Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Whatever happened to the Facebook revolutions?

Optimistic accounts of online activism are being called into question two years after the Arab Spring, writes David Tresilian

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Al-Ahram Weekly

During the Arab Spring revolutions two years ago that led to the overthrow of long-established regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and threatened or destabilised certain others, Western and Arab commentators seemed to be at one in emphasising the appearance of new political actors and new political tools that had brought about the kind of change that more traditional forms of politics had failed to achieve.
The youth groups that led the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square over the 18 days of Egypt’s 25 January Revolution had little or no connection to the political parties that had previously led the opposition to the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak any more than the demonstrations that took place in Tunisia following the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit-seller who killed himself in protest against the regime of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, had been organised by Tunisia’s traditional opposition groups or parties.
Young people took the lead in bringing about both revolutions, and in doing so they also demonstrated the political force of online digital activism, with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites being used to organise and publicise the protests.
According to Wael Ghoneim, the former Google executive whose Facebook postings were widely credited with raising awareness of the human rights abuses of the Mubarak regime, the 25 January Revolution was the world’s first Internet revolution since it had been online activism that had given rise to the mobilisation that eventually swept away the Mubarak regime.
Veteran opposition figures were also struck by the political power of the new social media. “I hadn’t expected much from young people, who seemed to me to be wasting their time on Facebook,” the Egyptian novelist and intellectual Sonallah Ibrahim told the French newspaper Le Monde immediately after Mubarak’s resignation. But “even in my wildest dreams I could never have expected this revolution… something not seen in Egypt since the pro-independence demonstrations in 1919.”
However, in the same way that, two years on, many voices have been questioning the course of the Arab Spring revolutions, others have been concerned to set more realistic limits to what may have been exaggerated accounts of the impact of online activism. The main political beneficiaries of the Arab Spring revolutions have been the Islamist groups that at first were not involved in the demonstrations that brought down the Mubarak and Bin Ali regimes. And while online activism played an important role in organising the 2011 protests, it does not seem to have led to the new kind of politics that many had originally hoped for.

DIGITAL OPTIMISTS: Ghoneim is undoubtedly a digital optimist, with his record of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, entitled Revolution 2.0, consistently emphasising the mobilising force of Internet-based social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Published in Arabic and various foreign-language editions in 2012, Revolution 2.0 recounts Ghoneim’s introduction to online activism through his professional work with websites like IslamWay.com, Gawab.com, and, eventually, Google. As a young man, he was, he says, “not into politics,” and in any case the country’s political life was dominated by the apparatus of the Mubarak regime against which the “effectively non-existent” opposition parties could not have hoped to make much headway. However, Ghoneim’s professional work had taught him that the Internet could be a powerful way of reaching and consolidating new audiences, and it was this lesson that led him to see a way forward.
“The number of Internet users in Egypt had increased rapidly, from a mere 1.5 million in 2004 to more than 13.6 million by 2008,” Ghoneim writes. “Discussion forums, chat rooms, and blogs flourished, providing an outlet for many users to express opinions freely for the first time.” When the Egyptian former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed Al-Baradei, put himself at the head of the National Association for Change and moved back to Egypt in 2010, Ghoneim used expertise gained at Google to help create an online presence for the association, believing that this could be “the key vehicle to bringing forth the spark of change”.
The political value of the social networking sites, Ghoneim writes, lay in their capacity to inform a growing online public that was otherwise starved of news and to foster uninhibited debate, thus pulling down at least some of the barriers that benefited the regime. There was also the further step of converting this virtual opposition into a physical one that would be prepared to turn online discussion into street demonstrations and other forms of protest. When 28-year-old Khaled Said was beaten to death in Alexandria by the security forces in June 2010, Ghoneim set up the Facebook page Kolena Khaled Said (We are all Khaled Said), and this soon became both a way of documenting what was happening in Egypt and a place where opposition might form.
What happened next exceeded even Ghoneim’s optimistic predictions of the power of such sites to reach new audiences and to catalyse change. Online debate soon turned into physical sit-ins and protests, and the site itself gained more and more approving visitors. As Ghoneim notes in his book, because the country’s established media was largely closed to Al-Baradei and his ideas, the National Association for Change had also used the Internet as a way of broadcasting its demands and of forming a cohesive audience. Al-Baradei himself began using Twitter to reach people sympathetic to his views, thereby evading the controls on traditional publication and public meetings instituted by the regime.
While such political innovations grew out of local circumstances, given the censorship that at the time prevented the use of much of the other media, Ghoneim and others were also exploring forms of online activism that were also being developed elsewhere, perhaps most notably in the United States, the home to the giant corporations behind Google, Facebook and Twitter.
US commentators and academics had long been interested in the political effects of the new social networking sites being developed by companies located on their shores, and writers like New York University professor Clay Shirky had come up with plausible accounts of the new digital age in works like Here Comes Everybody: the Power of Organizing without Organizations, published in 2008, and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, which appeared two years later.
According to Shirky, the new social networking sites made possible as a result of the spread of the Internet had allowed for new forms of group-forming on an altogether much larger scale. The new technologies had created new ways of sharing information with much larger audiences than ever before, and they had allowed those audiences to come together despite physical and other barriers in unprecedented ways, allowing for the creation of new forms of group identity and potential mobilisation.  
These things could be thought of in terms of a ladder of “activities that are enabled or improved by social tools,” Shirky wrote. “The rungs of the ladder, in terms of difficulty, are sharing, cooperation, and social action.” While some of Shirky’s examples were comparatively trivial — Flickr, a photographic website, allowed users to share their photographs with a potentially unlimited audience with only minimal outlay, for example, instead of the far more limited one that could be reached by traditional means — what he had to say about the reduced costs of cooperation, or group-forming, as a result of the new online tools seemed to resonate with what would be the Egyptian experience three years later.
“Tools that provide simple ways of creating groups lead to new groups, lots of new groups, and not just more groups but more kinds of groups… most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done,” Shirky wrote. The new social networking sites not only allowed like-minded people to find each other without running up against the barriers of censorship and limitations on physical meetings, they also allowed for collective action to be debated and planned, even if online group-forming (“ridiculously easy”) was always likely to be far easier than physical action.
Shirky published his views on the political effects of the new social media at the time the Arab Spring revolutions broke out in January 2011, though in this article, published in the US journal Foreign Affairs and presumably written some time beforehand, his examples were restricted to the role of text-messaging in bringing down Philippines president Joseph Estrada in 2001, the “coordinating tools” used by the 2009 Green Movement in Iran and the social networking sites used by the Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010.  
There is no mention of the Arab Spring revolutions, and Shirky’s cautious conclusion that, where political change is concerned, “the use of social media tools… does not have a single preordained outcome” seemed to be at odds with the more upbeat message of Here Comes Everybody and other works. “The safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question, do digital tools enhance democracy?, is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run,” Shirky wrote.
It was this kind of caution, together with worries over the author’s frank speculation about how “to weaponize social media to pursue country-specific and near-term [US] policy goals,” that also characterised the writings of commentators less convinced about the ability of social networking sites to bring about lasting political change.

DIGITAL PESSIMISTS: There have been digital pessimists for as long as there have been digital media, though their pessimism in the past has been in the main more due to the allegedly negative effects of digital materials at the expense of traditional print than it has about any perceived failure of online activism to bring about genuine political change.
Some US authors, such as the journalist Nicholas Carr in a 2008 article entitled “Is Google making us Stupid?,” have wondered whether the habit of online surfing, now a main way of reading written materials, may be encouraging a lack of attention, even rewiring cognitive capacities such that it becomes difficult or impossible to follow linear arguments. Others have wondered whether there is not something phony about the idea that online activism necessarily leads to genuine involvement, since ticking the “like” box on a Facebook page, a form of “bumper-sticker sentiment”, does not necessarily entail more effective forms of political action.
Such concerns have recently been discussed by French academic Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, a specialist on the Arab world, in his Arabités numériques, le printemps du Web arabe (Digital Arabness: the Web and the Arab Spring), published late last year, which begins by noting that the Arab countries, like certain other parts of the world that have historically lacked high-quality infrastructure, have been marked by at least three “technological leaps” in recent decades, with the swift uptake of mobile phones making up for the absence of reliable land-lines, the generalisation of satellite television tempting viewers away from unsatisfactory state-run networks, and the quick uptake of the web replacing sometimes unsatisfactory print media.
While the early adoption of such new technologies has meant that the Arab world has been in the forefront of technological change, it has also meant that it has sometimes been treated as a kind of laboratory animal by international commentators eager to find evidence to support theories regarding the connections between technological and social change. Some Western media commentators were misled, for example, by their readiness to detect a sexually radical Syrian public sphere in blogs apparently posted by “gay girl in Damascus” towards the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, before discovering that this material, perhaps suspiciously directed at international audiences, had in fact been written by an American man living in Scotland.
The undoubted speed with which the new social networking sites have been adopted in the Arab world, Facebook and Twitter in particular enjoying startling growth in their numbers of users, also has to be placed in context, Gonzalez-Quijano writes, since there are vast disparities between different parts of the Arab world. The Gulf countries, for example, which in general did not take part in the Arab Spring uprisings, have populations that are almost entirely online, whereas Yemen, which did, has a very low level of Internet penetration.
Moreover, while it is not difficult to see why the young people who led the Arab Spring revolutions were so quick to take to the new social networking sites, given the promise they held out of organising, mobilising and finally bringing about change, there was always a question of how far such activities extended into the larger population, with much of what appeared on the web at the time presenting the “reassuring spectacle”, to Western audiences, of “modern, liberal, westernised, and secular” young people “blogging in English.”
Technology, Gonzalez-Quijano writes, emerged in the accepted story of the Arab Spring revolutions, as a tool for liberation, with Facebook acting “to plan the demonstrations, Twitter to organise them, and Youtube to broadcast their results to the world.” However, given how quickly “the traditional political forces retook control” after the initial euphoria of the revolutions had faded, “while the digital mobilisations died away, or, to put things more precisely, did not manage to influence events,” there have naturally been questions about how far that liberation reached.
While it seems true to say that the new social media have altered much traditional journalism, creating new citizen journalists and underlining the authenticity of individual voices while at the same time calling the authority of the traditional media into question, it was never clear how much of the outpouring of Facebook postings and Tweets that apparently went hand-in-hand with the revolutions was in fact generated within the Arab countries rather than from abroad, nor how much of it was produced by a comparatively small section of the population.
Gonzalez-Quijano is also made uneasy by Shirky’s frank speculation, made in his 2011 article in Foreign Affairs, about how “to weaponize social media to pursue… [US] policy goals,” particularly since this has long been, using rather different language, a goal of US foreign policy through its provision of funds or technical assistance to Internet activists in China and Iran. Some commentators have presented a very different view of the Arab Spring revolutions, perhaps in a similar way to those who saw the hand of the US behind the so-called “colour revolutions” that had earlier swept the post-Soviet world, by stressing the potentially destabilising effects of the introduction of the new technologies and the way they could be used to spread US influence.
According to the Tunisian commentator Sami Ben Gharbia in a 2010 article entitled “The Internet Freedom Fallacy and Arab Digital Activism”, quoted by Gonzalez-Quijano, “native digital activism” in the Arab world has been corrupted by a US agenda that “recruits a horde of charlatans… who innovate to impress western attention [and gain western funding] and not to have a real impact on the grassroots level”. US support for Internet activism in the Arab world has been a “poisoned gift” to Arab activists, since “foreign money delegitimizes political and social activism” on the web in the same way that it has, Ben Gharbia claims, delegitimised the work of foreign-funded NGOs.
“When you look at the outcome of the decades-funded work of traditional NGOs in the Arab world, you will understand that the same will happen with Activism 2.0: corrupted elites, without any kind of support from the rest of the society, completely disconnected from the masses, with a poor to inexistent impact on the democratization process and a zero effect on civil and political liberties,” Ben Gharbia wrote.
This version of the Arab Spring as a “sinister plot manipulated from abroad” is very far from that of “an authentic liberation movement supported by the dynamism of the new digital technologies.” But it may be of a piece with the views of those who worry that the mass of conflicting chatter that now characterises the Arab online information sphere, as arguably it does that in other languages, has polluted the clarity of the messages promoted by the original activists.

A NEW ARAB WORLD? Finally, Gonzalez-Quijano’s views seem closer to those of the digital optimists than of the pessimists, though he is perhaps as cautious as Shirky in thinking that the linkages between online activity and democratisation are not necessarily as straightforward as they have sometimes been made to appear.
However, Gonzalez-Quijano also introduces an additional layer of reflection by pointing out that historically the spread of the print media in the Arab world at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was associated with the rise of Arab nationalism, as well as with the creation of new forms of identification with the then nascent Arab states.
Later, the spread of the trans-national Arab press in the 1980s and 90s and then the launch of the Arab satellite TV channels in the 1990s may have fostered a new sense of wider national belonging — to the Arab nation rather than to any individual Arab state — as has often been argued in the case of satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, which for a time pushed aside local news channels and garnered impressive pan-Arab audiences.
Could it be, Gonzalez-Quijano asks, that in the same way that the print media were associated with the rise and reinforcement of Arab nationalism a century or so ago, the new digital media could be associated with a new form of wider Arab cosmopolitanism? “In place of the ‘vertical’ model that supported political Arabism a century ago,” in which information was centrally produced and distributed downwards to the population, “today we are seeing a mass of ‘horizontal’ forms of circulation within a ‘society of conversation’,” he writes.

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