What’s Happening in Egypt is Not a Social Media Revolution

Are the historic events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt a “social” revolution or a “social media” revolution?

According to Anjali Mullany at NYDailyNews.com the protests in Iran in 2009, and more recently in Tunisia and Egypt, are the direct result of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube:

“Why are Egyptian officials, who may be perilously close to being toppled from power, acting so oppressively during their moment on the world stage? The answer: the Internet has become a primary vehicle for people’s movements in the region.

In Iran, government officials were humiliated by the people’s refusal to recognize election results. The world watched the dissent, live and uncensored, via Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter.

In Tunisia, Bouazizi’s death helped catalyze demonstrations, organized in part via Facebook, which helped citizens oust their president.

As protests rage in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak must know he is in danger of meeting the same fate as Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

With the rise of easy-to-use Web publishing tools like blogs and social platforms, citizens no longer depend on mainstream media to spread word of activist campaigns and dissent. Thanks to social media, every protester, every citizen, has the power to be a journalist, to broadcast breaking news to all the computer-using, phone-wielding people on Earth.”

There is a more rational and balanced view. In  The dark side of Internet for Egyptian and Tunisian protesters (via The Globe & Mail Saturday edition) Evgeny Morozov, author of the auspiciously released book, “The Net Delusion:  The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs: Perseus. Jan. 2011. ) provides some sobering analysis to the otherwise hyperbolic trumpeting in the media about how Twitter and Facebook are the engines of social revolution.

Morozov first offers an important juxtaposition:

“As the pundits were busy celebrating the contribution of Twitter and Facebook to protests in Tunisia and Egypt, most of them ignored the terrifying news from Iran, where on Monday two activists were hanged for distributing video footage on the Internet from the country’s 2009 ‘Twitter Revolution’.”

Morozov reminds us that “internet freedom” is a double-edged sword and how easily authoritarian regimes like Iran and China control the flow of information to exercise power over dissidents:

“The lesson for tyrants here is simple: The only way to minimize their exposure to digitally enabled protests is to establish full control over all telecommunications infrastructure in the country. A “kill-switch” button to turn off all digital networks in times of a crisis is a must. This explains why just a few months after the contested elections of 2009, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard acquired a controlling stake in Telecommunication Company of Iran, giving the group that is traditionally loyal to Mr. Ahmadinejad control over the country’s telephone, mobile and Internet communications. It is likely that other dictators will heed the Iranian experience as they watch Tunisia and Egypt.”

In a recent Daily News & Analysis interview, Morozov elaborates:

“Authoritarian regimes increasingly control the internet by non-technological means. If in the past they mostly blocked certain URLs, now they also try to fully own ISPs or blogging platforms and often, regime-supporting oligarchs agree to purchase those.

They flood blogs with their propaganda. In China, there is the so-called 50-cent party — a loose collective of bloggers who are trained and often compensated by the government to promote government positions online. They launch cyber-attacks on bloggers and publishers they do not like.

All of those require separate approaches; some of these approaches — to better identify propaganda outlets used by the governments — may actually backfire, as they will lead to more surveillance. The first operating principle here should be ‘Do No Harm’.”

Morozov concludes,

“None of this boosts the odds of a revolution in any given regime – but then there are plenty of non-digital factors that could make a revolution more likely. It would be absurd to suggest that Internet control could make problems such as unemployment or corruption simply go away. However, energy-rich regimes that keep on growing while publicizing their fake wars on corruption do have a good shot at survival – and they will find the means to use the Internet to their own advantage. To lose sight of this crucial fact is to let those who help to prolong their survival – above all, Western companies that supply them with censorship and surveillance technology – off the hook far too easily.”

No one knows whether deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fled to Saudi Arabia is plotting to make a return. On similar footing, it is too early to tell whether the Egyptian army is awaiting to execute orders from President Hosni Mubarak to crackdown on protesters. Revolutions may look like they started overnight, but they usually take years to foment and decades to succeed. Just think back to the American and French Revolutions and all of the bloodshed that precipitated lasting political and social change.

The point that is lost on the acolytes who worship the pantheon of the gods of technology:—Google, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube—is that the internet has an “off button” and the message is not the medium.

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