Dictators and revolutionaries may disagree about whether new media are a positive force for revolution or an invitation to global chaos. Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have suggested both are correct.
Egypt’s recent revolution clearly demonstrates that the effectiveness of the Facebook/Twitter “phenomenon” is determined by who is using it for what purpose. The story of the winter revolution of January 25 was how democratic idealism can be projected from a relatively narrow core-group to an audience of tens of millions.
Tahrir Square became a stage upon which democratic revolution played out. Inspiring scenes were uploaded into digital communication devices, projected to satellites and sent back again all over the earth. Egypt’s dictator could not prevent the unfolding drama from being widely displayed. As the drama was projected outside Egypt into global civil society, Western viewers demanded that governments warn the Egyptian army not to intervene.
These images of righteousness, martyrdom, and civil self-control also won over the enlisted men and officers in the Army. Yet that democratic enthusiasm ran into a brick wall once the generals succeeded Mubarak as the ruling power. Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has not made good on its promise to safeguard the democratic transition, and instead employed Internet, Facebook, and Twitter to control communication and project misleading information into the public square.
For instance, on Fridays, when Egypt’s democratic activists go to Tahrir Square to chant the week’s list of National Demands, the scene is not visible in the army’s social media or in the state-controlled national TV.
Yet, even as the military uses the new media to maintain official invisibility, the revolutionaries employ it to record their opposition, videoing police brutality on cellphones and sending out Tweets organizing the weekly rituals in Tahrir Square. It’s effective. The military only pretends not to listen.
Those who are performing revolution in Libya and Syria, and who might imagine it in Saudi Arabia or Iran, have and will encounter more difficulties, not only from armies that feel freer to employ violent force but from media environments that are more constrained.
Egypt was the most wired nation in the Arab world, with 25 million people having access to social media or the Internet. Revolutionary leaders had experience creating Facebook pages in the commercial world, and Egyptian citizen-audiences were skilled in responding and employing them.
In no other Arab country are activists and citizens experienced in this way. After Egypt, moreover, governments are aware of the Internet’s power. It can no longer function as a surprise weapon.
If both sides, the entrenched interests and the revolutionaries, are equally seeking to propagandize using Twitter, the Internet might become less a medium for effective performance than a Tower of Babel.
Internet and social media will continue to provide invaluable platforms for mounting performances that challenge dictatorial states. But now that dictators also employ the new media, revolutionary performances must find new ways to keep their own communications secret while responding to government lies in public way.
In the age of internet revolution that Egypt launched, he who controls social messaging will control the revolution.
Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston