You tweet you want a revolution

US researcher maps out role of social media in Egyptian rebellion after talking to the people who made it happen.

Twitter page of Sohaib Athar 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Twitter page of Sohaib Athar 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was undisputed master over Egypt for close to three decades, but less than 18 days after the first protesters dared to gather in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to challenge his rule he was gone.
The protests and strikes that ousted the president were by no means the first in Egypt, but they were the first where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media played a big role in spreading information and mobilizing the public. Researchers are now at work trying to figure out how it succeeded.
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Ramesh Srinivasan says the answers aren’t as simple as either social media skeptics or Twitter’s true believers assert. An assistant professor at the University of California in Los Angeles specializing in social media, he spent a month in Egypt talking to the people who made the revolution and even witnessed social media in action during protests at the end of June.
What he found was a finely wrought triangle – one side being the tiny minority of people using smart phones, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook; the second the traditional mass media; and third the great majority of Egyptians who have little or no access to the Internet at all. Without all three, the Egyptian revolution would have been very different, or perhaps not at all.
“The fact that events get put onto YouTube and Twitter and get picked up instantly by [the satellite television networks] Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabia gives social media a huge ability to reach millions of people in a very short news cycle,” Srinivasan told The Media Line.
Figuring out the dynamics of social media and revolution is important for grassroots activists, who can learn how to best employ it in the future, as well as for governments trying to keep a lid on dissent. The mass media, which increasingly rely on Tweets and YouTube uploads for images and eyewitness accounts, also stand to learn something.
The number of Egyptians with any access to social media tools is a tiny but critical minority. About six million Egyptians were registered with Facebook in the first quarter of 2011, the time when protests were raging across Egypt, but that is only about 5% of the population, according to the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report published in May.
Twitter usage is even smaller, with only about 130,000 Egyptians registered, but those who tweet have an agenda: Among the most popular hash tags are #Jan25, #egypt, #libya and #bahrain  -- the date of the Egyptian revolution and three of the countries rocked by Arab Spring unrest, the report found.
But that didn’t prevent those with smart phones and Twitter from spreading their message, most effectively through raw footage of protests in action, said Srinivasan.
Most Egyptians don’t have a smart phone or a computer at home – indeed many of the people Srinivasan interviewed didn’t even know what the Internet is – but they do have a television set connected to a satellite dish. That’s where they would see the events unfolding in Tahrir Square or right in their own towns, he said.
“I stayed in shacks made of garbage with satellite dishes on their roofs,” he said. “These dishes were picking up channels and networks not tightly controlled by the state and were sourcing from social media. That's one reason people would go out into the street, because they would see images of their own places and their own people …It was so much more immediate. That inspires action and collective identification.”
Prompted by TV images fed by YouTube and Facebook, people would gather for demonstrations in their neighborhoods. From there, they would wind their way through streets and alleys, picking up more protesters along the way until they multiplied into the hundreds of thousands that filled Tahrir Square, Srinivasan said.
Srinivasan is new to Egypt, but he has spent time on the battlefields of rebellion in Central Asia, India and among Native Americans in the U.S. mapping out the position of social media. He says the Egyptian experience is in many ways unique, because it is part of a wider rebellion across the Arab world.
“Egyptians see themselves as part of the Arab world and a larger Arab movements, the identification with Tunisia was very, very important. They see Tunisia as their brothers but they also see it as a healthy competition.”
Yet, said Srinivasan , the middle class Egyptians who lit the spark of rebellion had very different concerns than the poor and working class people who bulked up the demonstrations. While Mubarak was disliked by almost everyone, Srinivasan said that based on extensive talks with Egyptians from all walks of life, the poor were more concerned with issues like the cost of food and lack of jobs rather than political freedoms that preoccupied the middle class..
“They have views that are not at all representative of the population.” he said.
“Everyone was aligned against the Mubarak regime, but social media users are such a small subset. Their beliefs perceptions, political perspectives don't accord with the larger population. Everyone came to Tahrir Square because they all hated the regime.”
Although Mubarak had stepped down in February, months before Srinivasan arrived for his field research in Egypt, the protests have continued and he was witness to an eruption of police-protester violence June 28 and saw the gap between what was happening and what was being tweeted.
The people giving real-time reports at the rallies tended to stay away from the front line where confrontations occurred with police, he said. Their reports were frequently exaggerated or inaccurate. That helped inflame passions, but it means the media were often getting inaccurate information.
Mubarak was vulnerable to being toppled, but without social media the process would have taken much longer, Srinivasan said.  But it wasn’t crucial: Even after the government cut off Internet service January 26 for five days, protest activity failed to abate. A violent crackdown by the regime would have been more effective, he suggested.
“People were ready to hit the streets, but a huge factor was that the military didn’t gun down the protesters,” he said. “In the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran, in the Green Revolution, and in Syria, we’ve seen that if the military decides to follow the dictators lead tweets aren't going to change that.”