In response to Nabila Ramdani’s article and podcast on opendemocracy.net:
Freedom of information is now perceived as one of the biggest threats to governments on the verge of collapse. Knowledge, at last, is power. The part played by the relatively new phenomenon of social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings certainly has value, in the speed at which information spread and the potential to mobilise people, but we shouldn’t be too hasty in crowning social media as the catalyst for revolution.
Social media sites are not free spaces, as Ramdani claims in the podcast with Tony Curzon Price, they are private companies with terms and conditions, run for profit. As Ethan Zuckerman wrote (and recently quoted by Sam Gregory of Witness),
‘Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not – it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech.’
It is uncomfortable to see civil unrest in the Middle East defined by the social media outlet used to publicise it. To call the Egyptian uprising ‘The Facebook Revolution’ (and Ramdani is not the only one guilty of this) is frankly insulting. A revolution cannot be branded and we should be skeptical of companies using their incidental involvement as a marketing tool and opportunity for brand development amidst chaos and suffering. Is ‘The MySpace Uprising’ coming soon? I hear they could do with the publicity.
It is indeed telling that a government in a state of emergency will shut down the internet before rolling in the tanks. Ramdani states that ‘Internet Service Providers were shut down’ [in Tunisia and Egypt], but this didn’t stop the revolution; so really how big a part did the internet play? In his article ‘Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted’, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, ” Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools.” In short, PCs don’t start a revolution, people do.
There is also the very real issue of how to protect activists using platforms which jeopardise their anonymity. Morosov highlights in ‘The Net Delusion’ how social media can be used against activists, for example surveillance, and this issue needs to be seriously addressed before social media can claim its place alongside the revolutionaries.
Morodov and Gladwell’s arguments were not proved wrong by events in Tunisia and Egypt, they highlight the urgent need for enforcing the right to freedom of expression and reinforce a note of caution. If these tools are indeed now a staple of advocacy, activists need to learn to protect their safety and security online as well as offline and out on the streets.
Would these events have happened if social media didn’t exist? We must remember the initial event that resulted in the fall of two dictators, uprisings across the Middle East and a newfound empowerment of the people. The suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December 17th 2010, was not posted on Facebook.