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. firstname.lastname@example.org