By Steven Maclean
(Image by Richard Engel)
When Gil Scott-Heron sang ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘, he was right. Al Jazeera may have beamed incredible images of massive demonstrating crowds live around the world, but this was just the tip of the iceberg: the physical manifestation of a revolution which had taken place in minds brought together by social media.
In relatively free societies social media might so far have been more about reuniting with old friends and poking than starting revolutions, but when you have no freedom of speech and the threat of torture for dissent, memes struggle to propagate. They require an environment of connectivity, interactivity and openness; the core principles of social media’s founding fathers.
In 2008, having had little success three years earlier as a leading organiser of the political movement ‘Kefaya’, or ‘Enough’, 30-year-old civil engineer Ahmed Maher was taking his cause for human rights in Egypt to the blogosphere. Mr Maher and his friends set up a Facebook group which they used to call for a nationwide labour strike. Bad weather conspired against demos across the country but in Mahalla, a violent police response brought attention to the first major conflict over labour in years.
Facebook again proved to be a valuable organisational tool two years later when Wael Ghonim – a 31-year-old Google marketing executive – helped Maher set up another group: We Are All Khalid Said. Named after a young man beaten to death by the Egyptian police, they used it to spread democratic principles and dissect the spin of official media.
Being able to whisper dissent over the internet was like being freed from the charade in The Emperor’s New Clothes, where punishment for speaking out against the lie is a beating and imprisonment rather than the label of stupidity. As more Egyptians realised they weren’t the only one who thought their oppressive despot looked ridiculous, they began to realise their strength and organise for greater dissent. Its too early to say the rest is history, because the ripples generated by those early protests are still expanding across the Arab world and astounding even the people who helped give rise to them.
In a recent interview co-founder of Twitter, Biz Stone confirmed that in 2009 president Obama had asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance so that student protestors could organise, such was its importance to them as a tool. He also recalled a story about James Buck, a photojournalism student of UC Berkeley who went to Egypt in 2008 to photograph protests. He kept missing them, but was advised by Egyptian friends to use Twitter to stay informed, as they did. Buck took their advice, used Twitter to attend protests, and was eventually arrested by Egyptian police. They threw him in the back of a car but didn’t take his phone from him. Scared, he tweeted a single word; ‘arrested’. His friends back home in California were ‘following’ him, called the college dean, a lawyer, and the consulate. Just hours later he tweeted another single word; ‘freed’.
It’s significant that while the Egyptian authorities quickly shut down the Internet – acknowledging that it’s cost to them far outweighed it’s usefulness, while being a vital tool for revolutionaries – television was used relentlessly in an attempt to cajole public opinion. But even that couldn’t stop the Twitterati. Stone and his colleagues worked with Google to develop a system so people could use their phones to dial local numbers and speak their tweets, which could be relayed into cyberspace.
Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics imply television’s ability to marginalise the will of its audience while serving the agendas of those who control it, and the need for participation rather than voyeurism in political movements. While the seeds of middle east revolution were sewn in Tweets and Facebook groups where the authoritative voice is only one among millions, the region’s national television channels ignored the shift in zeitgeist taking place.
Television can inform public opinion and set agendas, but its lack of interactivity and its bias towards the ruling elite disenfranchises the average viewer, making it a better tool for manipulation than empowerment. For dictators looking to spread propaganda and distract or frighten populations into apathy, television is a powerful ally. But if you want to enlighten the masses and motivate them into direct action for change, your weapons of choice are Twitter and Facebook.