I am going to Tahrir Square
(A post on Facebook, days before the Egyptian revolution)
A Facebook event page called upon users to participate in January 25: Egypt Day of Anger; a demonstration against the Egyptian totalitarian regime, rising food prices, poverty and unemployment. A Jordanian blogger reflected after the revolution that, at the time, it seemed absurd that a nation-wide demonstration was being organized on Facebook.
“The concept was out of touch with reality, being organized by Egypt’s tiny middle class” (Assi, 2011).In a country with a 16.6% Internet usage, online mobilization hardly seems like the optimum method to reach the population. Word spread, however, and as a multitude of users joined the facebook page, the January 25th event became a reality online and offline, through word of mouth, phone, text messaging, and whatever other forms news disperse. January 25th was a Day of Anger indeed. Thousands across Egypt took to the streets, emboldened and motivated by the Tunisian success in overthrowing their president ( an uprising that also heavily utilized Facebbook and Twitter). Leaders of opposition demanded the immediate resignation of the Egyptian president Husni Mubarak. The peaceful demonstrations turned violent when the security forces engaged with the demonstrators and violence commenced, enraging the entire nation. The people stood their ground.
The Egyptian authorities quickly counteracted the rebellion’s movements using their own medium of choice; they blocked the Internet. Activists no longer had access to social technologies and blogs to organize and report in real time over every happening on the ground to other Egyptians
and the outside world. Text messages and mobiles phones
were also blocked. The online activist community, however, would not stand for it. The tech savvy found various ways to bypass the Internet lock down using proxies and third party
apps. Google and Twitter quickly launched a new Speak-to-
Tweet services to assist the people of Egypt in their struggle
for freedom, allowing those who still had some form of voice connection to call in and leave a voice message to be displayed
as a tweet under #egypt. Social networking sites served to broadcast the alternative points of views of the rebels, and
to counter the one-sided coverage of prevalent national mainstream media. Those perusing daily updates on the revolution turned to Facebook and Twitter (mainly the latter)
for actual, on the ground, real time news. Facts that could not,
or would not, have been presented by mainstream media were voraciously presented in short brief statements, a hundred
and forty characters long. The voice of the people was not to
be silenced. The demonstrations escalated into a full-fledged revolution, and a thirty year old reign was ousted within
eighteen days of bloodshed and violence.
The recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia brought to the surface a raging debate concerning the role of new media in contemporary society. The heated arguments between ‘cyber-utopians’ and ‘cyber-skeptics’ explore the depth to which new media has been utilized in the revolution that toppled a
dictator’s regime; Were Facebook and Twitter fundamental in the revolution? Or were they mere tools appropriated by the tech-savvy youth determined to put an end to a lifetime of oppression? This conflict, however, reveals a far more elemental enigma; in an alternative context of activism, participatory culture has resided at the core of activist movements, in an ongoing initiative to vocalize the dissent and concerns of the general population,
and end despotic authoritarian rule and practices. The current adoption of DIY publishing platforms is consistent with the methods of activism, however, the magnitude of online media disintegrate the traditional, professional journalistic trade. Concern for credibility and authoritative content is on the rise among the media critics. Compromised privacy in digital media have also been deliberated expansively amongst activist initiatives themselves.
The ease and speed offered by modern day technologies to engage an audience cultivate a prime opportunity to achieve a collaboration unprecedented in modern history. In the age of an informational overload, one can not deny the colossal effects the technological advancements have made on our culture. Dubbed as the information culture, the term may be elaborated into a culture that is situated within an ‘information milieu’, an environment that is based on the constant flow of information. New media, ie. social networks, blogging platforms, wikis, aggregators…etc. are the manifestation of a culture immersed in the surge of information. The information quality of our culture may be attributed not to the increase in information exchange, but perhaps to culture taking on informational aspects onto its modes of interactions (Terranova, 2004).
New media is articulated as the communication channels
and devices used for communication, the communication methods and processes themselves, and the social contexts that are established around them (Lievrouw, 2011). Immediacy and hypermediacy characterize new media and distinguishes
it from more conventional media. Another new media trait hailed by the digitopians is freedom of speech and expression; the right to produce, create and publish, facilitated by the immediacy and ubiquity of the Internet and new media.
Leah Livrouw defines alternative/activist new media as media that ‘employ or modify the communication artefacts, practices and social arrangements of new information and communication technologies to challenge or alter dominant, expected or accepted ways of doing society, culture, and
politics’ The author goes on to proclaim that “alternative/
activist new media projects do not only reflect or critique mainstream media and culture, the constitute and intervene
in them” (Lievrouw, 2011).
Participatory culture in alternative media makes extensive
use of citizen journalism, among other methods . Citizen journalism, undertaken by nonprofessional journalists , ‘citizens’ as a means of online reporting and publishing, analysing and disseminating information , is a form of participatory journalism often used by activist media. Citizen journalism, in essence, is independent from media monopolies and corporate culture, and produces a shift in information balance within the global community as it re-evaluates and deliberates professionalism and accuracy. (Coyer, Dowmunt & Fountain 2007).
Among the earliest adopters of new media and participatory journalism was Indymedia, or Independent Media Center (IMC). Indymedia is a grassroots movement consisting of a network of autonomous collectives of activists and concerned citizens. Indymedia propagate ‘freedom, cooperation, justice and solidarity, and against environmental degradation, neoliberal exploitation, racism and patriarchy.’ (www.indymedia.org.uk) They aim to circumvent the traditional divide of journalists and newsmakers on one side, and a passive, voiceless audience on the other. The general umbrella under which each Indymedia center operates is localized and expanded upon to serve each center’s objectives and missions as appropriate to their location and current needs. Indymedia was considered revolutionary at the time the first web site was put up in 1999 for the use of direct media (Lievrouw, 2011), allowing any interested individual to publish news, updates, and articles unto the Indymedia site through the use of open-publishing platforms, as long as the users adhere to the general guidelines and values of Indymedia. The site was constructed to respond to the need for a meeting point for activists with similar agendas that was private and secure (postings can be done anonymously), accessible, and allowing for instantaneous reporting. Indymedia’s website also serves as an archive for activist events and articles, aggregating a wealth of data that traces online and offline contributions to the various initiatives involving Indymedia.
The traffic and contributions to Indymedia’s website have subsided recently, due to a migration of users to the more omnipresent Facebook and Twitter and other mainstream web sites. Unlike Indymedia’s community, made up relatively of like-minded individuals, social networks offer a larger, more diverse audience. Although Facebook and Twitter API’s (application programming interface) allow for integration into other websites, in which information and feeds may be extracted and placed into the programming of another software/site, Indymedia displays a reluctance to employ the more mainstream platforms, for the lack of security on these web applications, which puts their more vocal members at risk. Private information concerning the users of Facebook, Google and other social network sites is utilized for sponsored ads and demographic analysis. These platforms, despite their ‘free’ participatory nature, are corporate institutions, with financial interests reigning supreme, going against the Indymedia ideologies. The Indymedia London website advises its members to transfer to other publishing sites with more secure and private coding, such as Riseup and Diaspora, a new social networking site that serves as a direct response to Facebook’s questionable privacy and authorship practices. Indymedia London’s web site itself has incorporated various social networking features, using their own code “hyperactive” to integrate new media applications within their own framework. Users of Indymedia London made extensive use of the new features during the recent UK UNCUT demonstrations, reporting directly from the streets on March 26 to share images, vital information and news as the day went by.
Indymedia’s concern for the privacy of its users is not unfounded. Invasion of digital privacy and the monitoring of free speech is becoming standard operating procedures for mainstream corporate institutions and governmental security agencies. Freedom has never been so closely monitored and regulated as it is today.
What is more disconcerting is the use of media to track and monitor individuals. IP addresses, email addresses, Facebook friends and tweet feeds are subject to tight surveillance. During the Iranian protests in 2009, twitter was actively used for communication amongst the demonstrators. An official in the US state department had requested Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance on the site so that the communication among rebels will not be hindered. Taken as a stamp of approval from the west, Iranian authorities latched on to the technology and, assuming that any user is affiliated with the anti-authority movement, was able to not only pinpoint protest leaders, but also incarcerated other bloggers and Twitter users for the mere use of social networks, whether to post against the government or not (Morozov, 2011). The manipulation of new media is not relegated only to governmental institutions. Corporate conglomerates also have a stake in the information privacy war. Wikipedia’s entries are edited on a daily basis, the tone and facts may be changed according to the intent and agenda of the author at any given moment. Wal Mart and Mcdonalds entries are frequently utilized as PR propaganda, with any unfavourable content removed anonymously (Keen, 2007).
Media critics deem that the activist choice of citizen journalism to publish comes at a hefty price. The lack of hierarchy and authority in publishing results in an absence of editing and corroboration necessary to induce trust with the reader. Professional journalists have years of training and experience and established sources at their disposal. Operating under a respectable news agency’s name, the reader has faith in the coverage and articles he consumes (Keen, 2007). Advocates of institutional media warn that reliance on amateur reporting will effectively diminish democracy, due to its lack of credibility and subjectivity, not to mention accountability. According to J.D Lasicia (2003, cited in Lievrouw, 20011) participatory journalism should be a process, whereby a conversation is mediated by professional journalist between news makers and audiences “a conversation is not 1,000 people shouting at once”.
Andrew Keen paints a grim picture of the social repercussions of new media; a lack of professionalism and a veneration of the ‘amateur’ and the tolls paid by professionals such as professional journalists and artists. ‘the real consequence of Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information …one chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation, and even disappearance of truth’ (Keen, 2007). As hierarchy and authoritative content is relatively decimated, and more versions of untraceable or unauthenticated versions of ‘truth’ are diffused into the electronic ether, truth simply becomes a matter of personal choice. Keen illustrates this notion with a highly publicised amateur spoof video; Al Gore’s Army of Penguins, which ridicules Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The spoof went viral on YouTube, and was assumed to be the work of an amateur. It was however traced back by the Wall Street Journal to DCI Group, a conservative PR Agency, whose client list included Exxon (Keen, 2007).
Evgeny Morozov sardonically observes ‘Tweets were sent. Dictators were toppled. Internet = democracy. QED.’ Morozov and Malcom Gladwell (2011) recently enraged cyber enthusiasts with their ardent proclamations against over dramatization of social networks and the Internet’s role in the revolutions in the Middle East and elsewhere. Both critics concur that the Internet is an effective tool in the hands of activists to organize and publicise their endeavours, but real world interactions and physical risk to the activist should not be downplayed to elevate the roles of the digital tools.
Advocates of new media run the risk of losing sight of the messages conveyed and the larger social context in which they operate in favour of the technology itself. Citizen journalism’s effects on democracy are under scrutiny; transparency and a proliferation of the voice of the people, across various pulpits and background is essential. On the other hand, critical discourse over the content produced itself raises serious issues over credibility and authorship. A necessary measure of precaution and awareness is now required to evade information chaos, to empower the reader to procure a valid judgement over truth and accurate representation of fact, as opposed to hyperbole and impassioned opinion or outright falsifications that serve personal interests.