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‘If you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet’

By Tom Watson on February 14, 20112 Comments

I’ve had a few notes from friends over the last two weeks that all ran along the lines of “this is CauseWired coming to life!” meaning Egypt and seemingly-spontaneous January 25th uprising, which deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak today. Yet I hesitated at accepting congratulations for the foresight of my 2008 book on the rise of online social activism. I’m not a cyber-utopian of the version identified in Evgeny Morozov’s excellent book Net Delusion, which offers a darker digital vision that – in some ways – balances the rosier version I set forth two years ago ago in my book CauseWired, which chronicled digital activism through the first half of ‘08 (ancient history now). And I was deeply affected by the arguments in Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, my pick for non-fiction book of 2010, particularly his dystopian vision of anonymous hackers serving as judge and jury for individuals, companies, and governments well outside of the participatory social commons.

Yet, Egypt is clearly a massive social media success, a world event that would not have been as speedy without digital communications – and may not have happened at all without the Internet. The revolution is just as clearly a product of two social factors beyond poverty and the desire for freedom – and those are demographics and digital communications. When Mubarak blacked out the Internet for five days in the wake of the initial protests, the streets filled and some observers said it proved that the uprising wasn’t a product of social media. But that ignored three years of organizing, including heavy use of both Facebook and YouTube. And Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who organized the original Facebook group that started this, is absolutely the face of the driving demographic force at work: he’s 30, totally wired, and seeking economic and social freedom. Ghonim deeply believed syllable today when he said with evident emotion: “If you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet.” So yes, this revolution was causewired.

Fittingly, Ghonim laid a bouquet of thanks at the steps of Facebook headquarters – for it was Facebook that served as a crucial tool in unifying young, professional, wired Egyptians. Here’s TechCrunch:

Ghonim was believed to have hosted the first Facebook page that organized the January 25th protests. When Blitzer asked “Tunisia, then Egypt, what’s next?,” Ghonim replied succinctly “Ask Facebook.” He went on to personally thank Mark Zuckerberg, and said he’d love to meet Facebook’s CEO. Ghonim says that he’s looking forward to getting back to his work at Google but he plans to write a book, “Revolution 2.0″ about the role of social media and the internet in political demonstration.

In the first week of the revolt, there was the usual rush to proclaim it yet another “Twitter revolution” – though Twitter was mainly a wonderful news source and external amplifier rather than a revolutionary weapon in this instance. Then came the predictable backlash. As Geoff Livingston wrote in the last week of January:

There’s a whole camp of Malcolm Gladwell-esque voices who bitterly claim only revolutionaries make revolts, social media has no valuable role in the discussion. To deny the use of new tools as exciting and noteworthy in a revolution is a mistake. It’s the equivalent of shooting the messenger, the poor soul carrying information between warring parties.

Exactly so. And knee-jerk anti-utopian reactions also ignored the years of organizing and work that created the canvas upon which the revolution was painted. As I wrote last week, connected young Egyptians like citizen journalist Noha Atef have been chronicling human rights abuses in Egypt for years, and disseminating the information via Facebook and YouTube. So NYU journalism professor and digital news evangelist Jay Rosen got the bullet point precisely right when he tweeted today: “To call it a Twitter Revolution: idiotic. That social media had NOTHING to do with it: … equally idiotic.”

Of course, there’s a temptation for all observers to think they’ve “got it” when a major event like Egypt unfolds. (Consultants may suffer from this tendency in greater numbers). So I’ll close with this bit of wisdom from Al Giordano, who trains citizen journalists for a living when he’s not reporting on politics in our hemisphere:

We all have a lot to learn from these heroes of our time, the multi-generational, ecumenical, multi-cultural participants in the civil resistance of Egypt. Now is not the hour to tell them what they must do or what solution they can or cannot accept. Now is the hour to listen, look, learn from and study their moves, and apply them to our own lands and struggles.
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  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lauren Nelson and diamond, Yssel & Son's. Yssel & Son's said: 'If you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet' [...]

  • David S says:

    The keyword here is “tool”.

    Facebook and other social media tools are great place to build mass and organize but, from a marketing perspective, it is not an influential tool per se.

    In this case offline drove online – the Tunisian Revolution was, in my opinion, the catalyst that drove support –and anger – for a revolution in Egypt. Without it Jan 25th would probably not have happened. Of course a brutally oppressive government coupled with extremely high unemployment had a lot to do with it as well.

    Facebook was great as a gathering place to coordinate events but it did not create a revolution out of thin air, nor did it persuade people who did not want a revolution to have one. It took many events, many sacrifices of nameless people, some taking years, to took place before it. The revolution would of indeed happen, whether or not there was social media.

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