by making sure to tip off the press about which mosque the prominent opposition figure Mohammed El Baradei would be appearing at, thereby insuring that images of the Nobel Prize laureate drenched by water cannons would get maximal media coverage.  Furthermore, in the planning stages they coordinated with labor unions and the Muslim Brotherhood, groups that have years of experience organizing political action in Egypt.

Had the internet been the only locus of the opposition, one would imagine that the shut-off on January 28 would have had a measurable dampening effect on the demonstrations.  As we know, this probably had the opposite effect, putting the desperate tactics of the regime into even starker relief than they had previously been.  One young Cairo man with whom I spoke around that time, and who was very active in Tahrir square, told me that Egyptian society is already very similar to a social networking site, in that information travels fast through family and community bonds.  When word got out that internet service was to be severely restricted, everyone just made sure to exchange the numbers to their land lines.

There is little doubt that new media has played a crucial role in the recent agitation against nihilistic regimes.  The relative uniformity of message coming from the streets of Middle Eastern cities is to some degree a reflection of this, but efforts must be made to realistically assess the advantages and disadvantages of these new tools if they are to continue to be effective.  Thus, the Assad regime’s recent decision to allow Syrians to access social networking sites should not be misinterpreted as Syria “opening up” or “liberalizing,” as it most likely indicates the exact opposite.  As well, exaggerating the possibilities of new media can be a distraction from other extremely effective catalysts of the recent uprisings, such as the increasing availability of television networks like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya that has done at least as much to blow the lid off of the media blackout upon which so many of these regimes rely.

The honeymoon period during which geriatric and calcified regimes were dumbfounded by a new, modern threat is certainly finished, and the counterrevolution is well underway.  The internet has been instrumental in nourishing the connective tissues that bond activists and the citizenry in general, and has even had more immediate, practical applications.  Indeed, in a short span of time, online communications have helped Arabs to redeem the multiple failures of the heady pan-Arab and Arab nationalist dreams of the 50’s and 60’s.  If the movements that are unfolding today at such an unpredictable pace are to be successful, however, much more sacrifice still needs to be made.  That means, first and foremost, the sacrifice of unreasonable illusions about what is possible and what is not.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63 (2010)

Copyright (c) 2010, 2016 by Al Jadid