IT HAS been almost two weeks since millions of Egyptians took to the streets demanding for the resignation of their President of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak.
Whatever the outcome is for this country in turmoil, there is no doubt that this moment will be forever etched in the country’s history. Scrap that, make it global history.
Politics aside, the protests in the Northern African country have made social media history.
Over the last couple of years, social media has become the de facto communication tool to mobilise movements of protesters. Before Egypt, the best example was the protesting of the presidential election in Iran last year.
In June, when the mass protests in Iran was gaining momentum, there were reports that the government was censoring its people both on and off the net. So the people took to Twitter instead, and started sending out real-time happenings from the streets.
Naturally, Twitter – being a broadcasting tool – would be the best social media network for this. Unlike say Facebook and even blogs, Twitter is fast and more public, allowing for bite-sized information to be disseminated and further shared through retweets.
It is probably the acknowledgement of this amazing capability that led to the Egyptian Government banning the Internet at the early days of the protest (it has since been restored).
There are, of course, many detractors, including New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell who famously wrote, “The revolution will not be tweeted”. These people feel that too much credit has been given to social media for its role in activism – and that uprisings are the product of more deep-rooted issues.
Already, Gladwell has responded to the fanfare social media has been getting in Egypt. Last week, he wrote in an article titled, “Does Egypt Need Twitter” (http://nyr.kr/gladwellegypt):
“People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.”
Many people supported his argument (just read the comments on the article), but there were just as many who disagreed with him, including me. The fact is, Twitter may not have planted the idea in the people’s mind that it was time for a revolution (or at least time to protest), but what it can do – as can other social media networks – is mobilise and rally people, give them the confidence to make a difference and be a platform to people who never had a chance to share their thoughts and opinions on issue.
To put it quite simply, the technological advances we have had access to over the past couple of years gives protesters the tool to engage, support and connect with each other like never before
Sure, word of mouth can be efficient (we’ve seen revolutions before in the history of the world). However there is no doubting the efficiency and speed in which information can be disseminated and received in today’s world.
What other reason can there be for the Egyptian government (and the Iranian one before it) to block Internet access in its country?
Besides mobilising people, social media has also played a major role in keeping the world engaged with what is happening on the streets and in some way, changed the way journalism works.
Firstly, there were live Tweets from the people on the streets sharing updates on what was happening – the peaceful protests, the clash with pro-Mubarak protestors and military actions. Journalists turned to Twitter to share news about both the protests and their own welfare when there was a media clampdown..
Al Jazeera offered live online feeds from Tahrir Square in Cairo, where the main protests were happening.
And YouTube, the social network where many people went to look for on-ground footage of the protests, partnered with real-time curation company Storyful to help curate the videos and create playlists linked to the protests on the video-site. This would make it easier for viewers to access content, instead of sifting through thousands of random videos when using a search term like. “Egypt”.
People also took to photo-sharing sites like Flickr to share photos live from the streets.
Besides keeping the world updated with what is happening, the photo/video images and the live on-ground coverage via Twitter has no doubt helped keep the protest going. The people of Egypt on the streets have acknowledged this, there are many images of people holding up placards acknowledging social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.
This is citizen journalism in all its glory. And it’s all thanks to social media.