Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution”: Looking Under the Lamp Post?

The "Facebook Revolution" narrative of the Egyptian rebellion is everywhere.
A few examples: Jared Cohen calls digital media an "accelerant" (>>); Don Tapscott (>>) writes that the protests are "Enabled by social media"; Fox News says that Facebook has "Turned Our Entire World Upside Down: Right before our eyes we see Facebook's effects" (>>); Micah Sifry writes at CNN that "Without the relatively free arena of online social networking sites and tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, young Egyptians like Ghonim could not have built the resilient and creative force that finally toppled Hosni Mubarak." (>>)

Most compellingly, here is high profile Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim:

I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him… I'm talking on behalf of Egypt. This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet. If you want to have a free society just give them the Internet." (>>)

and also: "This is the revolution of the youth of the internet, and now the revolution of all Egyptians."

Narratives matter. We use them to make sense of the world, and we use that understanding to make decisions. Narrative is "the simple order that consists in being able to say: 'When that had happened, then this happened.' We like the illusions of this sequence, its acceptable appearance of causality: it has the look of necessity." (Frank Kermode, "The Sense of an Ending", p127.)

So is the Egyptian rebellion a "Facebook Revolution"? There are reasons to think the narrative is exaggerated…

The easiest people to talk to

Most obviously, it is much easier to talk to English speaking participants than non-English speakers. English speakers are far more likely to be part of the one-fifth or so of the country that has access to the Internet. (World Bank Development Indicators). And it is easy to contact people over the Internet, so we hear from people who are on the Internet. It is easy to follow Twitter feeds, so we hear Egyptian tweets.

The easiest story to tell

It isn't just the sources, though. The Facebook Revolution narrative is an interesting story to tell to a contemporary Western audience. For us, a story built around the familiar yet novel world of Facebook and social media is an easy way into the Egyptian rebellion. How many of us know much about the specifics of Egypt's history, its recent past, or the economic sources of discontent? It is a much quicker and lighter story to say "look at the Facebook page." We can even go and look at it ourselves (>>). Talking about strikes is more likely to lose an audience.

So every time prominent activist Wael Ghonim is mentioned, he is described as a "Google executive Wael Ghonim" even though he has explicitly said that "Google has nothing to do with this" (>>). Do we hear the employer of any of the other leaders? April 6 Movement founders Asmaa Mahfouz, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Salah are commonly described as "activists". It is possible to track down Maher's occupation as a "civil engineer", but with no employer. The discrepancy is glaring, and so Google gets to be associated with the uprising, adding to the digital tone of the story.

Underreported players

As people look back for the roots of the rebellion, the April 6 Movement and the We Are Khaled Said Facebook page have received much of the attention. But there are other strands that fed into the protests. The April 6 Movement was created to commemorate an industrial strike, after all, at a textile factory. There have been more than 3,000 separate labour protests in Egypt since 2004 according to a report by the AFL-CIO. The Kefaya movement is considered by some experts to be a central organizer of the January 25 protests, along with Mohamed ElBaradei's organization (two-minute video with Samer Shehata).

Self-Organization?

The technological narrative has also been used to describe the rebellion as "leaderless" and "self-organizing" (see a claim for this by Wikinomics' Don Tapscott here, and an illuminating analysis of the question by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci here). Tapscott takes a strong form of the argument: "Just as people can self-organize to contribute to Wikipedia, the computer operating system Linux, or the world’s biggest library of video content, they can participate in social change and coalesce into revolutionary movements as never before."

(Aside: Does anyone else find the language of "self-organization" insulting to the protesters? It slides too easily into this kind of thing: "much in the same way that slime mould coalesces in a forest and moves towards an emergent common 'goal,' so too do simple-message-connected crowds of people coalesce to move towards a common, emergent goal without the overt direction of an explicit leader." So brave protesters are like slime mould? Really?)

But of course coordination and leadership is not necessarily going to be obvious to Western eyes. As David Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "They are the young professionals, mostly doctors and lawyers, who touched off and then guided the revolt shaking Egypt, members of the Facebook generation who have remained mostly faceless — very deliberately so, given the threat of arrest or abduction by the secret police."

Some organizing was kept off Facebook on purpose, and so received little attention – like these flyers that Jodi Dean points to. As she says, even Lenin – not exactly known as a networky kind of bloke – agreed that "mass movement and 'professional revolutionaries' are not alternative organizational forms. Each is necessary".

Another counterpoint to this "leaderless protest" story is a fascinating Wall-Street Journal article by Charles Levinson and Margaret Croker, who tell a story (The Secret Rally that Sparked an Uprising) about clandestine meetings of small groups of organizers outwitting the efforts of the police to follow what's going on. Of course, getting such a story requires a lot of interviewing and building of confidence.

But there is a kernel…

So yes, I do think the Facebook Revolution narrative is overstated, and that the Egyptian rebellion marks much less of a break from previous revolts than the language of "Revolution 2.0" suggests. I agree with this article in TechCrunch (of all places) that "People, not Things, are the Tools of Revolution". But there is a kernel of truth there, I do admit. Ghosim's quotation at the top of the page is a clear indicator that some young Egyptians feel a sense of identity with Facebook and the Internet: that it is their generation's culture, not their parents and not the authorities. But that's for another time.

Bookmark the permalink.

13 Comments

  1. This is worth reading, one of the few pieces that starts to get beyond the tired “was it Twitter/Facebook or wasn’t it?” question: http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/knowing-and-unknowing-the-egyptian-public/

  2. At this point in time I feel like I’m looking out from underneath a single lamp post and seeing the warm glow of thousands of lamp posts in the distance. Each has a story that is but one small piece of this unfolding narrative. My only fear is that I will one day run out of lamp posts to visit not that each lamp post shines brightly only on a smallish circle of truth.
    The WSJ lamp post was a good one that I have not yet visited, thanks 🙂

  3. Interesting, and better than the Jay Rosen article he starts with, but both have a pot/kettle quality. “Your side always oversimplifies my side’s nuanced and sophisticated discourse” is a bit of a crock. In my opinion.

  4. The world is a messy place, no doubt about it.

  5. hmm … this is straightforward isn’t it?
    If we construct a revolution, then there are several key requirements; widespread discontent, a spark, an uprising, and collapse of the regime. One of these stages, the uprising, requires a degree of co-ordination. This is similar to quorum sensing in bacteria; the participants have to sense there are sufficient of them that if they act together they can achieve their objectives. In the Egyptian revolution the role of social network technology seems to have been critical in this according to some of the participants, so it seems churlish to dispute this. In other revolutions other means of quorum sensing may have been used, but in this one it was Facebook and Twitter.
    if all it took to create a revolution was a few discontents on twitter then Bahrain and Iran would join this list. But they may not, and this leads to the final point that Twitter by itself will achieve nothing. In Tunisia and Egypt the critical moves have been made by the army. Technically these have been coups not revolutions. Without the support of the army these regime changes would not have happened. Time may lead us to take a very different view of these uprisings.

  6. It may seem churlish to dispute it, but maybe we should at least check that the impression we are getting (that social networks are critical) is a realistic one. The participants we hear from are, after all, the ones who are most savvy about using social media.

  7. the twitter theory goes like this:
    – communication between many potential revolutionaries is a critical stage of a revolution.
    – in this instance social networking was used to communicate.
    Which bit do you find fault with? That widespread communication is necessary? Or that it is but it wasn’t Twitter? In which case was it TV? word of mouth?

  8. The second. At least, it wasn’t just social networking. The spread from country to country was partly because of Al Jazeera. Students network because they are in universities in the second most crowded city on the planet. Urbanization is a huge driver for communication: it is driving the strike wave in China as thousands of migrant workers get together. Groups not using the Internet (eg trade unions – there have been thousands of strikes in the last few years) have also been key to the dissent.

  9. I guess historically the two sets of people with ready-made networks for rapid distribution of ideas and instructions to a willing population are religious groups and trade unions. Hard left organisations have often viewed other less extreme groups with disdain due to their lack of organisation and discipline, but social networking offers a change from that.

  10. Tom, I’m curious about your approving nod to the “People, not Things…” article, which seemed to me to be little more than a tautology. That people drive revolutions is not merely true but axiomatic; to say ‘politics is about people’ is simply to traffic in synonyms as descriptions, as that post does.
    More importantly, to say that revolutions are about people provides zero descriptive value — to learn that the failed April 6, 2008 uprising in Egypt and the successful one of this year were both “people-driven” tells us nothing at all about their respective characters.
    RAD’s thousands of lamposts seems to me to get at the core issue — if you are interested in the ways communications tools factor into group coordination, then I think you have to accept that the kernel of truth you’ve identified will, under that lamp-post, be a more effective way of discussing successful and failed strategies of coordination than the “People, Not Things” argument.

  11. The parts of the TechCrunch article that resonated with me were those arguing that the communications issue was secondary. At least, following Gladwell:

    “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

    and

    “While it’s plain that these things [social media tools] were part of the process, I think the mindset of the online world creates a risk of overstating their importance, and elevating something useful, even powerful, to the status of essential. The people of Egypt made use of what means they had available, just as every oppressed people has in history.

    I do realize I’m lucky to live in a part of the world where we have few bounds on our ability to communicate, so TechCrunch and I may both be naive about communications not being a bottleneck. And the same may not be true in Libya, for example. But I do think the focus on communications tools may be exaggerated and that other important stories (see Juan Cole here on the importance of labour activism, for example) may be being neglected because they are not as appealing to North American audiences.

  12. Dipper, your “quorum sensing bacteria” comment has been on my mind since I first read it so I’m glad this comment thread is still going. I’m not sure if it is true so I’ll start with an assumption that quorum sensing bacteria send out a single signal that elicits a single type of response once the consensus threshold is met.
    The problem of attributing causality becomes more complicated when the same type of signal can be communicated via different communication mechanisms (redundancy) and also when a single communication mechanism can send different kind of signals (plasticity). There is no doubt in my mind that Twitter was used for coordination and that coordination can be a critical aspect of social movements. What I’m not yet convinced of is that Twitter and coordination were crucial elements in the Egyptian revolution.
    Here is an alternative story. Steven Pinker talks about Mutual Knowledge being a key factor in revolutions:



    Perhaps a mutual knowledge signal (a form of quorum sensing?) was the tipping point. Mutual knowledge could have spread via Twitter, Facebook, Al-Jazeera, cell phones, flyers, work lunch rooms, places of worship, sounds on the street, or all of the above. The technology might still be key in this alternative story but the key factor becomes mutual knowledge of general unrest vs. coordination of dissenters.
    Maybe the important signals were within or between the military and/or the police. In Egypt, there was some kind of transition that appeared in the news images in which the black uniforms and black vehicles of the police disappeared and were replaced by the tan uniforms/tanks of the military. Was this a coup then as you say? Did Twitter coordinating dissenters influence the military decision process?
    It is certainly a fascinating story and hopefully we will learn more about how things actually unfolded.

  13. It was so overwhelming on how social media was able to emphasize its users the idea of being united in one cause through the use of internet. Facebook certainly had played a very important role with it.

Comments are closed