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Social Movements in the Age of Social Media: Participatory Politics in Egypt

Today's post is from S. Craig Watkins, author of The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. Watkins is a researcher with the MacArthur Foundation’s initiative on Youth, Digital Media and Learning where his work explores the intersection of youth culture, social media, and learning. He blogs at, where this post originally appeared.

Watkins In the wake of the uprising that shook up Egypt and ended the thirty year regime of Hosni Mubarak a growing debate around the role of social media has ensued.  The press, looking for catchy headlines, characterized the uprising as “the first Twitter revolution,” or “Facebook revolution.”  Conversely, a number of critics and academics cry foul, proclaiming that people, not technology, conducted the revolution.

Anyone who has even a pedestrian understanding of social movements knows that they are often caused by the convergence of social, economic, cultural, and political factors. And this is certainly true in the Arab world. Decades of government corruption, elite economic self-interest, the arrogance of power, and historic economic inequalities were the primary catalyst for what Newsweek magazine called, “a youthquake that is rocking the Arab world.” A recent tweet by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is subtle but profound: “We cannot in good conscience continue to reward the rich, penalize the poor, and ignore the middle. There will be a day of reckoning.” While Reich was referring to the current political and economic climate in the U.S., the tweet speaks to the wider global condition. While social media was not the catalyst of the Egyptian protest, it was certainly a tool for mobilizing protest.

The five million Facebook accounts in Egypt make it the second most popular site in the country. YouTube is the third most visited site. Whereas protestors used Facebook to organize, set dates, and “peercast,” that is, share mobile pictures and video with peers, Twitter became the social media backbone of the movement’s day-to-day machinations.

I recently had a chance to speak with a young man who made Tahrir Square his home during parts of the uprising.

Watkins Karim (this is a pseudonym) studies social media and told me that he felt like he was participating in history. On February 5 he sent me a number of pictures from his Facebook album that captured various aspects of the massive demonstrations in Egypt. The pictures, of course, had an ethnographic aesthetic about them and offer a much more intimate perspective of the movement than did the highly selected images most people viewed on television. The Facebook album included pictures of people protesting, confronting the police, nurturing the wounded, laughing, celebrating, and, most important, bonding together in a common cause to transform their country. In many of the pictures (see photo at right) I also noticed people capturing the protest with their mobile devices.

In literally thousands of instances they streamed pictures, videos, tweets, and Facebook updates for their comrades around Egypt and the world.  his kind of media production is a hallmark feature of the digital media age. Egyptian protestors were not only consuming images of their efforts, they were also producing and sharing those images with the world and giving new meaning to the notion of participatory politics.

Karim explained the popularity of photos this way. “As you might know, sometimes these demonstrations are not safe; so, as soon as we reach Tahrir Square, we take photos of the demonstration and upload them to our Facebook profiles to tell our friends that we are participating and encourage them to come over.”

Curious about the adoption of technology in the uprisings, I asked Karim how did social media influence the events in Egypt. Karim replied that, “the demonstration started on January 25 and the call for it was done mainly through Facebook.” Facebook emerged, in part, as an efficient way to coordinate and organize protestors. The first Facebook post related directly to the events in February was made on January 14 at 11:18 pm, eleven days before the first massive protests in Tahrir Square. The main tag simply read: رسالة إلى شعب مصر: ليكن 25 يناير هو شعلة التغيير في مصر.  (Rough)Translation: “Message to the people of Egypt: Let the January 25 is the torch of change in Egypt.”

According to Karim, social media was crucial from the outset of the movement because it gave people on the ground an information technology that they could control. “Because of the government’s heavy control over all the traditional media,” he explained, “the Internet is the only available option for all opposition parties and movements.” That is also why after two days of protest the government shut down the internet and mobile phone service. Determined to keep the momentum people used everything from dial-up modems to proxy-servers.

The first and what will likely go down in history as one of the most famous Twitter hashtag’s in the Egyptian revolution was “#jan25,” created by a twenty-one year-old woman named, who goes by the Twitter name, @alya1989262. Follow the “#jan25” feed (created January 15, one day after the above Facebook announcement) and one of the most striking features is the range and complexity of communication that took place via Twitter. In many ways, Twitter became the mediated eyes, ears, and voice of the day-to-day life of the protest.

#jan25 is, in essence, a transcript of history, a log not merely of what people were tweeting, but what they were thinking and, most important, doing. Twitter was used in a variety of ways during the protest.  At times it was used as a tool for real time communication betwen protesters, informing each other about the location of police, where protestors should go, and what media around the world were saying about the events on the ground.  According to @alya1989262, Twitter, “most importantly, allow[ed] us to share on the ground info like police brutality, things to watch out for, activists getting arrested, etc.”

Twitter was also used to rally, recruit, and encourage people to come out and show their solidarity with the protestors. In other instances it was used as a broadcast medium, a technology that allowed the protesters to tell their side of the story, their side of history.  In societies were freedom of the press is severely constrained and the press is often the mouthpiece of the government, social media emerges as an alternative broadcasting platform, a way to communicate and connect with the world. There is historical precedence for this.

In the 1960s leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement came to understand the power of television and how the images of police brutality turned the tide against the state sanctioned southern hostility toward freedom fighters and their demands for political equality.  In the student led movement against the Vietnam War in chants like “the whole world is watching” was an effort to leverage the power of television to mobilize widespread support for their social movement.  By staying connected to Twitter the protestors in Egypt were also able to track how well their efforts were trending beyond home.  What did they see?  The whole world really was watching them but this time on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms in addition to television. @alya1989262 acknowledged this, “Twitter trends also help us gauge how visible we are to the international community.” What makes social movements in the age of social media so distinct is the real time nature of communication in the execution of protest as well as the ability to share perspectives, narratives, and experiences that establish an ambient connection to the outside world.

As we gain a better understanding of what happened in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world we will also learn more about who used mobile devices and social media to energize their efforts to create democratic freedoms.  Karim contends that, “the youth who called for the first demonstration on January 25 belong to upper middle class in Egypt and most of them, if not all, have Internet access.” @alya1989262’s account is similar. “A certain class of activists are armed with smartphones, which allow them to live-tweet the protests.” Does this suggest that the movement was ignited by a generation of tech savvy and college educated citizens?  Not necessarily. But the idea of this segment rising up to confront power is not all that surprising when you consider their condition. Roughly a third of the population in the middle east is under thirty and a noteworthy percentage of them have college degrees.  The young and the digital in the middle east are connected to the world in a way that previous generations could not even have imagined. And yet, the unemployment rate of young college educated persons in the middle east is staggeringly high. A recent report from NPR notes that 40% of young persons with college degrees in Saudia Arabia, for example, are unemployed.  Faced with the prospects of a life with few if any meaningful opportunities to utilize their cultural capital—education—many young people realized that they had nothing to lose by confronting the Mubarak regime.

What happened in Egypt is yet another confirmation of what our research has consistently demonstrated regarding young people’s engagement with social media: young people use social media not as a substitute for face-to-face interactions with their peers and the world but rather as a complement. Young people in Egypt did not use social media to avoid gathering with each other or to passively participate in their country’s revolution. They used it to encourage gathering with each other for the expressed purpose of actively participating in the revolution. Twitter and Facebook did not start the revolution but they did help generations of Egyptians realize a world that not that long ago would have been impossible to imagine.