It was surreal to watch the Egyptian revolution unfold as I sat at my laptop in the Philippines during a recent business trip. It reminded me how a similar movement, known as People Power 2, brought down Philippine President Joseph Estrada in January 2001 (just a few months before my family moved to Manila).
What made that Philippine revolution unique was that citizens spontaneously organized the mass protest through mass text messaging—the Philippines was an early adopter country. It was spectacular by all accounts. Within hours 100,000 people had gathered at a popular shrine in a non-violent protest against the president. Within 24 hours, that number had tripled. By the third day, the crowd was reported to have swelled to two million.
A decade after People Power 2 – almost to the day – Tunisians ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, following weeks of demonstrations, fueled by high unemployment and then shared around the country and the world through photos, videos, and updates sent by mobile texts and posts to Facebook and Twitter. The BBC reported that organizing the protest network online worked in Tunisia, because more than a third of the country’s 10 million people are online. Nearly two million Tunisians use Facebook.
Right on the heels of the Tunisian protests came the demonstrations in Egypt and Libya. Frustrated populations with limited ability to form any type of effective opposition to the ruling party also gravitated to their most popular communications tools to organize the expression of their discontent, which again happened to be Twitter and Facebook in Egypt and YouTube in Libya.
While traveling, I was reading Charlene Li’s Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, for my Leadership in the Digital Age: Establishing Authenticity through Story class as part of the MCDM program. In the context of the Middle East upheaval, her book struck a chord. Li argues that you can “control how authentic you want to appear, depending on the situation you find yourself in.” I agree that for authentic leaders this is for the most part true.
But for disingenuous leaders, appearing authentic is getting harder and harder to pull off.
When country leaders pretend to be something they are not , there are now too many forums to expose their duplicity. Try as they might to muzzle the press, forcibly mute the opposition, and control their image in many recent cases, these strategies have only backfired.
Just before I closed my laptop to head off to my conference, a Google alert popped up that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had fled Cairo and he has since resigned. Now we see Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, resisting the protests and unleashing a ferocious battle on protesters, with UN estimates of more than 1,000 people dead in nearly three weeks of unrest and an estimated 200,000 people – mostly foreign workers – having fled the country.
It would be naïve to say that digital media has sparked these protests. But it has played two important roles. First as is a platform where inauthenticity of leaders has been revealed, unveiling corruption and contradiction. Second, digital media channels, which enjoy pre-existing networks among populations, have been used as a tool for action.