Internet-Centrism 2 (of 3): Streetbook

So three cheers for Evgeny. Now back to the MIT Technology Review, and in particularJohn Pollock's Streetbook, an extended set of interviews with two secretive Tunisian digital activists who go under the pseudonyms "Foetus" and "Waterman". The article describes how "their organization, Takriz, performed a remarkable and largely unknown role" in the uprisings.

F—b— is such an important technology of mass coordination among young people that it was shut down in Egypt and other North African countries as the uprisings erupted in January 2011. F—b— was a technology that allowed many-to-many communication of political ideas, even under the censorious eye of repressive states; it provided a space where urban youth could gather to display their collective strength and build a clear identity separate from the state; it had fostered trans-national networks across the whole of North Africa; it lent itself to leaderless mass organization; and it produced some of the key organizing groups of the Tahrir Square protests. F—b— is, of course, Football.

The Ultras are groups of hard-core soccer fans who carry out dramatic displays of their fanaticism (fireworks, huge choreographed artworks, inventive songs) and who compete amongst each other to out-invent and out-display the fans of opposing teams. And, yes, fight with police from time to time. John Dorsey {blog} has followed Ultra culture closely. Here he is from Egypt in January 2011: {link}

With Egypt entering its second day of unprecedented anti-government protests, soccer fans constitute a well-organized and feared pillar of the marshalling grassroots coalition determined to ensure that President Hosni Mubarak suffers the same fate as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled earlier this month by mass demonstrations.

Alaa Abd El Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger {Wikipedia article}, was widely quoted as saying "The ultras–the football fan associations–have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at this moment." {link}

Here is Debbie Randle of BBC's "Newsbeat" {link}.

When Newsbeat spoke to some of the ultras, they told us large numbers of them fought on the front line at the protests.

They said they passed on their knowledge to other demonstrators and protected people and their homes.

Abdullah, who's a member of the Zamalek White Knight Ultras, told Newsbeat they also helped to organise the protests.

He said: "We had many meetings to discuss the revolution before it started. We discussed that we must play an important part for Egypt, we must support Egypt."

The official line from the Ultras is that they didn't take part as a group but Newsbeat has been assured this isn't the case.

An ultra from a rival group, thought to have around 15,000 members, said they also played a role.

They worked alongside the White Knights, usually sworn enemies, to protest for their country.

A member of Egypt's NDP was reported on January 26 2011 as acknowledging the importance of the Ultras: "what we saw on the streets yesterday are not just Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathisers but Egyptians at large; those are the Egyptians that you would see supporting the football national team– and their show of frustration was genuine and it had to be accommodated." {link}

And Sports Illustrated, on January 31 {link}:

Over the decades that have marked the tenure of Egypt's "President for Life" Hosni Mubarak, there has been one consistent nexus for anger, organization, and practical experience in the ancient art of street fighting: the country's soccer clubs. Over the past week, the most organized, militant fan clubs, also known as the "ultras," have put those years of experience to ample use.

Why soccer? Let's return to James Dorsey as quoted in Sports Illustrated: "The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt's anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government's worst nightmare. Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration." Does this seem familiar?

So it looks like the Ultras, which some describe as a social movement, played a self-conscious role in the Egyptian uprising, using the uncensored public space of the football terraces to organize themselves in impressive ways. See (via @techsoc's Twitter feed) this remarkable protest last week over the continued imprisonment of Ultra members following recent protests. The words above the pictures of the imprisoned apparently read "Free Fans (Ultras)".

The Ultras do use digital technologies to organize themselves, but the primary means is clearly physical. See these videos for a few examples: the Stretford End has nothing on these characters.

As we read Streetbook, however, we get a different impression of the Ultras. The narrative that the article conveys is one in which the digital activists of Takriz played the key role while the Ultras themselves are secondary.

Streetbook highlights Takriz's myriad connections, but presents its "main audience" as "alienated street youth: the lifeblood, often spilled, of the rebellion in North Africa". Though the article has many fascinating things to say about the contacts between Takriz and the street groups, it does not support the presentation of Takriz as the primary actor in these contacts, and there is a recurrent classism in the description of how the groups relate.

So Pollock describes how the Taks (members of Takriz), including his interviewees "Foetus" and "Waterman", had the inspiration of "turning the spirit (of soccer fans) to political ends", and developing a web forum for Ultras from different teams. Then "when the revolution began, the Ultras would come out to play a very different game. They were transformed into a quick-reaction force of bloody-minded rioters." The narrative is that the digital activists shaped the events, transforming soccer hooligans into a "bloody-minded" political fighting force. But is that what happened? Did initiatives such as the web forum or the Takriz efforts to direct the Ultras have any impact? There is no evidence for this in the article. And there is no voice here from the Ultras themselves. Do they not have anything to say beyond the wielding of sticks? It is remarkable that in all the coverage of the Ultras listed above, there is only one piece that mentions a name. Is digital presence required to have a voice in the debate about what happened in North Africa in 2011? It's not surprising that the importance of digital tools is exaggerated.

In the same spirit Streetbook describes how, when the Tunisian regime fell, Egyptian digital activist Hassan Mostafa "reached out to some of the hardened criminals, 'murderers and drug dealers', he had met while imprisoned for his Khaled Said protest: their skills would prove useful in stealing police riot helmets and guns. Through them, Mostafa recruited an army of toughs from the poorest areas." In Tunisia, Takriz leaders "use street culture, slang, and obscenities to fire up street youth". Again, the narrative has the digital activists as the brains, and the "toughs from the poorest areas" with no digital connections are reduced to a tool to be "fired up", with no agency of their own.

The over-emphasis on digital tools is everywhere in Streetbook. Most obvious is the claim that after visiting (overland, the old way) a group in Serbia, an activist returned with "a book about peaceful tactics and a computer game called A Force More Powerful, which lets people play with scenarios for regime change. Taking advantage of the game's Creative Commons license, April 6 members wrote an Egyptian version." It's not like in previous times activists haven't shared resources and built on each others' work because they didn't have the right clauses in their license agreements. The hacker group Anonymous gets a mention for targeting Tunisian government websites with DDOS "attacks", but was Anonymous's action a significant step in the escalation of protest? I doubt it. A Parisian-based activist "wrote a script, using semantic search techniques based on keywords… to measure how much time it took for posts to result in responses like comments". There is nothing wrong with such work, but it is clearly secondary – at best – to the main events, but in the Internet-centric "digital revolution" narrative, it gets a speaking part.

Yet throughout the interview, there are nuggets that reveal an alternative plot between the lines. Despite the focus on YouTube as a mechanism for sharing videos, Foetus describes how the video that "made the second half of the [Tunisian] revolution" was taken when the regime had shut down the Internet, so "according to a Tak who asked to remain anonymous, Takriz smuggled a CD of the video over the Algerian border" before forwarding it to Al Jazeera. What I see here is that, while YouTube has made it easier and safer to make videos available (at least so long as Google lets it be done anonymously), when an important video was available, the Internet was not essential to the process of distribution. On December 30 in Tunisia, "Lawyers gathered around the country to protest the government and were attacked and beaten", and a week later they all went on strike, followed by the teachers. Lawyers and teachers have their own pre-existing networks, of course, and probably used them to organize – at least there is no mention of a lawyers' Facebook page. So while Pollock diligently tracks each use of FourSquare, each request for help over Facebook, each use of emails with attachments, and each fake Twitter account, he skips quickly over the role of leaflets and flyers, meetings in mosques, university campus organizing, television, and balcony-to-balcony messaging.

Those who are convinced of the progressive potential of digital technologies sometimes accuse sceptics of exaggeration. No one, of course, thinks that Facebook caused the Arab Spring uprisings. But the Internet-centric narrative is not so much wrong in any one particular, as inherently distorted in the overall weight it gives to digital tools. It lends itself to narratives in which technological tools play a central role, in which the direction of influence is "from social networks to manifestation in the real world", as Streetbook quotes Samir Garbaya. The nuggets embedded in Streetbook tend to show that, more often than not, digital technologies are one option among several when it comes to the tasks activists face, and that information transmission is commonly not the bottleneck. There is no doubt that Facebook played a significant role in the Egyptian uprising, and that some key videos uploaded to YouTube helped to raise awareness of persecution, but alternatives have existed and do exist, and it is a mistake to pass quickly over these alternatives.

Next post – which I hope I'll get done in a day or two – is something more constructive. If Internet-centrism is a problem, how do we debate the role of digital technologies in politics? Henry Farrell has an extensive survey of the topic and some fine insights here, and I'll just try to add a few postscripts of my own.

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One Comment

  1. I found the Ultras “anecdote” the most interesting part of the Streetbook article too. It doesn’t just mess up the story from the Internet-Centricism point of view but also any non-violent-civil-disobedience narratives (which I’m a fan of). The opening image in the Streetbook article is a great shot and I was wondering who these “protesters” clad in black leather jackets and jeans were. The same thought was running through my mind during the stone throwing face-off that occurred at one point during the Tarhir protests.
    It seems that having a frontline of people willing to face and respond to violence is important when facing riot police and violent regime supporters. It certainly makes me think twice about the failed Iranian “Twitter Revolution” too.

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