What Was Hiding in the Subterranean Electronic Politics of Egypt?
Speculating about the role of new social media and political activity or revolution has become a popular pastime. Twitter and Facebook in some circles are getting credit for changing the world. Others consider them minor technological toys that do little more than assist with organizing. There is a debate about whether social media can stimulate democracy or end up as a tool of authoritarian regimes. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
In the cheering section is Clay Shirky, writing in Foreign Affairs, arguing that social media are a new form of power and involved in influencing political movements all over the world. It is simply impossible to talk about social upheaval in Tehran, Tunisia, Egypt, China, Moldova, or organized protests against the G8 without talking about user-generated content on cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, email, or photo sharing. Shirkey makes the important and defensible point that new media make new public spheres possible. That is, the opportunity for discussion and politically engaged activity is realized by new media and this helps democratize the environment. It makes it possible for people to communicate and coordinate such that they have a shared understanding of events.
On the back bench lobbing objections is Evgeny Morozov claiming that we are all deluded into believing that the Net is so powerful and that it too will be subject to power and end up of more use to autocrats than democrats.
Somewhere in the middle of all this is Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, that social media only make for different sorts of ties between people. New media increase the frequency and speed of what are called” weak ties” or connections between people that are somewhat shallow, spontaneous, and fleeting. It is simply fast and easy to” friend” someone on Facebook and that’s why people have so many Facebook friends but not” real” friends. Strong ties are relationships that are deep and critical, and have significant potential for commitment.
I retrieved from Wikileaks a copy of a briefing (reference ID 09CAIRO544) about bloggers broadening their discourse. The briefing from 2009 warned that Egypt’s bloggers were playing an increasingly important role in broadening the scope of the acceptable political communication. Bloggers’ discussion of sensitive issues such as the military and politics represented a significant change from the previous five years and had influenced society.
As recently as 2009 the cable noted that a more open atmosphere had been created. Bloggers were influencing independent media to break important news and cover previously ignored or forbidden topics. One personal rights activist in Egypt stated that the youth were able to view their views about social and political issues in ways they never could before. Free speech tends to produce free speech, and the accumulation of effects from blogs in Egypt is apparent.
Social media are important and have significantly changed the political environment in many countries. They are a platform for supporting a connected public sphere that creates public will and a shared sense of perspective. All historical media have had social effects and altered their environments but new user-generated content media are particularly potent. Activists and political entrepreneurs will try to effect change by using social media, but their ability to target change and shape the future is limited.
Just as we would not credit a city park for provoking revolution just because people gathered there, we also cannot credit social media for creating revolution or change. Still, the park like its electronic counterpart is a necessary arena for facilitating activity. We have to remember that Egypt is in the bottom half of countries with Internet connectivity rates. About 20% of the Egyptian population uses the Internet on a regular basis. So it is not availability alone that matters because most Egyptians do not have access to the Internet.
Social media provide meeting platforms, weak ties, public spheres, and broaden the discourse. These can be important or not depending on the other political conditions. Remember that six months ago no one would’ve imagined the changes in Egypt that took place in 18 days. We didn’t know what was going on in the subterranean electronic levels of the political culture. And right now, in the subterranean levels of some other political culture, there is something else going on that we do not realize is coming.