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Tweet like an #Egyptian

Opinion | February 8, 2011

In June 2009, the Iranian people raised their Internet voices in a cry for revolution. Despite government attempts to suppress Internet usage, tech-savvy protestors found ways to route around government blocks and called for reform in 140 characters or less. Social media sites were deemed so crucial in the organization of this revolution that analysts have dubbed it “The Twitter Revolution.”

A year and a half later, Tunisia took to the Twitter feeds and started a revolution of its own. After 23 years of corrupt rule, President Ben Ali’s Achilles’ Heel proved to be his underestimation of social networking. Five years ago, before the appearance of Twitter, many people may not have known where to gather in protest. Seven years ago, before the invention of Facebook, many people may not have even known there was a gathering.

Not only did social networking sites help to rally Tunisia’s citizens to the cause, but also pride in the first populist uprising to overthrow an Arab leader quickly spread to other regional countries. Tunisian flags began popping up in the profile pictures of Egyptian Facebook users; their statuses reflected the revolutionary spirit. One status read: ” The Tunisian people wanted life and destiny responded—Egyptian people want life…” As momentum for rebellion grew, so did the traffic on Facebook and Twitter feeds calling for action. Osama Scholes, a twenty-year-old student at the University of Alexandria, said that Facebook groups brought people to the streets. “We knew to protest because of Facebook,” Scholes said. “The Facebook groups said Friday is the ‘Day of Anger,’ and everyone must come out.”

Recent political revolutions have demonstrated how multifaceted and important technology is in implementing change in modern society. Our world is constantly transforming, and technology is keeping an even pace. Technology proved to be crucial in Haiti last year when Twitter worked with people on the ground to optimize the use of GPS and help people locate their friends and family. Today’s media and networking resources allow change to happen with speed and agility like never before. Now, as revolution sweeps the Middle East, the world has an up-close look at the reality of modern revolt—it’s on our computer screens, updating at warp speed. Protests and rallies of our parents’ generation had none of these tools. We may still have nightly broadcasts and iconic photos in the newspaper, but today’s media is a completely different animal.

Through online news aggregators and social networking platforms like Twitter, tumblr, and Facebook, anyone can stream the news, all day, everyday. New photos come in continuously; videos crop up all over the web, and tweets and status updates spread like wildfire. Not only can we access information instantly and constantly, but we can also sort it, categorize it, prioritize it, and pass it on¬—all with the click of a mouse.  Vital information can be made available in the moment and on multiple different platforms. Thus, the new media revolution has had an incredible impact on actual social revolution. It seems natural that each would transform the other.

One key aspect in this change is the ease and speed with which the Internet draws international attention to an issue. Within hours of initiation of Iranian, Tunisian, and Egyptian protests, people all over the world were plugged into events. International support and aid can be solicited at a moment’s notice, giving international relations an even larger role in domestic crises. Here at Tufts, half a world away, many students have kept a close eye on the events as they unfold. The New Initiative of Middle East Peace (NIMEP) and the Tufts Collaborative on Africa (TCA) co-hosted a dialogue about the protests. Students offered opinions and predictions informed by the most detailed reports directly from the source. Before the popularization of Internet and social networking, we could never have known so much so quickly. Ironically, those who follow the news closely from afar may know even more than those physically in the midst of the mayhem.

So, what happens when a revolution (one heightened and aided by social media) has its wires cut? In Tunisia and Egypt, critical information was spread via social networking sites. Despite the fact that Twitter is banned in Egypt, the site managed to collect and distribute information quickly and effectively. Facebook and other online resources became tools for revolutionaries; finding safe and fast methods to inform people of intended courses of action was a job made easier by the Internet.

The undisputed importance of these sites has become clear to all—even the oppressors. The Mubarak administration’s immediate decision to shut down the Internet betrays their fear of its influence. Cut off the networking and you cut off the breath of the movement, they assumed. First, three of the country’s four Internet providers were shut off, effecting 93% of the population. Noor, which is coincidentally the company whose Internet access controls Egypt’s stock market, was viable for just a while longer than the rest before the entire nation’s online access came to a halt.

Could a modern revolution survive without modern amenities? People all over the world held their breath and hit refresh while they waited and speculated about what would happen next. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter frantically collaborated to create Speak2Tweet, a service which allows people to call an international phone number and verbalize their tweet instead of using a computer. Whatever they say is published to @Speak2Tweet and hash tagged #egypt. Yet with the loss of landline phone usage, even this was difficult to manage.

But the protestors hardly seemed to notice. People continued to flood Cairo’s Tahrir square in droves; it seems that word has a way of spreading, even when you can’t retweet it. Scholes noted that in Alexandria, once the Internet was shut down, people began texting and calling one another. When cell phone service ended, they simply went out on the streets to see for themselves what was happening. Egyptians without Internet access or even the ability to use phones still managed to stage a “Million-Man March” that brought, according to Reuters, “more than a million” to the streets of Cairo, and thousands more in cities all over Egypt.

At its core, the revolutions of late bear many similarities to those of the past. People who wish to instigate change will do so by any means necessary, and when the word is important enough, word travels fast. In a February 1st interview for the documentary Zero Silence, a young protester calling for reform and legitimate democracy says, “This is not a just a Facebook revolution.” Indeed, powerful revolutions are not merely spontaneous expressions of dissent collectivized through Facebook. True revolutions are motivated by extended periods of widespread discontent, an organized and well-informed party of revolutionary leaders with access to a mass, grassroots base, and an intense, focused force of willpower.

According to the Atlantic, “Successful revolutions are tipping points, which mark the point when the power of capable citizens frustrated with their governments exceeds the will and physical might of a government intent on power… Technology can accelerate a revolution once it begins, but it can’t feed or educate an enfeebled population to the point of rebellion.”

The Internet may feed the flames of revolution, but it does not cause the spark. That’s why the absence of Internet can’t put out the fire. The driving force behind revolution is manpower, something its often easy to forget when we are looking at the world on the screens of our laptops. Tunisia and Egypt are taking steps towards reform, and the energy of revolution is spreading, both organically and virtually. Keep your eyes on that screen, because global transformation has found its place in the media (and vice versa). Americans and Europeans are not the only ones watching events unfold on their computers; revolution has been inspiring, and already, Syria and Jordan have begun to network for change. It’s true that the Internet cannot ignite revolution, but it has certainly changed the nature of the flame.