prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Social Media Revolution: The Whole World is Watching

Posted by prof e on January 29, 2011

It would be an overstatement to say that recent anti-government protests in Muslim countries have been caused by social media. It would NOT be an overstatement to say that social media has played a very important role in both coordinating protest activities and giving new meaning to the slogan, “the whole world is watching.” The largely peaceful transfer of power in Tunisia that began just weeks ago has been a remarkable event and the current protests in Egypt opposing long-term president Hosni Mubarak are nothing short of miraculous. The Green Revolution in Iran, aka the Twitter Revolution, is another example of the critical role that social media has played in enabling a largely youthful underclass as they’ve challenged autocratic rulers and oppressive regimes.

I’m not a political scientist, but this is what I’ve been able to learn about the current uprising in Egypt from several news accounts that I’ve read. The political unrest is rooted in sluggish economic conditions that have resulted in high unemployment for a growing demographic of young, often well-trained, citizens. Evidence of political corruption has added fuel to the fire as protesters, emboldened by what they observed in Tunisia, have called for the end of the 30-year rule by Mubarak. Protesters have been clashing with police who have been deploying water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets in response. Just yesterday Mubarak called out the army, but may have been surprise by the results. According to reports, members of the army have been joining with protesters calling for the president to resign. But Egypt is a strong ally of the US, and that makes it complicated for our diplomatic corps. While the US supports peaceful democratic transition, it is also gravely concerned about the potential of loosing one of its strongest allies in the region.

Egypt’s response to the protests has been surprisingly heavy-handed. The government shut down internet and cell phone services on Friday in an attempt to disrupt the protesters’ activities, effectively disconnecting 80 million people from the outside world. According to some reports cell phone service was restored a day later, and dial-up internet numbers are being circulated. “The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it”, a quote from 1993 attributed to John Gilmore, captures the challenge of trying to restrict a system that was built to be bomb-proof. Iranians, Tunisians and Egyptians have found, or are finding, ways around information blockades, with proxy servers and other less technical means for maintaining connection to the outside world.

The role of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media is being debated, and will continue to be debated long after these revolutions have passed. But one thing is certain; social media is a game-changer, and powerful institutions, be they governments, businesses or social movements, can either learn how to use social media to their benefit or they will have to learn to live with the consequences.

Resources:

  • NPR has published a guide to using Twitter to follow the on-going events in Egypt…you can find it here.
  • Al Jazeera, a Muslim news organization, maintains a blog of on-going events here.
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9 Responses to “Social Media Revolution: The Whole World is Watching”

  1. Ronnie said

    The media in this country was very reluctant to call this situation what it truly was in the beginning, and I recognized that immediately. There are some significant differences between Iran’s so called Green Revolution and Egypt’s current revolution – which has no catchy slogan. Iran’s 2009 presidential election was reported to have been rigged in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is notoriously anti-western, which led to significant outrage and thus protests by younger voters who favored one of the opposition candidates named Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who is arguably more pro-western. Additionally, it’s important to know that the color green is a deeply rooted Iranian cultural symbol for seasonal renewal, vitality and growth, and is regarded highly throughout the Iranian population (it’s the first color in their flag); however, the term Green Revolution was used heavily by the media to characterize the nature of the protests that erupted following the 2009 election. In other words, it’s curious that a symbol so commonplace to the Iranian people would be used to distinguish the revolutionary nature of these protests. In my opinion, using the term Green Revolution made what was occurring in Iran more relatable only to western media consumers. Coincidentally, in 2009 “Green” marketing slogans reached new heights and effectively associated electronic consumer goods to environmentalism. It sounds a bit Pavlovian, but Americans are well trained to respond to green buzzwords these days. Arguably, the demonstrations and protests in Iran were just that – they never reached the level of a revolution, but it was in certain interest to describe the phenomena as a revolution albeit prematurely.

    What makes Iran’s protests different to Egypt’s full scale revolution is most certainly the role social media played in spreading each movement. In 2009, The Iranian government very quickly and very early reacted to the use of social media and shut internet resources down, and while the protests became quite volatile, the mass participation needed to really drive any sort of changes never occurred. In other words, there arguably wasn’t sufficient interest by the people to revolt in the first place. This may or may not have been due to the government’s effort to cut off social media. There were charges issued by the Iranian government that foreign instigators operating within the country, and intentionally popularized via western media, helped propagate and inflate the outrage felt by many young voters. Simply put, the whole debacle may have been a Coup d’état (or act of espionage) born of western influence. The evidence is sketchy, but it certainly wouldn’t have been the first time something like this has happened. In fact, it’s a much favored alternative to full-scale invasion and war with Iran — an ever present theme in American media. A full on revolution in Iran is unmistakably desired by the American government for many reasons — access to their oil and a decreased likelihood of nuclear conflict with Iran are foremost.

    On the other hand, Egypt’s genuine revolution is perhaps the polar opposite to what happened in Iran. Egypt’s outrage didn’t necessarily need to be spread via Facebook and Twitter, rather, it was directly tied to their everyday reality. Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, won his 2005 bid for re-election by an absurd 88.6% margin, which caused tremendous outrage at the time, but an iron fist has been his sufficient governing tool until now. The Egyptian economy has deteriorated to such a degree that people united on this basis alone. Egypt’s present revolution seems entirely organic, as there is no leader for the revolt or symbolic campaign underlying the citizen’s outrage. Egypt’s economy has all but collapsed (as is the case for many other important countries in the mid-east) and the entire middle and upper classes have banded together and called for nothing less but the complete removal of Mubarak. The U.S government is in a true state of panic. It’s been no secret that Mubarak has committed fraud in order to stay in power, but Egypt’s president is favorable to the U.S government’s economic and military interests. If Mubarak is replaced, there are no clear answers as to what type of government the Egyptian people will replace him with, and if the spirit of revolution continues to spread to other middle-eastern countries, it will have drastic and intractable effects on the U.S economy too.

    People need to ask themselves why our media was initially willing to minimize Egypt’s revolution to simple protests and demonstrations, and why the major news networks were so quick to market Iran’s protests as a revolution.

  2. Dominick Ledezma said

    I genuinely am very happy to see the youth in Egypt spearhead a righteous revolution that has been stewing and long overdue for decades. What I’m not happy to see is the U.S. posturing as if they are somehow neutral in this fray…American interests are vested in their “guy” in the area, Mubarak. Never mind the fact that this tyrannical, power hungry and blisteringly oppressive dictator was in power for 30 years on our watch. We all know, or should know what all of this boils down to.

    This destroyer of human rights, Mubarak, was backed by the U.S., the U.K. and Israel and plays a highly key role in American foreign policy. He’s maintained a very close relationship to the Obama administration and many administration’s of the past… Do Americans understand the tragic irony in this? The so called land of the free, turning a blind eye to a man who is, quite frankly little more than a murderer? A man who imprisons political figures and young activists on mere whims and at the same time hollers out against Cuba, El Salvador and China?

    Truth is, America has long played this position. King making with the “princes of the middle east” is nothing new, this time however you can log on to the internet and follow the progress of how we wreck other countries in real time. Sometimes our interference works out in Washington’s favor, sometimes it doesn’t. In this scenario it did for a great period of time, but now it seems the kiddies have gone and grown a brain on em’, respectively. Hey, who says Twitter is a waste of time? This is like what, the 3rd time they’ve played an integral role in a massive uprising in a foreign country?

    Don’t rule out the very real possibility that this all could’ve been funded and orchestrated by the U.S. as well…for whatever reason. Political coups are another one of our government’s favorite pastimes, that once again draws a low percentage of working out well in the long run. In the mean time and in between time, the young people of Egypt have my support, even though in truth, the govt. that speaks for me by default is probably just as much to blame for their troubles as that despot, who by my calculations should be trying to catch the next flight to London or the UAB as soon as he can.

  3. Alan Wergedal said

    “I’m not a political scientist, but this is what I’ve been able to learn about the current uprising in Egypt from several news accounts that I’ve read. The political unrest is rooted in sluggish economic conditions that have resulted in high unemployment for a growing demographic of young, often well-trained, citizens. Evidence of political corruption has added fuel to the fire as protesters, emboldened by what they observed in Tunisia, have called for the end of the 30-year rule by Mubarak.”

    With this statement as the reasoning behind the uprising it seems that the United States should soon follow? Last time i checked the world economy is poor people are highly educated everywhere and the political corruption is rampant no matter where you go. The united states political corruption just gets legalized because the law makers are the ones benefiting from the corruption and make it legal therefore its not corruption.

    Who is driving the Egyptian revolution twitter facebook all of the social networks out there? or is it just a fast way for people with the same frame of mind able to communicate and work together to change what they believe is wrong?

    Social media is allowing this revolution to be seen and heard and use members of the protesters much more effectively with out blood shed. The fact that a protest is called in 15 mins does not allow for a rapid response with force from the government a text message to a phone that is forwarded to everyone you know takes a few mins max. This is totally the work of technology not always Facebook or Twitter. Social media is defiantly playing a role but when you shut down the internet its not the social media its the technology still leading the way. If you are a protester in Egypt you will use what ever technology is available to get your message out.

    I find it ironic that a revolution so far away has such an effect on people who didn’t care what it was like in Egypt till it hit the media that they were revolting using Facebook and Twitter. The reason for the revolution has been there for years but no one reported on those marches or the times in the last 10 years that all phone and internet services have been shut off due to riots. I guess we can social networking and the anonymity it brings to helping the revolution story run rampant through the news.
    I say not social networking, i say technology allows all of this is accredited too with technology comes new ideas. High speed internet = Napster, easy access to internet and laptops iphones smart phones = anonymity in your hand and Facebook Twitter. Keep claiming this is because of social networking but remember with out the ideas of the people society lists as diffrent all of this would not have come true.

  4. Ronnie said

    The U.S media was hesitant to bring attention to the revolution in Egypt, fearing a public dialogue and introspection of American foreign agendas spanning the past 30-plus years, but the images coming from Egypt were undeniable, and the media had no choice but to cease committing intellectual fraud — for a moment, anyway. Round the tenth day of intensive media coverage, I intently listened as the pendulum swung far to the right, with only superficial insights into the legitimacy of American foreign policy, as Faux News and select pundits on various networks began to distractingly characterize the secular revolt in Egypt as instead a radical Islamic uprising — the beggings of rapture, tribulation and Armageddon. The goal of disinformation was achieved right before my eyes. Don’t we just love the evangelical fervor permeating news media messages?

    It’s really quite ridiculous, our fourth estate, which has once again failed to really challenge the American people to honestly and rigorously ponder the reasoning for ever having meddled in the affairs of the middle-east. It seems the oppressed all around the globe are awakening to the reality that the world’s economies wrest upon the shoulders of an ancient region’s declining fossil resources to hopelessly sustain an infinite-growth economic paradigm — a notion in serious need of dispossession.

    Note to Dr. E.: I think I lost and won my own bet. Most students who use blogs really are too stupid or subdued to delve into matters not concerning MTV’s or EA’s latest marketing schemes, but the good news is that thanks to the popularity of Facebook and Twitter in this country everyone can find out how big of a crap their buddy Steve Stifler took this morning or if Lindsey Lohan is going to jail for stealing a necklace. Ahh, the self-fulfilling prophecy realized.

  5. Jordan Gregory said

    I believe that this social revolution by the country of Egypt will have negative effects on other countries around it striving for stability. There has already been rumblings of other countries trying to follow Egypts lead and if this is the case, next thing you know every country will be calling for revolution once their government does something to their disaproval. i think in some cases it is neccesary for a country to shut down internet use in protecting a country for their own good

  6. Labrittany Coleman said

    The social revolution that Egypt is going through I believe will have negative effects on every country that is going to see what’s happening on over in the Middle East. The social media going on in this country I feel is about the same that is going on in the United States. A lot of their social media is through the same social media that us American use every day to see what’s going in our country like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. Most of the news coverage of the Middle East gets broadcasted from a Muslim news organization called Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera also maintains a blog of ongoing events that are happening in the Middle East as well so people can see the tragedy of social media context. I feel that Egypt is going to have to live with their consequences if they can’t benefit from social media.

  7. Darci Powers said

    Every country that is going through some sort of turmoil or uprising is using the media as a tool to voice their opinion and start revolts. It’s like wildfire, with how quickly the media can spread ideas and thoughts. Any country that is involved in the usage of this media will be directly affected and even other countries will be affected. This sparks a bit of rebellion in anyone, the fact that they have the control to start a sort of revolution just by what they say on they internet or dealing with other social media. I do think that this will continue, and that there will probably be other countries that have uprisings or other issues within their country.

  8. Alex Miller said

    The media is a powerful element that can be used to voice a countries’ intentions in a positive or negative manner. All countries go through problems and need ways to influence their audiences. Countries use media to directly effect their population’s perspectives. The media can be used to broadcast negative aspects about Muslim culture and how these minorities effect the nation’s wellbeing. Social media can also be seen in a good way. Using the power of media can help reunite a countries beliefs and/or help stabilize population support thats essential for mass communication.

  9. Dom Harris said

    The social revolution is Egypt as negative as the media may portray it in my opinion is both a good thing but also a bad thing as well. This is good because the youth of Egypt is finally standing up to the injustice and corruption of the system in which they live in. But as positive as what they are trying to do the Egyptians youth might be going at it the wrong way. Because all countries that have involvement in the social media are directly affected obviously we see this by their government shutting down their communication for a day. As horrible as that my sound because who wants the government trying to control them this also brought up another positive because what they are doing will start an uprising of other counties and problems and issues to talk about.

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