If the Beatles’ wrote the song “Revolution 1” today, it might start out more like this: “So you tweet you want a revolution.”
Throughout its short lifetime, social media has evolved faster than any other form of communication. It started out as a way for people to present themselves online and communicate efficiently, but eventually morphed into a necessary medium of communication for companies to personally interact with their target audiences.
In early 2011, social media proved its potential as a useful tool for political activists and revolutionaries. This was no more prevalent than with the conditions that led to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.
Tweets and Facebook posts about Egypt’s revolution cluttered many people’s newsfeeds throughout January and February 2011. Hundreds of Egyptian citizens commented about the events going on in their country and the effects the revolution was having on their personal lives. Before the Internet was shut down in Egypt, social media provided a key source of communication for potential protestors.
“Political scientists might argue that conditions in Egypt drove the street protests that precipitated Mubarak’s fall from power,” said Carlton Wood, an account supervisor at Lewis Communications in Birmingham, Ala. “But it is commonly agreed that stories, videos, protest locations and other critical information shared instantly through social media helped accelerate the revolution in Egypt.”
The new tool
For Egyptian revolutionaries, social media became a useful tool for increasing awareness, creating an international following and organizing initial protests.
The success of nearby Tunisia’s revolution two weeks before Egypt’s uprising helped motivate Egyptians to protest Mubarak’s regime, said Dr. Suzanne Onstine, a professor in The University of Memphis’ history department.
“Egypt’s internal media is not exactly reliable and so getting news about events from people actually in Tunisia via social media was critical for motivation,” Onstine said.
Before protesting started on January 25, social media was used as a way to increase awareness of Egypt’s unstable condition. Several revolutionary groups posted videos and photos that highlighted incidents in Egypt, Onstine said.
“These no doubt motivated people and played a key role in informing people of things the government tried to cover up, fueling already great discontent with the regime,” Onstine said.
Along with promoting general awareness of Egypt’s situation, social media was key in creating an international following of the Egyptian revolution. Before the Internet was shut down in Egypt, people across the world kept up-to-date with the situation through either social media or the news.
Posts and tweets provided quick information for people outside of the country. Through this medium, personal views, which can be difficult for news stations to portray, were highlighted. This worldwide sense of Egypt’s condition seemed to strengthen after Mubarak switched off Egypt’s Internet.
“There was a sense that without Egyptian [Facebook] and Twitter updates everyone felt so cut off from the situation and desperate for any crumb of inside information,” Onstine said. “The major news outlets could not give them enough content, or the right content or reliable content. Traditional media was clearly not enough in many ways.”
Before the Internet blackout, Egyptians used social media to help organize protests. Through Facebook and Twitter, protestors informed the public about the time and location of each protest throughout Egypt.
“In the beginning, or organizing days, it was a way to quickly advertise planned protests and to quickly make adjustments in location,” Onstine said.
Due to the Internet crack down by Mubarak’s regime, organizing mass protests via social media in the later phases of the revolution became impossible. However, this did not stop determined protestors.
“Some of those people with media connections could get images and video out through that means,” Onstine said. “People were calling out on landlines and friends outside Egypt were reposting on Facebook what had been said in the conversations.”
Social media didn’t play the largest role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak; however, it was very influential to the revolutionary process. Its potential effect could be seen by how quickly Mubarak was removed from office.
“The French revolution took three years, the American revolution lasted eight years and it took Castro six years to overthrow Batista in Cuba,” Wood said. “Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian government were toppled in 18 days.”
In future political upheavals, social media platforms could potentially play a key role. Social platforms will not cause any future revolutions; however, they will help protestors and revolutionaries increase awareness, organize events and create a united sense of the movement.
“As long as people are on social media, they will use it for political purposes, whether that is revolution, to encourage voting for particular candidates or parties, or to just generally get the word out about tragedies and victories,” Onstine said. “Because many places do not have free and independent press traditions, people are skeptical of anything except personal anecdotal experiences, which is exactly what social media relates.”