The world is watching as Arab citizens in North Africa and the Middle East gather to protest against authoritarian governments, restricted freedom, and poor economic opportunities. Twitter feeds, liveblogs, videos and photos are disseminated across the web almost instantly despite limited internet access in many participating countries.
In Western media, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are being credited with helping to propel this “Arab Revolution.” But in countries like Egypt, where only 20% of a population of 80 million people have ever used the Internet, the question is not if but how could digital and social media possibly become the conduit for tens of thousands of protesters?
Despite being one of the most connected countries in Africa, Egypt is representative of the global digital divide. Eighty-six percent of Egyptians have television (via) but Internet access and PC ownership remains almost exclusively available to the upper and upper middle classes. In other protesting nations, Internet access ranges from only 5% (Libya) to 34% (Tunisia).
Social media alone did not facilitate the Arab Revolution, but was a successful catalyst when combined with myriad methods of digital and traditional media. Technological advances like cell phones, video cameras, blog posts and Facebook, in conjunction with more traditional media outlets like Al Jazeera, created the circumstances for such effective information dissemination.
In revolutions past, dissidents formed underground groups, printed illicit newspapers and seized radio stations. These traditional media served as a way to get the word out about protests and gatherings, but were time-consuming and often headed by leaders of political opposition movements that had their own agenda.
Last week I spoke with University of Washington Professor and author of The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam Philip Howard, who said “[in the past] when activists would seize a TV station or radio station, the stuff they broadcast was usually also propaganda. Different from the state propaganda, but still propaganda.”
Digital media has provided the outlet for free expression that government monitored traditional media did not. The content shared between Arab nations and the rest of the world featured videos and images of people from all classes, not just the wealthy, and was captured by cellular phones and point and shoot cameras.
Twenty-four-hour news channel Al Jazeera—a new outlet using the old media platform of T.V.—curated and collected the raw, immediate content citizens were sharing from each and every country, and made all that content available to television viewers as fast as possible. According to the Allied Media Corporation, Al Jazeera reaches 40 million viewers in the Arab world. Their extensive coverage of the Arab Revolution and willingness to broadcast both original citizen journalism and diverse views allowed Arab citizens without computers to see the digital content being shared by their neighbors and countrymen.
In another example of traditional-meets-digital media, Facebook pages with times and dates of Cairo protests were printed out and disseminated by hand between Egyptians without Internet access.
Social media helped large groups to gather in a short amount of time. It also provided a platform for people to express their solidarity, both within the country and with others in the region and beyond. Egyptians heard about Tunisia from Tunisian citizens instead of the national news media. Instead of planning and creating a group of dissidents to follow, the word was spread quickly enough that enormous numbers were able to congregate in just days, and even hours—because someone knew someone who knew someone on Facebook, and word spread from there. Unlike traditional media, digital media allowed for a non-hierarchical, collective communication.
Of course no single Tweet or Facebook group compelled these thousands of people to march. But digital and social media facilitated communication between and within oppressed nations, and helped the dissatisfaction that had been bubbling below the surface to became a collective struggle.
As Prof. Howard says, “You need to know that you won’t be alone if you go to the Square.”