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More On Social Media and the Egyptian Uprising: Special Journal Issue

August 13, 2013

WPCCThe most recent issue of Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture is a special issue on “The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprisings – Past and Present.” The issue is free on-line.

Two of the articles deal with Egypt, a piece on Internet activism by Tim Eaton of BBC Media Action, and an article about the Internet shutdown by King’s College lecturer Paolo Gerbaudo. Also of interest is an essay assessing various theories about the importance of the Internet in the Arab uprisings.  The special issue also contains an article on social media and social control in Bahrain, and two articles on social media and the Syrian revolution.

Eaton’s article investigates the use in Egypt during the 2011 uprisings of “internet activism”, which he defines (after Vegh 2003) as “a politically motivated movement relying on the internet, using strategies that are either internet-enhanced or internet-based.” Eaton argues that there are three forms of Internet activism:

  1. awareness and advocacy, aka participatory journalism: the use of the internet as an alternative news source to counter the control of information channels opposed to the interests of the activists.
  2. organization and mobilization, aka mediated mobilization: the use of the Internet to connect networks of activists and disseminate information such as calls for ‘offline’ action, such as demonstrations
  3. action/reaction activism, aka Hacktivism: attacks by activists to bring down or paralyse websites or otherwise disrupt the system.

The article offers little new; he outlines how social media were used by Egyptian internet activists to increase mobility on the ground, focusing on the Facebook campaign ‘We Are All Khaled Said.’  He makes an interesting argument that following and “liking” and commenting on sites like Facebook–dismissed by some scholars derisively as “clicktivism”–may in fact build trust and lead to off-line activism, although he acknowledges this needs to be verified with data.

He concludes:

Through the spread of information online, internet activists were able to establish networks of resistance within Egyptian political society. And, despite the relative weakness of the ties between members of these networks, CMC emerged as an effective tool to facilitate collective action. Perpetual connectivity of activists enabled them to have access to an infinite number of networks of trust and multiply the impact of social protest through the creation of an insurgent community. Internet activism made political action easier, faster and more universal in Egypt. But it was not, of course, a panacea.

Gerbaudo’s article focuses on  the internet blackout imposed by Mubarak’s regime during the first days of the uprisings as a crucial event that transformed youth mobilization. Drawing on fifteen interviews conducted with online activists, Gerbaudo argues that this “move ended up having more of a positive mobilizing effect than a disruptive one.”

“While the regime hoped that the blackout would stop the mobilization and disrupt the activists’ internal coordination,” two other things happened instead:

  1. Cutting young middle-class people off the Internet turned many of those who were passive or on the fence against the regime
  2. By ending the virtual connections many passive young people had with with the protest, the blackout forced sympathizers to support the movement by physically joining the occupation in Tahrir Square.

Gerbaudo concludes that the role of social media as a means of mobilization is highly complex and ambivalent, and can only be understood in complementarity with face-to-face interaction and street-level communication.

As an anthropologist, I am struck by how thin is the contextualization of the communicative  processes being described by the two authors. Is the implication that these are general, perhaps even universal processes that only happened to take place in Egypt? Or are there reasons these processes unfolded as they did in Egypt as opposed to Tunisia, Syria and Libya?

Gerbaudo cites only one Middle Easternist: Asef Bayat (everybody cites Asef!). Eaton doesn’t site any Middle East scholars, but he cites a wealth of blogs, tweets and Facebook posts. Interestingly, the two papers only site two authors in common: Manuel Castells and Malcolm Gladwell. Not sure what to make of that.

Perhaps this issue of thin versus thick description and contextualization will be addressed in the next special issue of Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture which is going to be on media ethnography (I believe I have a paper coming out in that issue but probably won’t blog about it here as it is about India, not Egypt for a change).

Ben Moussa’s article takes a step back and examines the strengths and limitations of various theoretical approaches to researching collective action in the Arab world. Critical of the common pitfalls of technological, social and cultural determinism, the author suggests a multidisciplinary approach that draws on social movement theory, radical democracy theory and alternative media theory to study Muslim-majority societies.

References:

Eaton, Tim. 2013. Internet Activism and the Egyptian Uprisings: Transforming Online Dissent Into the Offline World. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 9(2): 3-24.

Gerbaudo, Paolo. 2013. The “Kill Switch” as “Suicide Switch”: Mobilizing Side Effects of Mubarak’s Communications Blackout.  Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 9(2): 25-46.

Vegh, Sandor. 2003. Classifying forms of online activism: the case of cyberprotests against the World Bank. In Martha McCaughey  and Michael D. Ayers, eds. Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice.  Pp. 71–96. London: Routledge,

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