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Social Media - a Revolutionary Weapon for Injustice

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Social Media: A Revolutionary Weapon for Injustice

The changing dynamics in a modern revolution can be characterized by the following quote from Egyptian docu-drama ‘The Square’: “[t]he battle [is not] just rocks and stones. [It is] in the images. [It is] in the stories” (Noujaim, 2013). It demonstrates that media of shared visuals and stories online have become a new form of political communication that can affect political outcomes. Revolutionaries have come to depend on the ubiquity of social media to transmit first-hand information easily and to inspire collective political action. As such, social media has granted more power to revolutionaries, providing them with avenues of voicing unjustness on an international scale, hence possibly providing greater traction for political changes. With this in view, this essay will analyse the factors that led to the success of the 2011 Egyptian revolution: the utilisation of Twitter and YouTube in providing real-time media coverage and of Facebook in being a tool for the coordination of protests. This essay argues that social media usage for revolutionary means in Egypt will see limited viability in the next decade due to protest fatigue and possible censorship measures adopted by the government for social media crackdowns.

Firstly, Twitter and YouTube were effectively used during the Egyptian revolution to provide real-time media coverage to garner both local and international support. An increase of more than double the Egyptian Twitter users and a massive viewing of 8.7 million YouTube pages by Egyptians during the period of the revolution (Chebib & Sohail, 2011) demonstrates the proliferation of such platforms for communicative purposes. The Dubai School of Government (2011) reports ‘#egypt’ to be the most popular trending hashtag on Twitter in the first quarter of 2011, with up to 1.4 million mentions. The constant media coverage of the Egyptian revolution using Twitter and YouTube was effective in helping the revolution gain support against the regime. The utilisation of these sites as information sources flooded the internet with “links, news, articles, [and] videos” (Bhuiyan, 2011), hence maintaining a consistent flow of information surrounding the political movement despite the presence of a media controlled environment. Chebib & Sohail (2011) explain that an increase in the density of both information and emotion spreading online serve to provide situational and social context to online audiences, and has profound impact on the radicalisation of individuals. Hence, a YouTube video containing footage of the death of Khaled Said – a famous martyr of the revolution – had more than 500, 000 views (Chebib & Sohail, 2011), served as a tool to inflame netizens through the documentation of the atrocities committed by the regime. The revolution could thus effectively utilise Twitter and YouTube as major platforms to rally support from both the local and international community for the revolution by exposing the Mubarak regime.

 In addition, the media coverage on Twitter and YouTube also served as a means of deterrence against any possible extreme violent measures by the regime. Major international spotlight on Egypt allowed the posting of videos and images to provide auxiliary benefits aimed at diminishing the “routine and pervasive” police brutality that was usually administered by the regime. (Harding, 2011). Tweets providing very specific information on police activity, and first hand anecdotes from police detainees who reported their sustained injuries during their detention were a common rhetoric among Egyptian twitter posts, with up to a thousand retweets (Starbird & Palen, 2012). Furthermore, popular YouTube news channels would routinely receive and publish video footage depicting scenes of police brutality, often reaching high view counts of up to 2 million (RT, 2011). The release of images and videos exposing police brutality forces the Egyptian media, and by extension, the regime to remain accountable for their actions to both the local and international community that were watching. Thus, it was effective in limiting any extreme and violent measures which would otherwise be taken by the regime in stopping the protests. Hence, Twitter and YouTube served as important media coverage outlets that were integral in offering safety to the protestors to a certain extent by means of deterring any possible extreme violent measures by the regime.

Another social media platform that facilitated the success of the revolution was Facebook given its ability to coordinate protests and foster a common goal among individuals. Chebib & Sohail (2011) report the highest increase in the number of Egyptian Facebook users in the first quarter of 2011, with Facebook being the most used platform in Egypt during the period of revolution. Of the 8,357,340 users, 78% of Facebook users were between the ages of 15 to 29, of whom also contributed to the majority of protestors (Bhuiyan, 2011), hence explaining its popularity during the height of the revolution given its wide reach among the younger generation. Analysis of one of the more popular and effective Facebook groups used during the revolution – ‘We are all Khaled Said’ – showed a high number of followers, with 600,000 at its peak (Chebib & Sohail 2011). The group was aggressive in its anti-government rhetoric, advocated for the unity of all Egyptians against the regime, and also doubled as a key organising centre for the Egyptian protests. Facebook groups such as these provided the revolution with additional avenues for group structuring and coordination through the ingenuity of its “Facebook events” function that allowed for the organisation of large scale action with relative ease and zero cost. As such, the difficulties encountered by larger, undisciplined groups in organising large real world events were circumvented. The usage of Facebook was effective as it built upon the concept of “shared awareness” – a military term that is defined as the capability of every member of an organisation to not only have complete understanding of the next course of action, but to also stay updated on the situational context of other members to develop group cohesiveness (Shirky, 2011). Examples of such coordination through providing information are seen through the regular detailing of location and duration pertaining to the congregations or protests that were happening (We are all Khaled Said, 2011a). Facebook events created for purposes of coordinating street protests demonstrated deeper levels of cohesiveness and planning through the utilisation of social media tools provided, as shown by Chebib & Sohail (2011) in the instance where “tens and thousands of attendance confirmations” and “a Google document [collecting] email addresses” were prepared alongside Facebook events detailing information about the protests. The propagation of such messages through social networks such as Facebook groups hence allowed for easier coordination of real world action by the revolutionaries, compensating for their lack of resources as compared to more formal organisations. In addition, advocacy for the unification of the Egyptian people regardless of differences was regularly employed by the Facebook groups (We are all Khaled Said, 2011b), which aimed to create solidarity and stronger ties among the revolutionaries. The logistical and social advantages provided by Facebook hence played an integral part in facilitating the success of the revolution through the increase of collectivistic spirit and coordination among the revolutionaries to further the political movement.

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