Reflections after #net4change – What role does social media play?
It’s been a while since I last posted. This looking-for-inspiration thing is a bit harder than you might expect. But earlier this week I had the fortune to take part of an event that surged with inspiration and probably left everyone with an urge to keep discussing and writing. #net4change, or Internet and Democratic Change as it’s called formally, was a full day conference arranged by SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, and the swedish think-tank-of-sorts Juliagruppen, or the Julia Group. Together they arranged a phenomenal discussion with some very very smart and interesting people.
I wanted to share what I consider the most important discussion that took place during the conference: What importance social media actually had on the revolutions and the revolutionary process.
There are two contrasting views regarding this phenomenon. The first, presented by many and at the core of the reasoning from many of the organizers of the conference, is that social media and internet was the key for making these revolutions possible and that ICT (information and communications technology) development is the key for empowering citizens of all nations. The other view, of which Egyptian activist Salma Said was the most vocal proponant, is that social media was in some ways a hindrance for the revolutino and it wasn’t until the net was shut down that the real mass of people took to the streets and eventually toppled the regime.
Most of the participants at the conference probably went there with the preconception that the “Twitter Revolution” was something absolute and that the driving force behind the revolutions was the fact that they had technologies that enabled a quick flow of information for gatherings and that it reduced the need for violent protests. One person who emphazised this was Slim Amamou, a tunisian activist who was imprisoned early on in the revolution and eventually became secretary of state for the transitional government. In his speech he claimed that with out social media or the internet, the revolution had simply not been possible. Partly as a method of coordinating movements but also to spread the message across the country. A reason for the latter argument is that the revolution started in Sidi Bouzid, a smaller town, and eventually spread all the way to Tunis, unlike other revolutions that started in and centered around the capital. Hamza Fakhr from Syria was also of a similiar opinion. He claims that since the internet was first implemented in Syria in 2001, people have started to understand that their country and regime is backwards and authoritarian, as opposed to being the pinnacle of human civilization as they where made to believe when the regime had a monopoly on information.
At the other side of the spectrum is Salma Said and many of her fellow egyptian activists present at the conference. According to her the social media was actually some what of a hindrance at the early phases of the revolution because it made people sit at home and observe what was happening instead of going out on to the streets and Tahrir Square to try to topple the regime. It wasn’t until the regime shut down the internet that the huge mass of people eventually took to the streets in the millions and ended Mubaraks reign. Being an active blogger before the revolution, Said claimed that she didn’t use any kind of social media for the first 18 days of the revolution, instead she used sticks and stones and “when there was an attack on Tahrir square we defended it with our lives, not with Twitter or Facebook” .
I’d say that both claims are true to some extent, and that there are different reasons for them being true (of course).
The main idea at the conference was social media as a facilitator of the revolutions, not as the driving force behind it. I’d say this is true even for Egypt. The information that spead from Tunisia was surely not reported by the state TV but rather through the internet or telephones. The initial cooperation between activists was surely facilitated through some form of modern ICT. And the opposite is also true. Tunisia would probably never have been able to topple Ben Ali through twitter uppdates and facebook statuses, it was the fact that people took to the streets, and died on those streets that made others join and that led to the demise of the regime.
Slim Amamou gave a wonderful example of what role the net actually did play once the revolutions had commenced. When Anonymous took down the websites and servers for the regime, it left a surge of inspiration in the revolutionaries that they were being aided, observed and heard from all parts of the world. As someone on the conference put it (rather gruesomely): There was a feeling that the deaths were not in vain, they also accomplished something.
The social media was of course also the thing that quenched the western hunger for information about what was happening in the region, since they weren’t able to send journalists in. But perhaps western media has, because their main source of information came through these channels, over simplified and over strechted the importance of particularily Twitter and Facebook. The ICT should get more of the credit (i.e both internet and mobile technology) but the main bulk of the emphazis sohuld lay with the activists that took to the streets and shed their lives.
What do you think about this?
There will be more reflections on this topic soon. More on this: Copyriot