The Egyptian protest movement of January 2011 has been called a “Facebook Revolt” (Giglio 1) and “A multi-media uprising” (Aljazeera). Almost every day, news media churned out articles describing the influence of Facebook and Twitter on the protests. “Since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990’s, the world’s networked population has grown from the low millions to the low billions” (Shirky 13). Because Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media are relatively new forms of communication, the fact that they are so popular in the ongoing protests in the Middle East is something of a revolution.
Having grown up in this age of Facebook and Twitter, I was not surprised that these tools were used in the protest movements. I have a Facebook page, and often use it to talk to friends, share links, and learn about different events. With the popularity of social media like Facebook and Twitter, and the growing accessibility of the Internet in Middle Eastern countries, I understand how people could have used these tools to communicate during the protests. But I wanted to find out what social media actually did to influence this movement. Was it actually effective in starting and fueling the protests that have ended a much-hated dictatorship? What I found was that social media greatly influenced the Egyptian protests by organizing protest movements, spreading information and advice, and encouraging Egyptians to take action.
Before I examine how social media influenced the protests, it is important to define the motives behind the protests and what social media is. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, aNPR news correspondent in Cairo Egypt, explains that the Egyptians were “demanding higher minimum wage, demanding presidential term limits, demanding an end to the state of emergency, and wanting more freedom” (par. 3). Inspired by the earlier Tunisian revolts, Egyptians began large-scale protests around January 25th, calling for President Mubarak to step down after his authoritarian rule of 30 years. In the view of Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker, social media consists of “email, texting, Facebook, or Twitter” (1). These are online sites and ways of communicating that allow people to upload videos of events and share experiences with people they have never met in person. Similar to Twitter are blogs, which have also been used to spread information about the protests. I noticed that the main network that Egyptians used to communicate was Facebook. There was no doubt that Facebook did something to affect these protests, but I wondered--if Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and texting didn't exist in Egypt, would Mubarak still have been forced out of office by this immense movement?
“The Internet can serve as a powerful rallying tool” (Dahghanpisheh and Fahmy par. 2). This is what Babak Dehghanpisheh and Mandi Fahmy, writers for the news website, The Daily Beast, wrote in response to the outbreak of protests in Egypt around January 25th. Using interviews of protest organizers and participants, the authors examine the surprising role that Facebook played in bringing protestors together. Mike Giglio, another writer for The Daily Beast, expands this idea in his article the very next day, writing “protest organizers combined an Internet savvy with hard tactics on the ground” (par. 4). According to Giglio, Egyptians have been active on the Internet before, but never have this many people actually joined together on the streets. He describes an instance where this combined effort was successful; on the most popular protest page, called “ElShaheeed,” instructions were given for a protest that involved three small protests marching from poorer areas to one central location. This would allow other people on the street or in houses to join in. According to Giglio, “The plan paid off, despite the reported presence of 20,000 police” (par. 5). In this instance, a Facebook page was a vital initiator in a protest, but it took the combined effort of the Internet, word-of-mouth, and flyers to rally the massive amount of protestors.
To examine some of the social media that had been calling people together during the January protests, I joined the page, “We are all Khaled Said.” This page was created after Mr. Said, an Egyptian businessman, was beaten to death by policemen in June 2010, for possessing evidence of police corruption (Preston 1). By mid January, the administrators of the page were not only spreading the injustice of the murder of Mr. Said, but they were also spreading the word about protests to throw out Mubarak and call for a new government. Did this page actually lead people onto the streets and into action? Though, the administrators of “We are all Khaled Said” did not seem to be organizing these protests on this page, perhaps from fear of being discovered by the government, members of the page were responding to posts with information on an upcoming protest and how to get involved. One response to a post said, “JOIN THE STRIKE TOMORROW!!! JOIN THE PROTESTORS IN TAHRIR SQUARE !!!! DON'T HESITATE !!!! EGYPT BELONGS TO EGYPTIANS AND EGYPTIANS DESERVE FREEDOM!!!” (Facebook Jan. 25). Searching for news from January 26th, I found that there were more even more people at the protests the day after the post was written, but I was still left with the question: Was it Facebook that really inspired people to get out on the street and risk their lives?
In Small Change, an article in the New Yorker, writer Malcolm Gladwell argues that social media does not lead to what he calls “high-risk activism.” High-risk activism “challenges the status quo-that attacks deeply rooted problems” (4). Though this article was written months before the January 2011 Egyptian protests, this kind of activism could describe these protests. In Gladwell’s view, social networks are not effective at increasing motivation, they are good at increasing participation “by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires” (4). To summarize, social media can play an important role in asking people to do minor things—discuss the events of the protests and add videos that communicate what’s going on—but they do not really motivate people to get out on the streets and fight back. In a fictional story about Egypt in the year 2033, Mona Eltahawy writes about the January 2011 protests as if they happened in the past; “The activists also used Facebook to organize demonstrations and encourage each other to join nationwide strikes in support of workers protesting rising food prices and inflation” (71). They key word in this excerpt is “encourage.” Facebook is not the only reason people head to the streets and endanger their lives. People see that others are doing it to, and know they won’t be alone.
At the end of January 2011, there was an Internet shutdown in Egypt. In an opinion article by Jillian York in Aljazeera, York pointed out that “with most of the internet shut down for nearly three days now, it's become clear that without the assistance of social media, the protests go on” (York 1). This is exactly what Gladwell argued with his examples of protests that were successful without social media. It would appear that people are capable of organizing massive demonstrations for change by using other methods. However, York admits that “though electronic communication may not have catalyzed the popular uprising, they certainly helped it along, perhaps even accelerated it” (1). This argument is corroborated by a Newsweek article written by Mike Giglio in which Giglio states that after the internet was shut down and some well-known protestors were disappearing or put in jail, a new way of spreading the word was taken up; “After this week’s Friday prayers, which are always heavily attended, people will be asked to take to the streets anew” (Newsweek). However, notices of street marches to follow prayers were also put on Facebook, and more than 43,000 were signed up to attend. Facebook was still involved in letting people know about these new protests. Churches and mosques actually worked with Facebook to physically bring people together.
After reading these articles, I realized that Facebook has never motivated me to do anything. When I log in, I read what people have written on my wall, or talk to someone online. This does not have the same effect as talking to someone in person. Just as I log in to see what people are saying about recent events in my area, Egyptians logged in to get the latest news on the events around them. But the difference is that I have not been involved in a revolutionary movement in a country where other sources of information are banned or restricted. The Internet provided Egyptians with information they could not get elsewhere. They saw pictures and videos of people shot and beaten by police, read where the latest protest was meeting, and looked to see what the government was going to do next. In short, they stayed in contact with each other—something that has been made so much easier now with the quick click of a mouse. While the posting and sharing of ideas and information was inspirational to Egyptians, it took the combined effort of social media, flyers, word-of-mouth, and personal motivation to organize and sustain the protests movement that brought down a powerful dictator. Egyptians are celebrating their success, but there is still unrest and more work to do to ensure a peaceful state. I think social media will continue to be a powerful tool in political change.