Exactly what role did social media play in the Egyptian revolution?

Simon Mainwaring / Causes / 4 years ago

Image: johnvasko.com

The January 25th revolution in Egypt was an incredible achievement by its people and a truly inspiring example of the power of peaceful protest. Yet the work towards an effective transition to democratic government within Egypt has just begun. Meanwhile a debate continues to rage in the blogosphere as to the exact role played by social media.

While commentators such as Brian Solis and myself have argued against the off-hand dismissal of social media by Malcolm GladwellEvgeny Morozov and Will Heaven, Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen made the sobering point that it’s silly to argue the issue in absolutist terms. Rosen argues “Factors are not causes,” and insists that social media was neither fully responsible for the revolution in Egypt nor irrelevant, and that social transformation is far more complex involving a high degree of mystery.

With sobriety and complexity in mind, I want to take a closer look at the specific role that social media played in terms of scaling awareness and support among anti-government protesters that ultimately resulted in the resignation of President Mubarak.

The role of social media is critical because it helps to spread cognitive dissonance by connecting thought leaders and activists to ordinary citizens rapidly expanding the network of people who become willing to take action. Brian Solis describes this process as creating the necessary “density” of connections, writing “If unity is the effect, density is the cause.” Similarly, Stowe Boyd writes:

“Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread. […] And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others’ perceptions about events, or ‘social contextualization’) leads to an increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it.”

So how was such density achieved in Egypt and what impact will it have beyond its borders? Let’s consider this question in three dimensions – vertically, horizontally and in the compounding effect social media generates from one country to another.

i) Vertical Threshold: Compared to United States and Europe, social media has little penetration in the Arab world. In fact, there are only 21 million Facebook users across the Arab world. So how did social media play such a significant role in fueling a popular revolution? Let me explain by way of an example.

As many commentators have noted, one of the early catalysts for the January 25th revolution in Egypt was a Facebook page created in honor of Khaled Said, a young man who had been brutally beaten and killed by the police. This page became a focal point around which 470,000 “fans” organized their dissidence while a YouTube video about his murder was viewed by more than 500,000 people fueling further public outrage.

Inspired by the protests against and the eventual overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, the Khaled Said Facebook page then became a focal point for the dissemination of popular protest throughout Egypt. As such, the limited penetration of social media within the country was overcome by the fact that it first scaled vertically through key Facebook sites such as those of Khaled Said, 15-year old Asmaa Mahfouz and later, Google executive Wael Ghonim.

ii) Horizontal Expansion: Buoyed by the success of Tunisian protesters and emboldened by the courage of young protesters on their own streets, social media also helped expand the ranks of Egyptians in Tahrir Square from young, well-educated students to doctors, lawyers, judges, Christianswomen and finally State TV personnel.

Such alignment around shared values counteracted attempts by President Mubarak to divide local and foreign support for the protestors. Tweets, Facebook posts and You Tube videos flooded the Internet also serving as critical, transparent content for the dominant Egyptian media outlets such as television including Al Jazeera English (AJE).

iii) Compounding Effect: From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to Iran to Algeria and China, social media is also playing a pivotal role in scaling connections between people, in achieving density, in disseminating courage and in countering misinformation generated by oppressive regimes in many countries around the world.

The most powerful consequence of this revolutionary tide is to challenge the false separation between a country’s ideals and its interests. By allowing citizens from all professions to align around shared values for the sake of their country’s future, they are challenging the monopolies of power that have impoverished the lives of millions allowing them to re-assert their core belief that government officials are democratically elected to serve the interests of the people.

Thomas Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, observed thousands of Egyptians volunteering to clean up Tahrir Square in the last 48 hours and wrote about the experience quoting the aphorism that “in the history of the world no one has ever washed a rented car.” As he concluded, Egyptians are now re-taking ownership of their national identity, pride and country after thirty years of an oppressive regime.

Just as Egypt followed Tunisia, citizens of other Arab counties are rising to the challenge of shaping their own futures in the face of political and military might. Social media did not make this happen single-handedly, but by enabling people to connect more rapidly around shared values, it is shifting power back to the people and allowing them to re-align the interests of a country around the values that serve all its people.

This phenomenon and the contributory role played by social media are a powerful demonstration of what I call a We First (as opposed to Me First) thinking and behavior. This mindset involves a fundamental recognition that communities, companies and countries must now embrace and demonstrate an expanded definition of self-interest that includes the greater good. To do otherwise not only threatens their own survival, but invites a revolution led by those united by shared values and connected by social technology.

Do you believe the current wave of revolution will continue through the Arab world? Do you believe such instability is a positive development?

 

 

 

 

25 Comments

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  5. Mr. Social says:

    Hi Simon,

    Nice post. I lived in the Middle East for 5 years and worked with many Egyptians. To the point of utter apathy, there was always a palpable undercurrent about the Mubarak Government in the region.

    Technology has always plays an important role in any revolution. In this case, social media and communications enabled the groundswell to take unified direction.

    What’s interesting is the role SM is yet to play… of how it will help shape and bring about democracy in an hitherto undemocratic state, and usher in a new era in the region. Despite the rapid pace of change in technology, change in governance and mass behaviour… will take a while.

    Best wishes & hope for the best,
    @

    1. Thanks, and the last point you made is so important. It’s one thing to break
      with the past but social media also has an important role to play in
      creating the future. And that is difficult and time consuming work away from
      the spotlight. Let’s hope we all engage with equal energy to make these
      changes substantial and lasting. Thanks, Simon

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  10. Amina Amr says:

    Thank you so much!
    This greatly helped me write my essay on the Egyptian Revolution :D

    1. You’re so welcome Amina. Simon

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  13. Ghania612 says:

    Thank you who share this information Cuz i ready and i wrote an essay about the Egypt Revolution, I get good grad, so far,    

    1. Great. Happy it was useful. Simon

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  15. ahmed says:

    Please I Want To Write An Essay About how you see egypt in the coming 10 years would you help me

    1. I hope the article I wrote helps. Simon

  16. Yousuf Rangoonwala says:

    Hi Simon,

    Well-written but, sadly, not factual. While Khaled Said’s Facebook page being viewed by ‘x’ number of fans was certainly considerable, pinpointing it down as the single-most factor that set Egyptians’ blood boiling is, in my opinion, naive.

    While there is obviously no measure of the angst that was within the Egyptian populace for years, the Egyptian Revolution was certainly not a result of one police brutality and its limited broadcast on a webpage restricted to less than a million people in a country that’s the 16th most populated in the world.

    What I’d also like to ask you is how you or anyone was able to track “dissemination” of the Youtube video of Khaled’s brutal murder. It is only a purported theory and with less than 25% of the Egyptian population on the Web and an even lesser number using social networking, it’s a struggle to believe how the video could have created mass impact through an online video channel.

    I agree with you that the role of social networking must not be relegated as irrelevant but as the Anna Hazare protests have shown in India too, those who “like” rarely show up on the day that counts.

    Cheers
    Yousuf

    1. Thanks Yousuf. I agree that the murder of Khaled was not the sole cause of the revolution but one of many catalysts. Such dramatic events are informed by dozens of integrated factors such a high food prices, what happened in Tunisia, and thirty years of oppression under President Mubarak. My wife is Egyptian and having spent much time there over the last 15 years, I agree it’s a very complicated affair. I just believe, like you, that the role of social media needs to be put in perspective with all the other factors. Thanks for the great input. Simon

  17. sandro says:

    Hi Simon,
     
    I have an unusual question.
    I am in the process of doing my masterthesis on social media and how they contributed in the Egyptian revolution. I couldn’t help noticing you have been spending lots of time in Egypt for the last 15 years. Part of the thesis consists of interviews with people that have experienced the Revolution on the spot using social media. I have been seeking ways to get into contact with people via the “We are all Khaled Said” facebookpage but to no avail. Embassies are not willing to provide me with useful info on how to get into contact with people and there aren’t any contact details of communities in the country I am living in. Would you know people that fit the above criteria and are willing to help out. I will of course provide some kind of incentive for their help.
    This message also applies to others that may read this.
     
    Many thanks in advance
    Sandro
    PS I will provide interested people with the results of my thesis investigation if interested

    1. Hi Sandro. I understand the problem. I’m not sure how I can help in that my family live in Australia and the U.S.. I’m am sure there are activate organizations and groups that commemorate the Revolution that would be more than happy to help. I would try contacting them in Egypt. Simon

      1. sandro says:

        Hi Simon,

        Many thanks for your answer. I will keep on looking then.
        I have some more questions and they are about achieving density. Is vertical threshold about a number (as abstract this number may be right now) that has to be obtained for something to diffuse? Is horizontal expansion only possible once the vertical threshold was reached? This is how I interpreted it, is this correct or do I miss something crucial here? And finally, is the compounding effect only about achieving density in similar countries or does this also include Western countries?

        Sorry for the spam
        Sandro