London, Egypt and the complex role of social media

August 11, 2011

The riots in London have placed the focus, yet again, on the power of social media to incite large groups to act on behalf of a cause. British publications were quick to blame social networks, such as Facebook, Google+, and Twitter for fueling the riots. But private Blackberry messaging — not Twitter — was the most popular medium through which rioters communicated. This is important because social media technologies include more than just text messages and tweets. Each technology could impact the shape of a protest or riot in a different way. But most importantly, over-generalizing social media’s role could do more to harm our understanding of an uprising than help it.

I understand the situation in London is evolving, and that the political and cultural environment dramatically differs from that within North Africa and the Middle East’sArab Spring.” But I remain curious as to why, just like the “Arab Spring,” so much attention is placed on social media in this protest. My recent research has focused on tracing the paths and voices of Egyptian citizens and activists, trying to answer the question of how and to what extent social media has shaped the political landscape in the Arab world’s most populous country. My time there convinces me that neither social media technologies nor the youth that use them are the main driver of the masses that overtook the streets of many cities in Egypt from January 25th onward.

Revolutions and riots pre-date social media. Deep unrest, a history of oppositional organizing, economic downturns, corruption, and the relatively neutral position of the military are all factors that have impacted Egypt. These far more dramatically shape the realities experienced in a country with 85 million people, under 5 percent of whom use Facebook and 1 percent use Twitter. While activists and younger, wealthier, and educated citizens may connect with one another and build strong ties via these technologies, legitimate grievances and community organizing more directly played a role in mobilizing the masses. Confronting these grievances by cutting off or hacking a communication technology, as one British lawmaker said should be done to Blackberry in London, fails to address the deep-rooted dissatisfaction that drove people to take to the streets. The Egypt case shows that when a regime cuts Internet, television, and mobile phone networks, protester numbers may actually increase.

Yet it is equally shortsighted to dismiss the power of YouTube videos, Tweets, Facebook groups, and mobile phones in shaping journalism, communication between activists, and on-the-ground mobile communication. When people act out they naturally use available media and, in the case of London, these would include technologies like Blackberry messaging. While in Egypt, fewer protesters directly engaged with these technologies, but they still influenced journalism and the direct communication patterns of a select few.

For example, different groups sharing common grievances can “like” each others’ Facebook pages and merge memberships without confronting emergency laws. Opinions and tactics introduced via Twitter can be rapidly re-tweeted and sourced as stories by domestic and international journalists. Activists can share tips and techniques with one another, and co-organize. Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi can immolate himself in protest of a corrupt regime and impact both his own people as well as neighbors in Egypt — thanks to the ways in which video was captured and transmitted via mobile phones before being picked up by non-State-run television channels.

Social media are part of a much larger matrix of tools and intentions that rally masses. That said, they are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a revolution possible. By fixating on technologies and the few youth that actively use them, we ignore a much more powerful narrative — the story of how synergies are created between classes to mobilize as a network without depending on social media. In Egypt, these networks may include family connections, neighborhoods, mosques, and historical institutions, such as the previously banned Muslim Brotherhood. New technologies hardly erode or overwhelm these classic models of communication and information sharing.

The story of Egypt presents an example of how a shared desire to end a corrupt regime can bring together peoples from all walks of life. And learning from Egypt allows us to understand how complex networks form, sustain, and present possibilities for people to collectively imagine and take hold of their political and economic futures.

In light of this, let’s avoid making the same mistake in London.

By being so quick to blame social media for political and social unrest, we ignore the powerful economic and political grievances that drive discontent. With or without these technologies, people will ultimately stand up and speak their minds. If we continue to focus on technologies rather than peoples, we risk ignoring the source of their grievances and the more complex, organic networks by which they choose to communicate.

Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan is an assistant professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in Design and Media/Information Studies. His findings on new media have been published in the Huffington Post and The New Yorker. He can be reached on Twitter via @rameshmedia.

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