Farida Ezzat, a 20-year-old college student from Cairo, steps up on the back of a large truck parked in front the Union Plaza in San Francisco. She can barely be seen over the wooden pallets that run alongside the truck, which is carrying a sound system and proudly displaying Egyptian flags. The loud crowd finishes chanting, “DOWN DOWN WITH MUBARAK!” and as Ezzat adjusts the microphone to her height, the crowd quiets down. With great strength in her voice, she demands attention as she stresses the importance of informing U.S. citizens about how the United States has been funding this dictatorship. Ezzat says that longer than the twenty years she has been alive, the people in Egypt have been oppressed by a dictatorship.
It is Saturday afternoon and the sun is shining over Civic Center in San Francisco, illuminating the looming crowd escalating out of the BART station, getting ready to march. Multitudes of Egyptian families and others in support of the pro-democracy uprising wear t-shirts that proudly display the black, gold, red, and white of the Egyptian flag. FREEDOM boldly sits in capital letters underneath the flag. An organizer approaching a female photographer asks her how she found out about protest, and with excitement she says, “I saw there was going to be a march on February 5th on Facebook.”
The uprising in Egypt, known as the “Jasmine Revolution” cannot simply be referred to as an online revolution, but social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have greatly contributed to organizing and spreading the word about the oppression in Egypt and other Arab countries like Tunisia and now places like Algeria, Iran and Libya. The Facebook event, A Virtual March of Millions in Solidarity with Egyptian Protesters, had over 800,000 people confirmed to attend.
Google employee Wael Ghonim first created the Facebook page in response to an Egyptian activist being killed by the police. Over time, the Facebook page got half a million followers.
Hany Elhak walks towards the grass along side the crowd and stops before red carpets placed in front of him. He quietly kneels down then leans his head forward against the ground, gets up and kneels again. Elhak is praying for his family and for the people in Egypt before the march in solidarity begins in San Francisco. As he finishes, he walks back to rejoin the crowd. His wife and two daughters are with him, all wearing red, white and black.
“I think the government in Egypt didn’t really pay attention to the important role of social media in bringing the people together,” Elhak says. “They have a very strong grip on an old type of traditional media, but they didn’t really think that Twitter and Facebook and social media could really influence the people and it did.”
Today, Tahrir Square is no longer congested with the traffic of bodies and people of all ages sharing each other’s rhythmic breath. For anybody watching the choppy Al Jazeera live streams on their computers or cell phones of the uprising in Egypt that social media outlets tweeted as #jan25, it is not hard to see that real people—vulnerable flesh and bone—affected revolutionary change. However, the debate continues about how much importance people should place on the tools used to achieve these ends and how media have given credit to these tools without always acknowledging the people behind these struggles.
“Thanks to the valiant efforts of journalists and the resilience of the protesters they were there to cover, the revolution was not only televised, it was also streamed, blogged, and tweeted. During eighteen days of sustained resistance by the Egyptian people, the world was able to see what real bravery is — in real time,” according to One Journalist’s Survival Guide to the Egyptian Revolution, a MediaShift article written by Jaron Gilinsky.
In an empty classroom surrounded by flat screen Apple computers—the vehicle for which the technological tools in question have been harnessed—he smiles, looks down at his feet, and exclaims, “We’re living in revolutionary times.”
According to Justin Beck, an online journalism instructor at SF State, Facebook and Twitter are important organizing and communication tools. “The main benefit of social networking and social media is the power to connect people with each other and ideas,” he says. “Facebook and Twitter have been used as a straw man to discount the importance of their contribution, but we can’t discount these tools in mainstream media.”
Others question the obsession people have with the tools—in this case, the media’s obsession with social media, dubbing mass protests in Moldova in 2009 as the Twitter Revolution.
“Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools,” according to Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” a New Yorker article written by Malcolm Gladwell.
The article introduces an event that occurred in the 1960s, when four college students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a waitress refused service to “negroes,” triggering the massive lunch sit-ins for civil rights that crossed state lines, reaching Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee. The point Gladwell makes is that this kind of activism occurred without the help of social technology such as email, Facebook, or Twitter.
“The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism,” the article reads. “With Facebook, twitter, and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.”
Political posters and images of controversial icons like Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara smoking a cigar, and a Zapatista mother and child are plastered on a wall near his desk. His eyes peek out from underneath his black fedora as his hand gestures match the intensity of his voice. He talks about the purpose of organizing to the digital divide to approaching debate about social media dialectically.
According to Jason Ferreira, an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies department at SF State, social networking tools are no different than important tools like the printing press, which contribute to social movement building, but are no means responsible for creating and sustaining these movements.
Organizers in the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords put out newspapers in the 1960s, which were used as a vehicle to bring people together. “Fetishizing tools like social media is the same as waiting for that great leader to come because it frees us from having to do the hard work day in and day out, which is the real sacrifice of organizing, “Ferreira says. “Social movements are built upon deep relationships… which enable us to connect with one another. Organizing was happening long before the media was covering it.”
Ferreira adds that the cause of the Jasmine Revolution was not social media, but rather oppression, and oppression for more than thirty years in Egypt.
According to Mira Nabulsi, an instructor in the Ethnic Studies department who is also involved in Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) at SF State, the primary reason people in Egypt used social media is because of government censorship on the freedom of the press and expression.
“Evidently, no movement can be solely built online, and this is usually the most classical critique of social media and its advocates,” Nabulsi says. “But beyond the clear limitations of social media one should also give credit to the exceptional role it played in the spread of calls for action and of exclusive news converges when reporters of news agencies were unable to cover events and where activists and average citizens covered and broadcasted protests and direct acts of resistance.”
In the sterile hallway of Burk Hall, Danae Martinez, a SF State graduate student and avid social media user, expresses her concerns about social media being used against “digital activists” and organizers. By citing the history of the damage caused by the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) for resistance movements in the U.S. and the ways the FBI infiltrated various organizations assumed to be engaged in subversive activities.
“Social media is a very good tool but we need be careful with it,” Martinez says.
“These tools can be used by oppressive regimes to crack down on dissent,” Beck says. “One thing that concerns me is that these tools can be used by authorities, to track people and to find them. We need to be careful because these tools can also spread misinformation and disrupt organizing activities.”
With a slight smirk, Beck adds that he is interested to see what happens if a revolution occurred in the U.S. “Facebook and Twitter are private companies and are not accountable to the public, which presents a challenge. If the revolution comes here, will social media companies be accountable to us?”
Nabulsi, raised most of her life in Palestine, is deeply interested in how Arab youth, particularly Palestine Youth, are using social media and the effects it has on organizing in those countries.
“I think the most important thing that bloggers in Egypt did is that they filled a vacuum in the traditional media,” Nabulsi says. “They decentralized the process of conventional news exchange or media use. The reason why the Egyptian model was particularly successful is because the young people, many of which are bloggers, took their online calls and demands to the streets.”
“Online activists in Egypt used social media as a platform for organizing and they successfully built trust with their readers, especially young people who are their primary audience,” she adds. “That was a tool of empowerment for many young people to speak up and participate in what we saw.”
The sun beams down on the crowd that becomes larger and louder with every chant. Organizers suggest through the microphones that those wearing red should line up to the right. Those wearing white follow, and the others wearing black also lines up behind, imitating the Egyptian flag. The adrenaline ignites from the people holding their posters and flags as the engine of the loud truck turns on, leading the protesters toward the front yard of City Hall.
Looking at the people from afar, the small mobilization that was getting ready just an hour after noon becomes a massive moving wave of over five thousand people. It is an army consisting of soldiers of every age, gender and race. From babies in strollers pushed by mothers holding posters to elders carrying picket signs that read, “Down with the dictatorship!” Cars drive by and honk in support, while pedestrians are stopped in their tracks as they watch with curiosity. Weeks later, Mubarak steps down and the people in Egypt, who days ago were protesting in frustration, cheer with happiness now that the first of many victories has been accomplished, with people armed with the tool of the century: their cell phone or laptop, communicating with social media like Facebook and Twitter.