Social media has given a voice to the people, and we are more connected than ever before. It has become more than a platform to share our photos and feelings; in recent years there has been a significant rise in a new phenomenon known as ‘internet activism,’ defined by cyber activist Sandor Vegh as ‘a politically motivated movement relying on the internet.’ The use of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter has created a network of people fighting to make a change. More importantly, it has redefined the way we view activism in the modern world, with the potential to make drastic changes within the worlds most powerful governments, most notably so, in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
The people of Egypt endured thirty years of oppression under president Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship. The police force were corrupt, kidnapping and torturing innocent civilians, but courageous activists took to the streets, chanting for their freedom, smartphones in hand, in a fight for democracy.
“The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power.” – Wael Ghonim
The First Protest
In 2008, a group of Egyptian activists first used the Internet to protest against poor working conditions and high food prices. They started a Facebook group, calling for a general strike on April 6 2008. Esraa Abdel Fattah was a co-founder of this group and she couldn’t believe the response it generated – within 10 days the group had over 77,000 members. This group soon became known as The April 6th Youth Movement and they were adamant they would not be silenced.
For the first time, the Egyptian people felt as if they had power to make a change, and they were more determined than ever to fight for their rights. This could not have been achieved on such a huge scale without the use of social media; and with figures stating that 60% of the Egyptian population is under 30, it’s no surprise social media had the power to create such waves. It gave young people a platform, unlike the state controlled media, in which they could express their anger at the current political situation. These people were taught to fear challenging the regime, but the online community gave them power in numbers. And this was just the beginning.
In days predating social media, it would have been next to impossible for information to spread so quickly, and more importantly, safely. Any mention of protest within the media would have been removed, and whoever was deemed responsible, harshly punished. However, with the advances in digital publishing – blogs and social media – it allows for greater freedom of speech, and this has become increasingly difficult for the government to target and suppress.
The Murder of Khaled Said
Social media played another significant role in the uprising, after the killing of Egyptian blogger, Khaled Said, in June 2010. Said had discovered a video of the police, distributing money and drugs between themselves, and posted the video on YouTube to expose the corrupt nature of the police force. However, under Mubarak’s regime, a hunt took place to find him and he was brutally murdered – an eyewitness describes police repeatedly smashing Said’s head against a marble staircase, while he pleaded for mercy.
The news of Said’s death spread like wildfire. When the disturbing photos of his battered face were leaked, the Facebook group, “We Are All Khaled Said,” was set up to campaign against police brutality and commemorate the death of an innocent young man. It was on this group that they created the event for the mass protest in Tahrir Square on January 25th 2011. This was the start of the revolution and it was coordinated online.
‘The Twitter Revolution’
When news of the protests reached the UK and the US, it was branded the ‘Twitter Revolution.’ Of course, there were cynics who argued that social media played no role, such as Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative; “In the same way that pamphlets didn’t cause the American Revolution, social media didn’t cause the Egyptian revolution.” There is an element of truth in this – it would be naïve to suggest social media was the cause of this revolution, but the sheer scale and speed with which the protests were organised and carried out could simply not have been done without it. As social media expert Rafat Ali argues;
“Facebook definitely had a role in organizing this revolution. It acts like an accelerant to conditions that already exist in the country. Twitter and YouTube serve as amplification for what’s happening on the ground. And they directly affect Western media coverage.”
The Impact on the Outside World
Not only did social media accelerate the changes within Egypt, the updates coming from Twitter and Facebook were being broadcast to the world, putting pressure on the US in particular to take a stand against Mubarak. Initially, the US remained neutral, presumably in fear of losing one of their closest allies in the Middle East; it was in their best interest to fall on the side of the government, for their own stability.
However, the volume and speed with which information was flooding from Egypt, predominantly via Twitter and Facebook, meant that the US could no longer sit back and watch. Perhaps they were also spurred into action when harrowing images of empty tear gas canisters surfaced, branded with ‘MADE IN U.S.A.’ The power of social media had triumphed again.
The instantaneous nature of digital media compelled the US to make a statement, as the public were watching and waiting for their response. The New York Times soon posted an article in which Hilary Clinton called for “‘an orderly transition’ to a more politically open Egypt, stopping short of telling its embattled president, Hosni Mubarak, to step down but clearly laying the groundwork for his departure.”
It wasn’t just Washington being influenced by the influx of social media posts – the world was looking on, and most importantly, the Egyptians were able to tell their side of the story. Without their Twitter posts and YouTube videos, the world would not have understood the grave danger the people of Egypt were in, and why it was vital to take to the streets.
In an unbelievable scene in the 2012 documentary, Uprising, a protestor holds the front page of a newspaper during the protests. It shows a photo of Tahrir Square, packed with thousands of angry protesters, yet the headline stated that these were pro-Mubarak supporters – yet another example of the total control the state had over all media, actively pushing their own propaganda. Without social media, and the rise of ‘citizen journalism,’ it probably would have been portrayed to the rest of the world in that same way. This could have also deterred potential protesters from joining Tahrir Square. If Mubarak could have controlled the media, we would not have seen the same results for the Egyptian people.
This emphasizes the drastic changes that have come into play in the recent years, regarding the way we keep up with current affairs. It’s not just BBC News or The Guardian you can follow on Twitter – you can now get your news from those who are experiencing it firsthand, and this is creating bold changes in the world of digital publishing. News reporting has become almost instantaneous.
While it’s true, the people of Egypt would have someday taken to the streets for their rights, the power of social media undeniably accelerated the revolution. Not only this, but it gave the Egyptian’s their chance to shape the story for the outside world, proving that their protest was in fact a peaceful one. Their story is one of hope for countries still under dictatorship – perhaps in years to come we will see the fall of Kim Jong-un in North Korea? It also prompts the question – how would revolutions of the past be portrayed, if they had taken place in the age of digital media?
Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian activist, has become a symbol of pro-democracy. He launched one of the pages that pushed the protest into action, crediting Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg as his inspiration. He truly believes the revolution was sparked online, stating “If you want to liberate a country, give them the internet,” When asked by CNN host Wolf Blitzer what Middle Eastern dictatorship would be the next to fall, he simply replied, “Ask Facebook.”