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Revolution 2.0? How influential was social media to the Arab Spring?

Revolution 2.0?

The Arab Spring of 2011 set off dominos of uprisings around the world, including the Occupy movements in the US. Raul Zibechi, Uruguayan writer, noted that mainstream media have given an “almost magical role to social networks in mobilizing the millions of people on the street.[i] He quotes former Brazilian President da Silva, who commented, “With nimble fingers on their cell phones, youth have taken to the streets all around the world to protest, connected by social networks.” Activists, however, often reject the label “Twitter Revolution,” “Facebook Revolution” or “Revolution 2.0” because it minimizes the work of small groups active for years in what anarchist professor James C. Scott calls “hidden spaces.”

A joke among young rebels was they prefer the technology of a Molotov cocktail to Twitter and Facebook. They feel western journalists overestimated the importance of social media. Salma, is a member of the Mosireen media group in Cairo. I heard her speak at a Global Uprisings conference in Amsterdam where she said it’s not accurate to call the ouster of President Mubarak an Internet Revolution. The day the revolution got in high gear was on January 28 when people woke up to government shut off of Internet or phones, so they went to the streets to find out what was happening. She said although Western media focuses on the young educated Twitter user, most of the marches started in poor neighborhoods with angry masses from different backgrounds—over 20 million people took to the streets. They burned down 90 police stations on January 28, destroying “oppressive state infrastructure” for bread, freedom and social justice. The Internet was a tool but the cause was police brutality, economic crisis including high youth unemployment, and Mubarak’s intention to pass the throne to his son. Now thousands of bloggers discuss politics on the Net, and Mosireen collects video footage from citizen cell phones and cameras, so IT is a powerful tool.

Social media photos galvanized anger before the revolutions by focusing on young men who people could identify with like a brother who were victimized by police. In Tunisia, a vegetable seller was so fed up with corruption that he set himself on fire (photos showed his burned body in the hospital). In Egypt, young  Khaled Said was battered to death by police in Egypt because he posted a video of police dealing drugs. Their photos went viral and fueled the revolutions.             Activist Asmaa Mahfouz made a videotaped message on January 18 for people to show up on January 25.”[ii] A 25-year-old MBA graduate, she said, “I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I’ll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor.” The video went viral on the Internet, getting over 80,000 hits the first week. She said, “Don’t be afraid of the government.” Mahfouz was one of the activists who distributed leaflets in Cairo slums on January 24. Her family forbade her to demonstrate on the street and cut her off from the Internet, so she used her phone to organize from her bedroom. (Single adults usually live with their parents.) Akram, a Cairo high school student, emailed me in 2012 saying, “Now it’s all about Twitter; the ideas start there then they make events on Facebook.”

A statistical study of the use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in Tunisia and Egypt led researchers at the University of Washington to conclude that social media did play an important role in the Arab Spring. Knowledge of social media strengthened the leadership role of young urban educated people, including women who sent about a third of the Twitter messages and were a large presence on Facebook (41% in Tunisia and 36% in Egypt). Over two-thirds of the Internet users in Egypt and Tunisia are under age 34. They used Twitter to coordinate actions and share news internationally; in Tunisia about 1,000 people were Tweeting every day before President Ben Ali resigned. As Egyptian blogger Gigi Ibrahim said, “The Tunisian revolution is being Twitterized.” The main themes were freedom and revolution. The “freedom meme” spread throughout the region on Facebook and YouTube as conversations extended across borders, despite government efforts to arrest and imprison bloggers. Social media didn’t cause the uprisings but enabled it and spread ideas quickly across nations, and made the call for freedom more impactful with songs, videos and photos.


[i] Raúl Zibechi, “Autonomy in Brazil,” Roar Magazine, November 21, 2013.


www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uzdOLXLoes&feature=related A TV interview

2 Hazem Kandil, “Revolt in Egypt: Interview,” New Left Review, April 2011. Interview, http://newleftreview.org/II/68/hazem-kandil-revolt-in-egypthttp://newleftreview.org/II/68/hazem-kandil-revolt-in-egypt


Gayle Kimball is writing a book about global youth activism and invites you to read and critique chapters. gkimball@csuchico.edu

Does Electronic Communication Lead to Isolation?

High school students in the East Coast interviewed by MIT professor Sherry Turkle told her that instead of feeling connected to friends by constant texting, they feel lonely because of the lack of face-to-face focused attention, hence the title of her book Alone Together. They also feel pressure to respond quickly to a text and sometimes are confused by the real intent of a message without being able to read someone’s facial expressions. Teens “write for effect” on Facebook, trying to show they’re cool. They also grew up with multitasking parents who talked on their cell phones and texted, some even at the family dinner table. I’ve noticed this focus on the device rather than the child when I take my grandson to playgrounds. I’m the only adult who goes down the slides with my little one. Turkle reported that it’s common to hear children and teens describe the frustration of trying to get their parents’ attention.[i] In her conversations with therapists, they tell Turkle about the increasing number of patients who come in “detached from their bodies and seem close to unaware of the most basic courtesies. Purpose-driven, plugged into their media, these patients pay little attention to those around them.”[ii]

[i] Sherry Turkle. Alone Together. Basic Books, 2011, p. 268.


[ii] Ibid, p. 293


Millennials are Practical Idealists says author David Burstein

When he was only 24-years-old, Millennial David Burstein wrote Fast Future about Americans born from 1980 to 1994, having spent six years interviewing hundreds of his peers. He got started in activism as a filmmaker of Generation18 that was used to encourage young voters to register in 2008. He concluded that Millennials are practical idealists and activists. Unlike the Boomers, they’re not ideologues, revolutionaries, or anti-authority. He traces his generation’s patient pragmatism to realism learned from growing up in an era when rapid change is the only constant, when institutions and authority are collapsing and disaster follows disaster—environmental and social. Enabled by their use of technology and free social media (over half of them add online content every week) they’ve already made significant change. “We’ve toppled dictators, helped elect a president, created social networks that have connected the world, forced businesses to adopt a social agenda broader than profit—and all before most of us have turned thirty.”[i]

Burstein believes Millenials have a “passion for making a difference” as by building large online activist organizations such as Facebook’s Causes as the larges online activist platform with over 100 million users, Mobilize.org, Ourtime.org, and DoSomething.org. The latter claims to be the largest US nonprofit for young people and social change with 1,425,974 million members who “kick ass on causes they care about” such as bullying or homelessness. Millennials use technology for relief work such as raising money for Haiti through texting and cell phone donations. (He adds that they also bought more books than other generation in 2011.)

Most Millennials (88% according to a Pew survey) believe they should and can change the world. Because of high youth unemployment, they’ve become social entrepreneurs who create their own jobs with a social conscience: Burstein reports almost a third of all US entrepreneurs are Millennials. As effective changemakers, they’ve generated “cultural shifts” in the workplace with less hierarchy, more access to executives, dialogue with customers, insistence on a social responsibility policy, and a more enjoyable work environment.

Wanting to hear from a Millennial about these charges of apathy, narcissism, anxiety and depression, I talked with David Burstein, author of Fast Future. He agrees alarmists have a loud voice and books like The Dumbest Generation become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He notes you can conduct research to tell you what you want. He pointed out that narcissism is not unique to this generation and Boomers in the 60s were known for “free love” and sexual liberation. Popular culture today is about self-confidence and self-branding, a culture of self-empowerment, which has resulted in young people becoming leaders in the present, not just future leaders as they get older. Every generation has partyiers, it doesn’t matter if there are more of them, what counts is the ability of an individual to influence many others. What does it matter if they’re doing activism and drinking?

If you look at all the studies of Millennials, far more are socially engaged. If you scan all the analysis of what they want in employer relationships, business, and politics, the picture is pretty clear. Social-mindedness has a bigger footprint and individuals have more impact through access to theirs peers. The people Burstein went to high school with can read about Fast Future and are aware of what he’s doing and his issues. He gets messages on Facebook even from students he knew in middle school that are inspired by his activism. Burnstein says people become ambassadors and carry their message forward. The fact that Millennials have introduced change before they turned 30, suggests their long-term impact on social awareness. Also, many volunteer and give money to charities, which suggests they’ll continue with their giving habits.

About mental illness, Burstein asks where do we draw the line between mental illness and stress in an era of increasing stress? Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, only if it is managed poorly. If you look at a Harris poll conducted for The American Psychological Association study of generations, Millennials are more stressed than older generations, with an average of 5.4 self-report on a stress scale from 1 to 10, compared to 4.9 for older respondents to the poll.[i] Their main sources of stress are work (76%), money (73%) and relationships (59%). They are more likely to be told by a health care provider that they have depression (14%) or an anxiety disorder 12%). Burstein says Millennials have to figure out how to find a job and make money, and be happy, but we have the ability to adapt. Why are so many optimistic about the long term? We’re trying to make something out this time in our 20s, not just getting married, but having new experiences.

I also asked David Burstein about the difference between Generations Y and Z. He thinks the big difference is his generation experienced both pre-digital and digital technology: The guiding principle for Millennials is they straddled the line. They know what it’s like to do a research project in the library but intuitively used Twitter and other social media to create political change like the Arab Spring. In contrast, Gen Z knows nothing but digital technology, as illustrated in a popular YouTube video showing a one-year-old girl trying to make a magazine cover move like an iPad.[i] Gen Z could know far more growing up with educational games on their iPhone, but Burstein questions if this familiarity with technology and instant culture will allow them to navigate the world better. “If you’re not grounded in real world experiences, it’s harder to see the problems; they have more instant culture without first being grounded in the pre-internet and pre Facebook world.” Whereas Millennials are often entrepreneurs due to coming of age in a recession, “my feeling is Gen Z will be less entrepreneurial. Also, the biggest impact is coming to technology fully formed rather than helping to shape it.” Their parents are Gen X, characterized as being rather apathetic, not as focused on parenting as Baby Boomers who raised Millennials. He thinks Gen X parents are so comfortable with social media they aren’t as protective about privacy online, and setting up ground rules, while Millennial parents are still figuring it out.

[i] Sharon Jayson, “Who’s Feeling Stressed: Young Adults, New Survey Shows,” USA Today, February 7, 2013.


[i] David Burstein. Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World. Beacon Press, 2013, p. xviii.

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