The Arab Spring’s revolutions were firmly embedded in social media. A University of Washington study concluded that “social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring… [by carrying] a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.” Social media is being taken to the level of revolutionary impetus and serving as a channel for organizing normal citizens into a force that can act to remove the most stubborn dictators from power.
We Are All Khaled Said
The overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak regime can be traced back to the posting of a single video online by a 28 year old resident of Alexandria, Egypt named Khaled Said. On June 6, 2010, under the pretense that he had been dealing drugs, two detectives pulled him out of an Internet Café and beat him to death. Within two days, a fellow Egyptian Wael Ghonim (a 30 year old Google marketing executive) set up a Facebook page entitled We Are All Khaled Said, which attracted 300 followers in the first two minutes and expanded to hundreds of thousands. By late January of 2011, the group had become a public groundswell that convened in a mass demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Mubarak’s Internet Shutdown Backfired
President Mubarak was well aware of the fact that social media was a primary driving force in this uprising and ordered the blockage of internet and cellular communications. Instead of quashing the growing dissent, the communications shutdown had the opposite effect: Egyptians who could no longer adequately communicate with each other simply poured into the streets, tipping the demonstrations past critical mass. In less than two weeks the President was forced to resign, and although the military command that has since taken over the nation after the Mubarak regime seems to be equally repressive, with an added negative element of severe instability for the region, the results of the application of their power by the people of Egypt through interactive electronic media is unquestionable.
Revolution via Virality
Just before the resignation of President Mubarak, the number of tweets about political change in Egypt ballooned ten-fold, and videos that featured political commentary about the situation went massively viral, with the top 23 receiving well over five million views. The New York Times commented that with the internet crackdown “Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime. There was reason for Mr. Mubarak to be shaken.”
Is Russia Next?
Although the specific details differ from country to country, digital media played a similar role in the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Libya and is also being deemed instrumental in the Syrian uprising. This phenomenon is not limited to the Arab nations, as the nascent uprising against Vladimir Putin’s hammerlock on power in Russia is being advanced by the same means.
As in the case of almost all revolutions, what happens after the despot is overthrown is often at loggerheads with the intent of the revolution itself. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are definitely free of their dictators but whether the daily lives of the people of those nations are any better off in measurable, tangible ways is a subject for considerable debate. The political situation of those three nations is in a state of flux, and the utopian liberties and celebrations of freedom that were envisioned by the digital revolutionaries has been replaced by a grinding political paralysis that plays into the hands of the hard core Islamist parties. The Talibanization of the Mediterranean’s southern shore is certainly not what was intended by the enthusiastic slingers of revolutionary hashtags, but some observers believe that it is the direction those nations are being driven towards by the political forces who see the digital revolution as a way to impose their own form of repression.