Revolution in the Age of Facebook

by Michael I. Niman

ArtVoice 2/17/11

For the past three weeks our screens have been awash with images of indignant Egyptians defying their brutal government with a loud, unprecedented, unified call for democracy. Our radios hummed with an accented song of rage, indignation, hope, and, finally, triumph and jubilation. The script for this drama moved fast, as if made for generations weaned on the ADHD world of TV. It was three weeks from the first public signs of discontent to the fall of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. The whole scenario has played out with almost no bloodshed so far.

Prior to this month, Egypt had been a dictatorship of one sort or another for 6,000 years.

Like a House Party, But Bigger

The genesis for this revolution, upending one of the most firmly entrenched status quos in history, took form last month as Facebook chatter. Like American college students planning a 40s-and-blunts party, Egypt’s soon-to-be revolutionaries posted calls for their online community to meet up in public squares and peaceably call for an overthrow of their ancient dictatorship. And, like the invite for the house party that drew a thousand guests, the Egyptian Facebook call for revolution went viral.

The infovirus that took down the Egyptian government had vectors stemming out of Tunisia, whose dictatorship collapsed a month earlier, similarly after a short but massive outburst of peaceful street protests and strikes. The first skirmishes of what the international media calls the “Jasmine Revolution” also played out on Facebook, when the Tunisian government’s infowarriors attempted to hack their population’s Facebook access to oblivion—this in response to a rapid, almost exponential increase in Tunisian Facebook accounts at the start of the year.

The government’s hack offensive ultimately failed, as Tunisians went on to use the social network to share logistic information about the anti-government protests and the government’s response. Twenty-nine days after protests began, dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year reign abruptly ended with the collapse of his regime. In the wake of his fall, the term “social media revolution” started to take on new meaning, especially in Egypt, where tech-savvy youth had been following the Tunisian drama.

Weaponized Facebook

And the virus keeps spreading. Inspired by this month’s Egyptian revolution, activists in the Persian Gulf island monarchy of Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Naval Fleet, issued a statement calling on “all Bahraini people—men, woman, boys and girls—to share in our rallies in a peaceful and civilized way to guarantee a stable and promising future for ourselves and our children.” And hence the Bahraini revolution began this Monday, with riot police attacking demonstrators with rubber bullets, tear gas, and concussion grenades.The kingdom of Jordan has also caught the bug, with Twitter- and Facebook-inspired democracy protests coalescing this week.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, on January 28, as the Egyptian revolution was gaining steam, 24-year-old Al-Razaq Al-Azazi started a Facebook group called “Let’s change the president,” which he later renamed “Revolution against ignorance,” in preparation for pro-democracy demonstrations. More than 1,200 people defied the government and accepted the site’s invitation to a February 3 “Yemini People Uprising,” challenging the three-decade-long reign of their government. This past weekend, during four days of protest, police attacked demonstrators with US-made Taser weapons while pro-government goons descended on the crowd swinging bottles, sticks, and other crude weapons. The Yemeni government, like Egypt and Bahrain, is a strong ally in the US “War on Terror.”

It’s not just US client states that have caught the Egyptian bug. Across the Sahara from Egypt, Algerian Facebook and Twitter accounts have been buzzing with democratic revolution, too. Early street demonstrations there are successfully pressuring the government to end its 19-year-old, civil-rights-restricting “state of emergency.” However, this past weekend, Algerian security forces, in an effort to contain the growing democracy movement, arrested approximately 400 demonstrators.

In Iran, demonstrators gathered illegally to celebrate the popular pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, sparking Iran’s Twitter-inspired Green Revolution back to life. Democracy protesters are battling to occupy Azadi Square in Tehran as I sit here and write. On the cyber front, activists appear to be posting what some journalists believe are doctored videos showing mass protest footage from over a year ago with more timely chants celebrating the democracy movement’s victory in Egypt dubbed in. The apparent aim here would be creation of a perception that the protests are once again massive, which in turn, would likely result in them once again becoming massive.

The spark has also spread to Syria, where Facebook, though officially banned, is available via proxy servers around the globe. Using both Facebook and Twitter, thousands of people organized a “Day of Rage” last week. This week, the Syrian government sentenced a high school blogger to five years in prison for anti-government posts, as young Syrians gear up for the next round of their nascent revolution.

While all of these revolutionary movements have been kindled by social media sparks, it’s important to note that they all have deep-seated roots that predate the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. However, these two revolutions demonstrated that removing a Middle Eastern dictator is indeed possible, thus raising the stakes and bringing people back out in the streets throughout the region. The new social media platforms allowed people to celebrate collectively both the victories in Tunisia and Egypt and the fantasy that maybe they could be replicated at home.

Moreover, the new communication technology brought home the reality that revolutions don’t have to be violent, as tweets and posts affirmed collective commitments to nonviolence in advance of protests. Once social media effectively spread the word that protests would be nonviolent, they became acceptable to wider swaths of the population, ultimately emerging as genuinely popular uprisings.

Victory, If But for a Moment

Social media brings a new aspect to communication. Where TV is inherently anti-democratic, with one voice talking to the masses who can’t talk back, social media opens up a two-way discourse, allowing for organic, leaderless movements to reset national zeitgeists. The staying power of these leaderless revolutions remains to be seen. To date, they haven’t really fully liberated any territory—just moments of time where crowds won the space to cheer in public squares. The Egyptian revolution created what anarchist theorist Hakim Bey terms a temporary autonomous zone, or TAZ. For a moment, Egyptians from a host of diverse backgrounds put their differences aside and fought for a simple common goal: ridding the nation of its dictator. And they were rewarded by the triumphant moment that is inspiring oppressed people around the world.

At this moment, and only at this moment, we can imagine the Egyptian revolution, like a lover we haven’t yet met, to be anything we want it to be.

The reality on the ground is that while Egyptians defeated their dictator, his military is now running the country, essentially coming to power in a coup at the height of the demonstrations. So far the protestors who brought the dictator down don’t have a seat at the table as the ruling military leaders re-engineer the Egyptian political landscape.

Of course, their revolution, like our own 1776 revolution, will never be over, and they know it. Hence, Egyptians in the street keep reassuring international journalists that they are wary, but not fearful, of the military. Their reasoning is that their passion for democracy has been unleashed and is unstoppable. Time will tell how temporary or permanent the Egyptian moment proves to be.

It’s also important to note that these social media revolutions aren’t grassroots movements, as the grassroots don’t have internet access. For that matter, the grassroots often are not literate. In Yemen, for example, only one half of one percent of the population has access to the Internet, and hence to social media. And only 50 percent of the population can read.

What makes these revolutions possible, however, is who this wired minority is. The new breed of Facebook and Twitter warriors aren’t the landless peasants we normally associate with revolutions, and ultimately with massacres at the hands of the government. Instead, they’re the relatively affluent and hence powerful middle class. As such, their class status provides them with just enough invincibility to get away with expressing discontent.

Put simply, there’s a greater chance of an inquiry when you arrest, beat, or murder a child of the educated bourgeoisie.

Where social media gets its real power is that once these folks open the door for revolution, everyone else can more easily jump on board. Then traditional social media—word of mouth, graffiti, and so on—can take over, and you have revolution.

But You Better Hurry

It’s also important to understand that the moment for Facebook and Twitter revolutions is about to pass, so you better have your social media revolution quickly. While the still developing global Internet provides an anarchistic communications platform, the more developed Internet that we are beginning to see reins in this democratic chaos. While the Internet allows users in the developing world to incite revolutions (which still must play out in the street), developed police states see the Internet with an opposite potential—allowing them to spy on activists and track incubating political movements. In a technologically savvy police state, both you and your tweet may never see the light of day.

So don’t drink the “social media revolution” Kool-Aid. And don’t throw away your spray paint.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.



ęCopyright 2011

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