The Tahrir Square tipping point as Revolution 2.0 (2): the mechanics of the Facebook moment

But the lesson of Egypt is that dictators can no longer rely on their victims’ fatalism and despair. Untrammeled Internet access—by which I mean, in practice, Twitter and Facebook—will make blatant tyranny impossible, by revealing the simple frailty of tyrants. Egypt has a mere 4 million Facebook users, only 5% of the population; even if the Mubarak regime survives Mubarak’s departure, imagine what happens when that number hits 50%. It will no longer be possible to convince the oppressed that they are powerless.

Jon Evans describes the pivotal role of the Khaled Said, Facebook page, as a crucial tipping point in the Egyptian uprising. See also the follow-up below this excerpt.

Jon Evans:

“Imagine that you are Egyptian. You are thirty years old and the same man has ruled your country since before you were born. Your world is small, not least because your government censors and monopolizes the media. Official corruption, incompetence(1), and brutality(2) are endemic. While the ruling class enriches itself, 40% of your people live on less than $2/day, and most people’s lives are steadily getting worse.

Do you rise up to fight the government? Of course you don’t. Your rage is drowned out by fear and despair, a fatalistic sense that nothing can be done, that this is just how things are and ever will be, and whoever rises or even speaks against it is doomed. Take Khaled Said, an honest man beaten to death by police he refused to bribe. Egyptians are outraged, but what can they do? Nothing. A Facebook page is created in his memory. Malcolm Gladwell can tell you how irrelevant and inconsequential an act that is.

…Six months later, that Facebook page has accumulated more than half a million followers, and has become an online gathering place for activists. After Tunisia erupts, an online group called the April 6 Movement reaches out to one of that page’s administrators, Wael Ghonim, a 30-year-old Google executive, to ask for help organizing a day of protest. Another administrator asks the page’s followers what they should do. Ideas and plans erupt and snowball. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The great paradox of tyranny is that a very small group of people brutalizes, tortures and steals from millions who, if they rose en masse, could shake off their oppressors. Revolution is simply the realization of this fact. Why did the protestors march to Tahrir Square? To show their strength in numbers. They already knew beforehand, despite the Egyptian’s government’s ongoing attempt to divide and blindfold its people, that the numbers were on their side. They only had to look at the sidebar and comment counts of Khaled Said’s memorial page.

The Internet—in this case, though I hate to admit it, Facebook — lets oppressed people join in outrage, in shared fury and humiliation, in the sense of being part of a single mass of people with a single intent. Where else can you get that, in a blindfolded, fragmented nation? Censored television? Empty newspapers? How else can you look beyond your own life and your own cramped horizon, and realize that you’re part of a movement? It’s possible, Gladwell’s right about that much, but the Internet makes it so much more likely to happen. Simply by linking the oppressed and creating connections, Twitter and Facebook help to stoke the fires of change everywhere.”

Here is another refutation, by ‘Zunguzungu’, of the Malcolm Gladwell argument that social media use is inconsequential, and the dismissal of both the centrality of it in the eyes of the Egyptian revolutionaries and the regime itself, as an example of deep-rooted colonialism and Western elitism.

“In this case, for example, the idea that “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other” is flatly inadequate. Egypt had a grievance for three decades, yet they only started finding a way to communicate and coordinate with each other (on a massive scale) in the last few years. The Egyptian uprising happened when it did for good reasons, and eternal verities about what people will always do give us less than no purchase on that problem. But to even have the conversation about social media starts taking people like Gladwell way out of their comfort zone.

In other words, to understand why the Egyptian revolt happened when it did, we’d have to learn something about Egyptian history, about the Kifaya movement, and about how Egyptians were actually using blogs and facebook. Which would mean that a generalist intellectual about everything (and nothing in particular) like Malcolm Gladwell would suddenly find himself having to listen to a specialist like Charles Hirschkind, or even — ye Gods! — Egyptians themselves. But it’s less about who as what; the source of Hirschkind’s knowledge about how blogs were used to lay the foundation of the Egyptian revolution is, ultimately, not his own Deeply Serious intellect, but the fact that he’s been studying the formations of publics in Egypt for decades now. It’s the fact that Egypt is particular and similar only to itself (and that he’s been paying attention to it) that allows him to weave together this narrative, for example:

What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last 7 or so years is the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere. The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun a somewhat earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of coordination and support between secular leftist organizations and associations, and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood)—a phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Toward the end of the decade of the 90s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years, lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs from the other.

Gladwell can’t take part in this conversation, except by dismissing it. Which is why he must dismiss it: to deal with it on its own terms — a topography of knowledge defined by a meridian set in Cairo — would lead him away from his ability to speak about all people all the time. It would prevent Western Authority from having a monopoly on the truth of all people.

Let me push this even farther. Rosen writes that “everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away,” and this, again, seems right to me, but I think the fear runs deeper than simply a desire to not look foolish or of being wrong. Revolution is scary because it’s unpredictable. Hell, democracy is scarily unpredictable. And respect for democracy will require accepting that the Egyptians might do things we wouldn’t do if we were in their place, choices that may seem — to us — irrational, but only because the source of their rationality is unavailable to us. It will mean accepting the legitimacy of political rationalities we may not share, and which dismissing as “irrational” would only reveal us to be crypto-colonialists, willing to allow them to have democratic choice only between the options we’ve chosen for them.

One of the pitfalls of dubbing this a “facebook revolution” would be if we allowed the social topography in which facebook is used to disappear. The straw man that people like Gladwell invent are doing this, turning Egyptians into tools of their media tools. But this is also precisely what Hirschkind is not doing when he places blogs and facebook in their socio-political context: it is precisely because of pre-existing political problems — the fact that Islamists and secularists were not talking to each other — that blogs and other online organizing platforms, like facebook, could become so useful. Conversations that could not be had in person could be had online, which then led to face-to-face conversations, which then made collaborative action possible.

To build on what seemed to be the consensus of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the importance of social media is particularly to be found in the sense and performance of Egyptian public identity that it enabled, both the identity and political rationality which were suddenly seen to widespread. Routine state terror has been omnipresent for decades, but what we heard over and over again was that a facebook page like “We Are All Khalid Saeed” could became a means of rendering that experience — which so many people silently had in common — something which could be publicly knowable as a common experience. This move — taking something privately experienced, and making it publicly knowable — is a powerful thing.

State terror in Egypt was ubiquitous, but it was not so easily and widely known to be ubiquitous. So however common it might have been, each fact and incident of torture and state violence was mostly knowable as isolated, particular. Which makes sense: in a country whose media was tightly controlled by a dictatorial apparatus, there were few available socially acceptable narratives which could absorb, sustain, and circulate them. Moreover, even if everyone knew that state terror was ubiquitous, they didn’t necessarily know that everyone else knew it too: they might have known that they — and anyone — could suffer the fate of Khalid Saeed, but they didn’t know, for sure, that everyone else knew this as well. In other words, Egyptians might have been united by the fact of being vulnerable to be tortured to death by their government, but the internet allowed them to see and understand that they all understood themselves to be this, that all were united in disgust and rage. This is the fertile seed-bed for revolt: knowing that if you stand in front of a tank, you will not be alone in doing so.

And this is what I think the main function of the “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article, and the ideological function that defines its genre: the disappearance of Egyptian social consciousness as the prime driver of events. Against the straw-man of techno-determinism, someone like Gladwell is enabled to argue that this has nothing to do with what Egyptians think of Egypt, nothing to do with a century of accumulated thought, emotion, identity, and narrated experience — most of which is unavailable to Gladwell, and which most Americans find strange and foreign.”

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