At a time when teen pop star Justin Bieber has cruised to worldwide popularity with the help of social networks, it is refreshing to witness this new communications technology serving a purpose higher than product marketing.
At a time when teen pop star Justin Bieber has cruised to worldwide popularity with the help of social networks, it is refreshing to witness this new communications technology serving a purpose higher than product marketing. I am referring, of course, to the recent revolution in Egypt, during which the demonstrators’ use of social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as organizing tools received as much attention in the news as the actual grievances of the Egyptian people. Flash protests and demonstrations facilitated by social networking technologies are hardly new, and it is by now well accepted that the technologies play an important role in helping people to communicate and to feel empowered to participate in politics. However, one thing that stood out during the Egyptian protests was the fact that companies such as Google and Twitter made concerted efforts to allow users to be able to continue to transmit messages even after the Egyptian government ordered the Internet shut down.
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For instance, SayNow, which started as a service that allowed celebrities and their fans to leave voicemail messages for each other and was acquired by Google in late January, teamed up with Twitter at the height of the protests to launch a feature specifically for the use of Egyptians cut off from the Internet. The service, called “speak to tweet,” allowed people to call designated numbers and leave voicemail messages that were then automatically translated into type and sent out as tweets. Google’s official blog proudly announced the service as a way to help “people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time.” Symbolizing the connection between social networks and the revolt was Wael Ghonim, the Google engineer jailed for almost two weeks during the uprising after his Facebook page protesting police brutality helped spur the protests. By contrast, when ordered by the Egyptian government to shut down, mobile phone service providers such as Vodafone, Orange and Mobinil complied.
More traditional media played an important role as well. Many believe that coverage of the popular uprising in Tunisia broadcast by Al Jazeera, the international television news network headquartered in Qatar, also helped spark the protests in Egypt. But it is hard to ignore the fact that social networks greatly enhance the ability of activists to channel popular anger via user generated content into organized protests. In fact, the use of social networking technology to help build political pressure goes back at least to 2001, when a chain of text messages prompted more than a million Filipinos to occupy one of Manila’s main highways and demand the resignation of President Joseph Estrada over allegations of corruption. In 2003, text messages reading, “There is a fatal flu in Guangzhou,” got the word out about the existence of the SARS virus in China and forced the Chinese government to acknowledge the problem. And the next year, in Spain, young voters mobilized by text message the day before an election contributed to the defeat of the ruling conservative party and the end of the country’s involvement in the Iraq War.
Whether the Mubarak regime will be the first of many to be felled with the help of social networks is far from certain. The breakdown of authoritarian regimes is a messy process, and technology can make it more so. As we saw in Iran after the disputed 2009 election, the use of social media such as Twitter by protestors did not produce a reliable recount, much less a breakdown of the regime. What’s more, the theocratic regime made its own use of social media to discredit the opposition. For a successful transition to democracy to occur, political elites and civil society must be committed to accepting political outcomes once the people are allowed to govern themselves—and that condition isn’t always present no matter how much organizing power the Internet, mobile phones and social media give to the people.
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We also run the risk of overestimating the ability of new technologies and social media to provide a complete picture of events on the ground, which was not the case in Egypt. According to journalist Nicholas Kulish in an article published in the February 6 edition of the New York Times Magazine, the leader and other high-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood were abducted and thrown in jail the night before the outbreak of the demonstrations. The Western media reported that the Muslim Brotherhood was largely silent as the protests unfolded, but not even Al Jazeera noted that a possible explanation for this was that the Brotherhood’s leadership was behind bars. Thus, we learned more about the treatment of a recently politicized Google executive than about the leaders of the longstanding opposition to the regime. News related to new technologies got more traction than the real story behind the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged silence.
It is also worth noting that young people are simultaneously the group most “connected” by social networks and the least likely to vote in mature democracies. In the heat of a revolt, the young may feel empowered to topple an oppressive regime, but once the hard work of turning revolution into functioning democracy begins, their inclination to participate declines. They are likely to mobilize under very specific circumstances and during short periods of time. The challenge for democracies is to use social media to encourage young voters to go to the polls. Research suggests that personal appeals from friends have a strong impact on voter mobilization, though not necessarily on voter attitudes, and therein lies the promise and challenge of Egypt’s democratization in the social media era. User generated content and social sites facilitate the distribution of information to and from “friends” and potential young voters, but this information moves very rapidly and is not conducive to deliberation. Keeping the Egyptian population informed of and satisfied with the process of writing a new constitution and preparing for elections that may be held in as little as six months in this fast-moving environment will be the key to a successful transition.
As of this writing, the military council in charge of Egypt has given no indication that it will allow the opposition, which seems to lack leaders, a role in the constitution-writing process. In any case, six months is nowhere near enough time to allow for the emergence of strong, viable parties in a country where over 80 percent of the population has never been active in party politics. Social media can help speed up the process of recruiting members and activists, of disseminating a message and organizing supporters, and of mobilizing voters. But there is only so much that can be accomplished, even with the assistance of social media, when the restrictions that have prevented parties from organizing have not even been lifted yet.
Sandra L. Suárez is an associate professor of political science at Temple University.