Middle East: revolutions without revolutionaries
For those tiresome oldsters who see social media as nothing more than the decadence of youth or a meaningless pastime, recent events in the Middle East should have been a slap round the head. A rack of nations, led by a new post-TV generation who partake in genuine dialogue with each other, really have changed the world, irrevocably.
But what do we mean by a media revolution? It was not, I believe, a revolution caused by social media but a revolution that took place in the age of social media. To put it another way, social media was a necessary condition for the revolution but not sufficient. This is, therefore, not a new media revolution, but it is a revolution without revolutionaries, just the sheer force of mass participation, first in new media, then on the streets. It is, of course, more complex than this, so how did the different social media build into a tsunami of discontent and action?
Stage 1: Blogs (despots despised)
Social media gave young people in the Middle East access to the downside of dictatorships– the nepotism, cronyism and corruption of specific ruling families. These revolutions were first fuelled by bloggers who exposed the excesses of the autocrats, along with their wives, sons and relatives. In Tunisia, Ben Ali’s wife and even her nephews were targeted by bloggers and became figures of hate. The Mubarak’s, Gadaffis, Khalifas, House of Saud and others have been exposed in a similar manner. Even the King of Jordan’s wife Rania is under pressure due to her political interference. It is the dynastic nature of these families that are so resented, with father setting up son for power and significant portions of their nations’ wealth being given to friends and relatives. There is nowhere to hide as wikileaks, foreign publications and outside revolutions leak into their countries.
I also don’t believe that this was a Facebook or Twitter revolution. Social media in this type of politics has a certain causality. First the bloggers, who are real activists, with real voices, reporting excesses and explaining in some depth over a long period, the underbelly of the society in which they work and live. They are often the first to be harassed, detained even imprisoned. They act as the unofficial press as the official press are under state control or operate under fear. At this stage Facebook links back to blogs, spreading the word about who’s hot, what’s hot and channels traffic back to bloggers and blog posts.
Stage 2: Facebook (groups emerge)
It’s only much later, when enough heat has been generated, that Facebook is used as an organisational device. It’s a medium in which protest Facebook ‘groups’ grow around causes, martyrs and events. The role of a martyr kicks in, where the images and reports of a suicide (Mohammed Bouazizi) become triggers for groups. At this point the date of a demonstration, for example, is amplified by Facebook, but another medium takes over.
Stage 3 Twitter (street mob)
Dates for demonstrations become twitter triggers, as in the#Jan25 hashtag for the Egyptian demos. Then, as real events on the street unfold, Twitter kicks in with its real-time feed of events; the violence, deaths, more dates for demonstrations. This is when others outside of the country watch, learn and contribute through internationally known hashtags.
So it’s a cascade effect; blogs are individuals, Facebook groups and Twitter the mob.
Stage 4: Denial and shurtdown (Old minds & media)
The ‘media-gap’ between the rulers and the young they rule is immense. The telephone was a novelty when these despots were young and you can’t imagine that they’ve ever used email, never mind social media. In media terms they are archers in the age of gunpowder. Before television Radio in the Middle East was widely used both to unite and disparage others across the Arab world. But it was within an older oral tradition. Halim Barakat describes this expressive style as rhetorical, aggressive and mocking. We saw this on the TV speeches delivered by Mubarak, Suleiman and Ghadaffi . They were patronising and part of an old media model of broadcasting in an ‘adult to child’ fashion. But the world has moved on and this language seemed patronising and out of touch. Young people saw right through it all, as they have grown up with a different, straight speaking model, that is more dialogue than monologue.
The pro-Mubaraks used state television, physically guarding it night and day to put their case. When they saw that they were failing they moved from defence to attack, arresting journalists and closing down Al Jazeera and Nilesat for a full 11 days. (There is no love lost between Mubarak and Qatar.) This attack closed down the internet and mobile networks but the web is like water, it just flows round these obstacles, with alternative routes from tech savvy youngsters defying the ban. Twitter activists even invented speech to text technology for Tweets to get round the Twitter ban. In the end Al Jazeera had to use the web to stream live images. This was as much a media battle as a street revolution.
Stage 4: Action (Youtube)
This is when media start to take a back seat and real people take real action to effect change. It has a different dynamic in different countries. Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly with relatively little bloodshed. Libya is already a civil war and a bloodbath. Bahrain is taking longer. Iran literally living on the edge of revolt. Saudi oppressing everyone as usual, but being forced to make reforms, for the moment in terms of bribes. Jordan has already made changes. They are ALL under pressure to change.
At this point YouTube and the distribution of video, and photographs through the whole media landscape come into their own. Even TV depends, at this stage, on activist journalism, to show what’s happening on the ground, as the state can simply control TV channels. However, at this stage, new media is no longer the prime mover, it is in reporting mode.
Libya - Wikipedia revolution
It’s been fashionable for some, like Malcolm Gladwell, Chomsky, and George Siemens to dismiss the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Well, I place the testimony of those young Arabs over these scoffing, North American writers and academics, who are somewhat distanced from these events. I’ve written about the role of social media in the Arab Spring before but only recently spoken to Libyans who explained how it was somewhat different there.
Al Jazeera had already played a significant role in Tunisia and Egypt, and it was the Al Jazeera Live blog that fuelled initial interest in the early events in Libya. Although this was often 8-10 hours out of date, it was something. The whole revolution had kicked of quite suddenly, so everyone, the media included were taken by surprise. Eventually other sites became the main source of live news, in particular people turned to the Libyan Youth Movement and Libya Feb 17th sites for blogs that were both credible and up to date. These sites aggregated news from lots of different media and social media sites.
Twitter bypasses Facebook
In this case, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Facebook was bypassed by Twitter. There were immediate uprisings in a number of locations as it turned into an armed conflict, so less need for specific groups around a cause or demonstration. What the country needed was lots of immediate and specific information from the front line. Before long they were literally asking people of they knew how to drive captured tanks. Twitter links to video were a detailed source of events as they unfolded on several fronts. Eventually, as Gaddaffi troops were captured or killed, they found that their phones showed atrocities, which in turn were shown through Twitter links and Youtube. Interestingly Gaddafi’s name proved useless as a tag as it has so many different spellings. Twitter was even used as a source of information and co-ordinates for NATO, direct from the frontline, leading to more accurate bombing.
Wikipedia – what a surprise
Now here was the real surprise, good old Wikipedia became a focal point as a map showing towns and villages updated from green (Gaddaffi) to grey (contact), blue (fighting), zigzag (urban fighting) brown (taken). In addition, the countries that supported the new regime were coloured in on a world map, as they came on board. Who would have thought – Wikipedia contributing to a revolution.
Sky and Al Jazeera were the real heroes as they got to the frontline and stayed there with some hardcore reporting, even shoving microphones into Gaddaffi’s face. The BBC started well as they moved along the north coast from Benghazi, but they soon faded making the wrong calls on location (going south) and getting holed up in Tripoli. CNN was just hopeless.
Media and mediums are the message
Lastly, there’s no social media without a ‘medium’ and in all this talk about Facebook and Twitter, the simple fact that the internet, computers, laptops and especially mobiles, are the real lifeblood of the revolution. The growth of mobiles on the back of cheap tariffs has been phenomenal in these markets. The mobile phone is powerful, portable and personal. It records images and video and can be used to report from the scene itself. Remember that twitter during the Egyptian uprising could only operate once voice to text was available.
The process described above does not apply when social media is shut down, as in Libya. In this case YouTube and mobile recorded video leaked to TV plays a bigger role. We have seen this in Libya and Syria with the astonishing scenes of people being gunned down in Deraa and Sanamayn, where the shooting is seen and heard, then the dead clearly and deliberately shown to mobile cameras. This resulted in even more protests in Homs, Tafa, and astonishingly, as it is near the birthplace of Assad, Latakia. Interestingly, free access to social media has become a negotiating point with Assad in Syria, as it has become one of the key demands of the protesters.
Role of Arabic
Another important feature of the Arab world is it's common language - Arabic. Information needs no translation across the region. News spreads fast, very fast indeed. These countries also have large numbers of nationals from other Arab countries living and working within their borders. In the Gulf states this is acute, with some countries having more foreign nationals than locals. This leads to greater cross-pollination.
I’ve travelled a fair bit in the Middle East over the last ten years, especially in the last year, and what I’ve always loved about the region is the people. Now that those people have been given a voice, through social media, we need to listen, understand and give them all the support they need.