Social media, cellphone video fuel Arab protests

  • Technology
  • Monday, 28 Feb 2011

Egyptian phones 2

WASHINGTON: Social media, cellphone cameras, satellite TV, restive youth and years of pent-up anger are proving to be a toxic mix for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

In clip after clip of footage from the street protests that have been sweeping the region, demonstrators — mostly young men — can be seen among the crowds holding cellphone cameras aloft to document the scenes.

The shaky footage of peaceful protests — and images of horrific carnage — have been uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and other sites and aired on pan-Arab satellite TV stations like Al-Jazeera.

Google-owned YouTube has been highlighting amateur footage from the unrest — such as clips from Libya from a user who goes by the name “enoughgaddafi” — at its news and politics channel, CitizenTube.

In Bahrain and Libya, graphic pictures and raw video of harsh crackdowns by the security forces on crowds of protesters earned international condemnation for their governments and further fuelled popular anger in the streets.

Micah Sifry, co-founder of politics and technology blog techPresident noted in a recent blog post that mobile phone coverage in the Middle East is far higher than Internet penetration.

“The biggest factor in the unfolding events, to me, appears to be the emergent power of young people, compounded by how urbanised they are and how connected they are by mobile phones,” Sifry said.

“Could it be that what we’re witnessing is the political coming of age of Generation TXT?”

The extent to which social media contributed to the toppling of the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia — and protests of varying size and intensity in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Yemen — is a matter of debate.

But Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moamer Kadhafi took the threats posed by the Internet seriously enough, apparently, when they took the extraordinary step of attempting to cut their own people off the Web.

Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and cyberactivist who emerged as a leader of the anti-government protests in Egypt, said social media played a crucial role in the events that led to Mubarak’s ouster after three decades of iron-fisted rule.

“Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without You Tube, this would have never happened,” Ghonim told CBS television’s 60 Minutes.

“If there was no social networks it would have never been sparked,” said Ghonim, who started the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” credited with helping mobilise the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Alec Ross, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation, said social media played an “important role” in the events in Egypt and Tunisia but “technology did not create the dissent movements there.”

“It did not make the dissent movements successful — people did,” Ross told AFP. “They were not Facebook revolutions or Twitter revolutions.”

“Technology served as an accelerant,” he said. “A movement that historically would have taken months or years was compressed into far shorter time cycles.”

In Egypt, social media helped bring together people from diverse social, political and economic circles and merged them into a united force, Ross said.

“Having connected online they were more likely to come together offline,” said Ross, a leader of the State Department’s social media efforts.

Ross said the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were notable for their lack of recognisable leaders, and networked communications helped make this possible.

“The Che Guevara of the 21st century is the network,” he said. “It no longer takes a single charismatic revolutionary figure to inspire and organise the masses.

“Rather, in the digital age, leadership can be far more distributed and that’s something that we clearly saw in Tunisia and Egypt,” he said. — Relaxnews 2011

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