Monday, February 14, 2011

Cross-border Swarming

Cairo youth didn't act alone in using social media to depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the New York Times says today in a front-page story. Their Facebook and YouTube activism was part of a sophisticated, two-year, online collaboration with Tunisian youth activists that used social media to reach across national borders to commiserate about torture, trade tips on evading tear gas, and plot how to use technology to duck surveillance.

"They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons," Times correspondents David Kirkpatrick and David Sanger wrote, describing the anatomy of the movement that led to protesters' successful face-off in Tahrir Square against less tech-savvy Egyptian authorities.

"What we discovered in reporting this story was that what's happening in the Middle East now is more than just a contagion in which one group inspires the next," Sanger told WNYC Radio this morning on The Brian Lehrer Show. "There was, thanks to Facebook and other social networking elements, a lot of communication back and forth across borders, but of course there are no borders (on the Internet). ...Imagine what a shock that was to Egyptian authorities -- to discover that the entire security system they had spent billions to build and focus on the inside never even considered this other (cross-border technological) threat."

[Wael Ghonim -- the Egyptian Google executive whose Facebook page is credited with helping to catalyze the crowds in Tahrir Square -- told CBS 60 Minutes last night that "Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google and without YouTube, this (revolution) would never have happened." CBS Correspondent Harry Smith, in this blog post today, quotes Ghonim as saying that the revolution "is like Wikipedia, okay?" Social media enabled everyone to be contributing content, Ghonim told Smith. "Everyone was contributing small pieces. No one was the hero but everyone was the hero."]

Sanger agrees that social media were critical to Cairo's youth revolution, which used online social networks to help destabilize the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, forcing him to resign from his 30-year reign on February 11th. "But what was really remarkable" about the Egyptian youth movement, Sanger told WNYC, is that it used both high and low tech to organize support:

"While social media were used to organize ringleaders, once they got going, they also used some of the oldest forms of communications -- putting up leaflets and fliers and walking through some of the poorest sections to reach people without Net connections. They shouted their message in the streets and picked up a following, liked the Pied Piper. This was a combination of extremly high tech organization and extraordinarily low-tech organization."

And now the young leaders are looking beyond Egypt, Sanger says. He and Kirkpatrick quote Walid Rachid, 27, one of the members of the April 6 movement in Cairo -- an Egyptian Facebook group -- as saying that "Tunis is the force that pushed Egypt, but what Egypt did will be the force that will push the world." At a meeting of youth movement leaders last night in Cairo, Rachid told Kirkpatrick: "...If a small group of people in every Arab country went out and persevered as we did, then that would be the end of all the regimes." According to the Times story, the members of the Tunis and Cairo youth movements are talking about sharing their experiences with similar youth movements in Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Iran.

But Sanger cautions that the movement's success in Cairo doesn't insure its success elsewhere, especially in countries where authorities are far more sophisticated in the use of the Internet to organize protest. Sanger told WNYC: "I'd love to say Facebook was protection against the military, but had the military decided it was going to open fire on protesters and round people up, this could have looked more like Tiananmen Square, then I think we would have had something very different here." Sanger added: "...Just because social networks can be organized doesn't necessarily mean they will be successful at overcoming a regime." Sanger said that some regimes, like China, "are extraordinarily adept at using the Internet and social media to follow dissidents and punish them." Mubarak's regime, he says, "was clueless" about the power of social media and the Web -- but not every regime is, nor will be in the wake of what happened to Mubarak.

Meanwhile today, The Associated Press is reporting that the U.S. State Department has begun sending Twitter messages in Farsi to reach social media users in Iran, with some of the Tweets accusing Iran's government of "illegalizing dissent" while at the same time praising Egyptian protesters. The State Department's Farsi Twitter account had 60 followers within two hours of its launch, the AP was reporting. The AP also is reporting today that the State Department launched an Arabic Twitter feed last week in an effort to communicate with the Egyptian protesters and signal its support.

For more on the role of social media in political activism in the Middle East, see Cairo's Facebook Flat, below:

(Photo of Egyptian Facebook activist Wael Ghonim by Getty Images)

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Anonymous Howard Blood said...

You are the best--Thanks again for this you up to date lady and journalist........

February 14, 2011 at 2:13 PM  

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