Monday, October 24, 2011

Social Media and the Arab Spring: From the Mobile Phone to Cyber Warfare

NETWORKED PROTESTS: Egyptian anti-government protesters taking photos with their cameraphones at the demonstration in downtown Cairo. Ghonim, the Google executive and cyberactivist who emerged as a leader of the anti-government protests in Egypt, said social media played a crucial role in the events that led to Mubarak's ouster after three decades of iron-fisted rule. - AP

I just saw, on the CBC's documentary program "The Passionate Eye", the BBC produced "How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring". I must admit, when I first saw the title announced onscreen as "Coming Next" after the news, I was underwhelmed. I decided to watch at least some of it, partly out of curiosity, partly out of "duty" to my own interest in the Arab Spring (Summer, Fall), and partly because otherwise I would have had to put brain to paper in various other forms. As soon as I saw that the documentary came from the BBC and was aired in the context of "The Passionate Eye", I was more enthusiastic.

This documentary not only did not disappoint, it reviewed and contextualized some known events in a way that led to new insight; it expanded my awareness of how various forms of technology and social media were used, including the ingenuity of the rebels as the regimes became more repressive of technologies as well as demonstrators; and, how the mobile phone vs the army became a cyber war of government hackers vs rebel bloggers and cyber activists.

The biggest surprise for me was the deliberate use of what "my Arabs" call "le téléphone arabe"--the Arab telephone, word of mouth, the grapevine--a low tech method infinitely more efficient that unreliable phone lines. This involved reaching non-cyber-connected Egyptians via taxi drivers. Activists in cabs would talk over the phone about plans to rally, and "let" the taxi drivers overhear--highly effective in bringing crowds to Tahrir Square, and other protest sites.

A Cairo taxi drives past a poster of Egyptian President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak in Heliopolis, Cairo. (Dominic Nahr for The Wall Street Journal)

Technology is a toolkit in human hands, and in this documentary diverse human dimensions of the engagement with these tools are highlighted: the street demonstrator with a mobile in one hand and a rock in the other; the ingenious computer wunderkind dodging blocks and transmitting images to the world while being traumatized by them, and by a "profound sense of guilt" for rallying the crowds who became the victims; and, the awakening of the diasporas to the disseminated raw news from their homelands, leading to their demonstrating in Western streets, petitioning Western governments, or paying for the latest in palm-sized devices to record and broadcast the realities Arab dictators didn't/don't want known,

I feel lucky I had the opportunity to see this documentary on the same day as Tunisians voted, and Libyans declared their liberation from Qaddafi (more on those later). The version I saw had addenda updating the events in each country to October 23, 2011. I hope that if you haven't seen the documentary yet, you will take the opportunity to do so.

Below are a number of options: the 1st episode, on Tunisia then Egypt, in 4 fifteen minute segments; or, the 2 full hour long episodes on Tunisia and Egypt, then Libya and Syria. While these 4 countries are the main focus, Bahrainis have posted the 15 minute "Bahrain Part" (between the Egyptian and Libyan segments)--opening with the strategic importance of Bahrain for the West, and the role of the Saudis, and closing with a chilling justification for brutality against doctors and nurses.

How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring--Episode 1 (Tunisia and Egypt) in 4 segments (15 minutes each)

How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring--Episode 1 (Tunisia and Egypt); Episode 2 (Libya and Syria) (59 minutes each)

How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring--The Bahrain Part (between the Egypt and the Libya parts) (15 minutes)

Please share your general impressions of the role of all forms of cyber technology and social media in the Arab Spring (Summer, Fall), and/ or your impressions specifically of this documentary (or parts thereof).

Related Posts:
See the category Arabia History (ArabiaHistory) in the side bar; search by individual country using the Search function in the side bar; see the relevant Doha Debates categorized in the side bar.

Social media sites helped to spark the protests on 25 January. From the BBC article, "Egypt unrest: Bloggers take campaign to Tahrir Square"


Haitham هيثم Al-Sheeshany الشيشاني said...

I`ve watched only 3 of the clips -so far- and I guess we all agree that facebook / "social media" contributed largely to both igniting and the continuation of Arab spring.

the benefits of connectedness were reaped fruitfully indeed :)

Jay Kactuz said...

ertainly modern technology has changed the way the word (ie, news, ideas, messages) travels. Not only is it faster, but it goes farther and reaches more people.

However, Social Media is still limited by self-imposed boundaries, and nowhere is this more evident than in Arab countries. Even a universally recognized idea such as democracy must be filtered through those restrictions, leaving it a pale shadow of what it could be or should be. I don't know if I am being clear about this, but what I am saying is that any set of ideas that must fit into a predetermined set of moral or religious principles - without any discussion - will only result in a caricature of the original intent of those ideas.

I don’t think there is or will be an ‘Arab spring’. Change, yes, but probably not for the better. Any social or political construct that must be shaped to fit an ill-defined religious dogma is doomed before it even begins. True freedom and democracy require freedom of speech and conscience, something that appears to be alien to Islamic societies. The sad thing is that the only thing radical, intolerant Muslims have to do is say that something is “against Islam” and even the good, moderate Muslims will lower their heads and keep their silence. Likewise, the idea that a religion is perfect only breeds a mentality that the solution to a problem is more of that religion – and this is true for any religion but mostly evident today among the followers of Islam.

Social media, like all means of communication, can be used by both sides, for both good and evil. It will only have a positive impact if free from superstition and the limitations of psychic dogma. If one set of ideas is predefined as bad, or if a group of people can label any opposing or unliked ideas as evil without any discussion of the content and context of those ideas, then change, when it comes, will reflect only the wishes of a specific group of people. The concept ‘change’ means different things to different people.

The Arab spring shows the limitations of social media. It can promote change that in many ways is little difference from a prior condition. What I see happening is one abusive, repressive regime being replaced by another different abusive, repressive system.

I watched the videos but I saw nothing that indicated that the hopes and dreams of those people (freedom, democracy, human rights, respect) would become reality. They might get change, but it might not be what they thought they were getting. Going out into the street, demonstrating, chanting, talking about freedom or even dying is the easy part of change; the hard part requires a change of mentality that I didn’t see manifest anywhere in the videos.

Wendy said...

As far as I'm concerned "Passionate Eye" never disappoints. There's no doubt that social media is one of THE MOST important game changers of our time!

Countrygirl said...

YEs social media helped the so called Arab Spring to overtrow dictators around arab states but it was only the medium to spread the news/information but as JAy well said nothing will change, dictators will replaced with laws ispired by sharia (eg in Lybia poligamy is now allowed).

Social media also helps the spreads of hate speeched and disgusting ideas of extremist muslims.

Just thinks of what happend when the cartoons spoofing mohamed went virals or the poor girl who had the birght idea of making draw mohamed day? thanks to internet/social media the different authors received death treats for simply expressing their right of freedom of speech. Think the world before the net...if someone wanted to make fun of islam/mohamed he/she could do without problem (Rushdie was another matter because the book sold around the worl)

majed said...

I have not seen those clips you all are talking about yet,because videos are filtered out by our company server,and that is where I spend most of my waking hours.

Though I agree that, social media plays crucial rule in keeping people connected,informed of what is going around them and spreads awareness and consciousness, but,I think we can also call it a sophisticated version of rumour which is the oldest social media technique to spread news and information and propaganda ,and like rumour how much of truth does it hold, specially with photoshop and the like mixing programs and techs hummmm,and I am not sure if it was completely Arab thing this Arab spring,as those dictators ruled for decades and managed to suppress any unpleasant voice to their sensitive ears by all means,and the west used to keep quiet and even helped those dictators, there is no need to give examples,all previous efforts to make change were aborted even before ovulation with harshest means possible,but now the west is adopting the change that it always
rejected,why? Muslims who where denied the right to rule in Algiers and elsewhere are now hailed and welcomed by those same west,may be because what these Muslims did to Gaddafi(Rahmatullah alaih)is not much worse than what French revolution did to Marie and Louis and what the Russians did too.

talking about social media, reminds me of something I saw when we returned to India from Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion,it was like jumping from the pan into the fire,as it coincided with the Babri Mosque demolition,so we had to cope with long lasting curfews, curfews were imposed to prevent clashes between Muslims and our Hindu compatriots,this is where I saw the use of yet another unique social media technique,Hindus being more clever than Muslims used loud speakers to produce sounds of Muslim women calling out their young Muslim brothers to come and help them and crying in agony and pain and telling how they are being gang raped and how their babies are being butchered etc,I remember how many young Muslim men took the bait and rushed out to help them and got themselves killed as the orders were to shoot on sight.

brother you seem to be looking for the perfect world,but do not you think perfection would commit suicide out of boredom without flaws living side by side with it, likewise would do good without bad,what we like existing side by side with what we hate,make life livable,constrasting things are all that is good about life.

Jay Kactuz said...

Hey Majed. How are you doing? By chance I was reading your comments on Indian Muslims (the debate) here at Chez Chiara today - and that is one complicated situation. India is a fascinating country and I don't understand how it works as well as it does.

Cant believe 2011 almost over. Sure has been an interesting year.

Oh my gosh. Reading blogs on company time! I am fabbergasted, shocked! Kind of like finding out there is gambling in Rick's Cafe.

Actually, I don't blame the Libyans for what they did to Gadaffi. He was a vile creature and he got what he deserved. These Western Countries and institutions that are condemning his death, or the method of death, are hypocrites. Where were they when he was torturing and murdering the Libyan people? I hope Assad took notes.

I do live a good happy life mostly, with one major sadness. I have been blessed far more than I deserve. Even my dislike of somethings is more of a hobby than activism. I believe that nothing we do or say will change anything.

Oh yes, just for amusement, I posted an answer to the Question on this link:
Do you think it will pass the moderation machine?

You take care, doc.

Jay Kactuz said...

"Actually, I don't blame the Libyans for what they did to Gadaffi"

The BBC is reporting that Gadaffi may have been sexually assaulted before being killed. If that is the case, I take back my words. That is gross, unnecessary, even for that vile man.

Susanne said...

I didn't watch the videos. I may later if I have time. Syria closed down Facebook, Blogger, YouTube and other websites about 4 years ago. When they saw what was happening in surrounding countries earlier this year, they unblocked some of those sites including Facebook. Of course many Syrians were still going to those sites via proxy servers, but it was curious that the regime unblocked social media when the other Arab countries were saying it was social media that was helping their causes.

But maybe the regime wanted to spy on their people and flush out the traitors so this is why they suddenly allowed it. That or they were trying to show they were tolerant and sweet so the Syrians would have no such overthrow ideas of their own.

As Jay said, I hope Assad took notes on what happened to Gaddafi.

Jay, Wafa' is a very tolerant woman. You should get to better know her. I think you'd like her a lot. :)


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