Technology is our friend: 2 cents on Egypt and Facebook
Back To Normal

February 14, 2011

2 cents on Egypt and Facebook

The media has been full of how Facebook and Twitter were the backbone of the Egyptian Revolution (#Jan25), but at least in German media, no one went deeper than just saying that social media was used to coordinate protests. You were led to believe that some magical social peer-to-peer-superpowers must have been at work to make all this possible and people grateful for the existence of Facebook. But what did social media and the internet in general really contribute?

Personally, I would not say at all that it was a "Facebook revolution". It was a revolution by real people on real streets facing the threat of real violence. With my limited knowledge of what really happened on the streets, I also cannot evaluate how important Facebook and Twitter were once the protests were up and running. What I do know is that the simple attributes of Facebook
a) being a traffic hub where simply everybody meets and therefore providing a form of gravity and
b) offering an event tool and a backchannel as such
must have been vital to get the protests going. By accident, I was in Egypt right between the Tunisian and Egyptian revolution. Most people I spoke to were getting ready to attend protests on Jan25 (the day I left) but did certainly not expect to really bring down the president. But they said it was time for a change and the world needed to know. Some also said they would not go - not because they did not want change, but they lived 30 years under emergency law and had no trust in being protected by anyone at all.

Imagine this: You are afraid of the police and secret service and someone hands you a leaflet saying "let's go protest on Jan 25", the national police day (and a bank holiday) no less. What if you were 200 people following this announcement?
Everyone would be imprisoned and most likely tortured and more or less would have ruined their lives. What if you were 2,000 people? Some would have been arrested, others hurt by police violence; Some would have made photos and videos and uploaded them somewhere, but nothing would have changed. But if you could be sure there would be 20,000 people, they wouldn't be able to imprison or hurt them all. This image from the Arabic "We are all Khaled Said" Facebook page (now 780,000 members, but i don't how many it were when the protests began) shows notes prior to the protests, re-assuring that a mass of participants would come, but also talking of "a gamble" (English by Google Translate).
Coordinating protests on Jan 24

With 20,000 people protesting, international media attention would be big, and self-produced photos and videos would leak out somehow and find their way into international media. (That is why you would find over 25,000 (!) user uploaded photos on the Arabic "We are all Khaled Said" page, see image below). 

No one knew how many people would go to the streets on Jan25, but with Facebook, you would get the idea it would not just be a few hundred (unlike a leaflet announcement). So, at least one of the great things Facebook provided was a re-assurance that you were not alone if you would go out on the streets on Jan 25. Egypt's protests did not start 2 days after Tunisias revolution. Egypt's protesters took the time to organize themselves, and Facebook played a vital role in making everyone aware that many, many people would join. Not just a few. And the more there would be, the more secure it would be for every single one. So, being able to announce on Facebook that you would go and protest was the thing that got protests going. Something a leaflet would never be able to do. Apart from that, I cannot really assess social media's role, but it is enough to say that in this case, it was not some magical superpower but just a simple backchannel saying "I'm attending", "Maybe" or "No".
25,000 user generated images on one "fanpage"

Note that on Jan25, it was "just" tens of thousands of people on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria (check the "Timeline" on this article) as opposed to millions in the days thereafter. The revolution took off, once even more people felt that the more protesters they were on the streets, the less dangerous it would become for every single one of them.
That's what social media contributed in my eyes, and that is why turning the internet off during the protests would not help at all. It was certainly one of the first snowballs, and once the avalanche was unleashed, there was no stopping it.