ACE Forum, Allegiance of College Editors — February 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Egypt Forum III: Social Media Marches On

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In the last post, Luke thoughtfully articulated the limits of the power of social media with regard to the ongoing Egypt uprising, bringing up a vital concept: that the relationship between the people and the media has grown more complex as Mubarak’s supporters have entered the struggle. But in acknowledging the limitations of social media and conventional news networks like Al Jazeera, we mustn’t fail to forget their vital role in their continued role in assisting and publicizing the efforts of those working to overthrow Mubarak.

Indeed, the origins of the uprising itself lie in the use of social networking sites by antigovernment activists several months ago, after the death of Khaled Said, an Egyptian man killed by police officers after he discovered them using drugs. Support for his cause–that of fighting back in the face of government corruption–has widely been cited as the spark that helped ignite future activism. Indeed, Said himself posted footage of his killer’s illegal activities on his blog shortly before his death. While pro-government supporters may garner support on occasion on the streets of Egypt, the larger, global network of social activism has never been and almost certainly never will be on the side of a man and a movement regarded almost universally as an autocratic dictator.

Some might argue that, quite simply, the legitimacy and structure of government action will ultimately topple the actions of a loosely built cybernetwork of activists. One of the most talked-about aspects of the limits of social media has been the Egyptian government’s shutting off of Internet connections across the country, as many across the globe were unaware that any government could be capable of such repression. Yet the government’s actions were unsustainable, costly, and temporary. Even after the regime used their “kill switch” to take the country offline, people accessed the Internet through smart phone services and international service providers. Furthermore, the government’s actions were incredible costly, with some estimating that the total cost of the blackout to be $90 million dollars or more. Ultimately, the blackout lasted only a few days, and culminated with Mubarak’s announcement that he would not run again, an undeniable success for antigovernment activists.

There may be limits to social media, but they are few and far between. Each and every day, we see the world’s most popular news organizations providing interactive maps of the day’s street protests, uploading videos made by locals and journalists on the ground, and providing background information to once-uninformed followers across the world about the past and present of Mubarak’s rule and repression. Facebook groups and Twitter posts have aided in alerting activists as to the whereabouts of protests and meetings.

Further complicating matters, the American government has thrown its hat into the ring, in an attempt to preserve its vital alliances with regional allies. The United States and many powerful European countries advocate for a gradual transition to democratic rule led by Mubarak’s appointed successor, Omar Suleiman, in contrast to antigovernment activists who demand the immediate resignation of all those associated with the Egyptian regime. With many of the world’s leading governments now opposing the demands of local activists, we will soon learn just how far the power of the street can take a revolution.

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