Lessons in Social Media from Egyptian Protesters

A few days ago the NYTimes ran a fas­ci­nat­ing ear­ly look-back at the rela­tion­ship between social media and the largely-nonviolent rev­o­lu­tion in Egypt writ­ten by David D Kirk­patrick and David E Sanger. I doubt we’ve seen the last twist and turn of this tumul­tuous time but as I write this, the world sighs relief that long­time auto­crat Hos­ni Mubarak is final­ly out. Most of the quotes and inside knowl­ege came via Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civ­il engi­neer and a lead­ing orga­niz­er of the April 6 Youth Move­ment, who became an activist in 2005.

Les­son One: Years in the Making

The Times starts off by point­ing out that the “blog­gers lead the way” and that the “Egypt­ian revolt was years in the mak­ing.” It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that these things don’t come out of nowhere. Blog­gers have been active for years: lead­ing, learn­ing, mak­ing mis­takes and col­lect­ing knowl­edge. Many of the first round of blog­gers were ignored and repressed. Some of them were effec­tive­ly neu­tral­ized when they were co-opted into what the Times calls “the timid, legal­ly rec­og­nized oppo­si­tion par­ties.” “What destroyed the move­ment was the old par­ties,” said one blog­ger. A les­son we might draw for that is that blog­ging isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a step­ping stone to “real activism” but is instead it’s own kind of activism. The cul­ture of blogs and main­stream move­ments are not always compatible.

Les­son Two: Share Your Experiences

The Egypt­ian protests began after ones in Tunisia. The con­text was not the same: “The Tunisians faced a more per­va­sive police state than the Egyp­tians, with less lat­i­tude for blog­ging or press free­dom, but their trade unions were stronger and more inde­pen­dent.” Still, it was impor­tant to share tips: “We shared our expe­ri­ence with strikes and blog­ging,” a blog­ger recalled. Some of the tips were exceed­ing­ly prac­ti­cal (how to avert tear gas – brought lemons, onions and vine­gar, appar­ent­ly) and oth­ers more social (shar­ing tor­ture expe­ri­ences). Les­son: we all have many things to learn. It’s best to be ready for counter-tactics.

One of the inter­est­ing side­lights was how the teach­ings of Amer­i­can non­vi­o­lence strate­gist Gene Sharp made it to Cairo. A Ser­bian youth move­ment had based their rebel­lion on his tac­tics and the Egyp­tians fol­lowed their lead, with exiled orga­niz­ers set­ting up a web­site (warn­ing: annoy­ing sound) com­pil­ing Sharp’s strategies:

For their part, Mr. Maher and his col­leagues began read­ing about non­vi­o­lent strug­gles. They were espe­cial­ly drawn to a Ser­bian youth move­ment called Otpor, which had helped top­ple the dic­ta­tor Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic by draw­ing on the ideas of an Amer­i­can polit­i­cal thinker, Gene Sharp. The hall­mark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that non­vi­o­lence is a sin­gu­lar­ly effec­tive way to under­mine police states that might cite vio­lent resis­tance to jus­ti­fy repres­sion in the name of stability.

As an aside, I have to say that as a longterm peace activist, it tick­les me no end to see Gene Sharp’s ideas at the heart of the Egypt­ian protests. Amer­i­ca real­ly can export democ­ra­cy sometimes!

Les­son Three: Be Relent­less in Con­fronting Lies

The Times reports that Maher “took spe­cial aim at the dis­tor­tions of the offi­cial media.” He told them that when peo­ple “dis­trust the media then you know you are not going to lose them. When the press is full of lies, social media takes on the fact check­ing role. Peo­ple turn to inde­pen­dent sources when they sense a pro­pa­gan­da machine. The cre­ator of a Face­book site was a Google mar­ket­ing exec­u­tive work­ing on his own. He filled the site We Are all Khaled Said “with video clips and news­pa­per arti­cles [and] repeat­ed­ly ham­mered home a sim­ple message.”

Les­son Four: Don’t Wait for Those Sup­posed To Do This Work

Most of this social media was cre­at­ed by stu­dents for good­ness sake and it all relied on essentially-free ser­vices. Everyone’s always thought that if Egypt were to explode it would be the dreaded-but-popular Mus­lim Broth­er­hood that would lead the charge. But they didn’t. They scram­bled not know­ing what to do as protests erupt­ed in the major cities. Even­tu­al­ly the Brotherhood’s youth wing joined the protests and the full orga­ni­za­tion fol­lowed suit but it was not the lead­ers in any of this.

When we’re talk­ing about pop­u­lar orga­ni­zat­ing, mon­ey and estab­lished cre­den­tials aren’t always an advan­tage. What’s inter­est­ing to learn with the Egypt protests is that the gen­er­a­tion lead­ing it doesn’t seem to have as strict a reli­gious world­view as its par­ents. This came out most dra­mat­i­cal­ly in the images of Chris­t­ian Egyp­tians pro­tect­ing their Mus­lim broth­ers in Tahir Square dur­ing times of prayer. This is hav­ing ram­i­fi­ca­tion in copy­cat protests in Tehran. Iran­ian lead­ers tried to paint the Egypt­ian stu­dents as heirs to their own Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion but it seems prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions are more impor­tant than set­ting up an Islamist state (stay tuned on this one – protests have begun in Tehran on one hand and the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood might well take over from Egypt pro­test­ers now that Mubarak is out).

On a per­son­al note…

It’s inter­est­ing to watch how the three-year old Save St Mary’s cam­paign has mim­ic­ked some of the fea­tures of the Egypt­ian protests. Their blog has been pret­ty relent­less in expos­ing the lies. It’s attract­ed far more media atten­tion than the professionally-staffed Dioce­san press office has been able to muster. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes talk­ing with church­es in oth­er regions to com­pare tac­tics and antic­i­pate counter-moves. As far as I know it’s one of sev­en church­es nation­wide with round-the-clock vig­ils but it’s the only one with a strong social media com­po­nent. It’s aver­age age is prob­a­bly a gen­er­a­tion or two younger than the oth­er vig­ils which gives it a cer­tain frank style that’s not found else­where. The Philadel­phia Arch­dio­cese is explod­ing now with arrests of recent Dioce­san offi­cials and rev­e­la­tions from the Dis­trict Attore­ny that dozens of priests with “cred­i­ble accu­sa­tions” of pedophil­ia are still min­is­ter­ing around kids and while church clos­ings and the pedophil­ia scan­dals are not offi­cial­ly con­nect­ed, as a non-Catholic I’m fine admit­ting that they arise from a shared Dioce­san cul­ture of mon­ey and cover-ups. Again, “repeat­ing­ly ham­mer­ing home a sim­ple mes­sage” is a good strategy.

Pass the hummus, please, and by the way: are you a fed?

It seems that every day brings new revelations from mainstream media about governmental spying on Americans.

MS-NBC started the ball rolling on the 14th when they informed us that the Pentagon had a database of "protesters including the Raging Grannies and a dozen or so Quakers in Florida":http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10454316. This must have prompted the New York Times to publish a story they had been sitting on for a year: the scoop that Bush had ordered the super-secret "National Security Agency to start evesdropping on Americans":http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/15/politics/15cnd-program.html following the 9/11 terror attacks. It's revelation was an FBI agent's email complaining about "radical militant librarians [who] kick us around":http://www.ala.org/al_onlineTemplate.cfm?Section=alonline&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=111469. Two days later we received the almost-humorous news that the Department of Homeland Security was hard at work monitoring the "Massachusett's inter-library loan system ":http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12 [UPDATE: this has been "revealed to be a hoax":http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12-05/12-24-05/a01lo719.htm by the student]. Trying to outdo the DHS in ridiculous, we learned on the 20th that "the FBI has been infiltrating vegan potlucks":http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/politics/20fbi.html. Today it turns out the "New York City Police Department":http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/22/nyregion/22police.html has been doing its own extensive investigations into protesters. They even apparently staged mock arrests in an attempt to incite violence (their contribution to the self-parody has been to send officers undercover on bicycle protests).

Are we surprised by all this? Well, not really. The fears unleashed after 9/11 ignited a firestorm of paranoia in the ranks of spydom. Nonviolence.org got a call from the U.S. Secret Service when Osama bin Laden posted to the board that he wanted to kill President Bush (well, actually we're pretty certain it was a acne-faced fourteen year old procrastinating on his geometry homework). When I shot "shot photos of a scuffle at a Biodemocracy protest a few months ago":http://www.nonviolence.org/articles/2005/06/biodemocracy_pr.php a Philadelphia police detective was in my office an hour later wanting to see it (the "melee" was harmless except for a policeman with heart conditions who took that moment to have a heart attack).

While some monitoring and prudence is indeed necessary, what ties together the string of stories this week is the randomness of the targets. It's as if the agencies had lost all sense of judgement. Anyone critical of the war (or even mainstream culture: witness the vegans) was considered a threat. All leads were investigated, no matter how silly.

While invading American's privacy is upsetting and unwarranted, the greatest danger is the sheer mass of irrelevant information that's been collected. What's an agency to do with reams of data on bicycle riders and Quakers? Who's watching the flight schools and fertilizer depots while Agent Nincompoop is trading hummus recipes with the cute vegan with the nosering?

Collaring the Peacniks in Iowa

It’s get­ting “scary in Amerikkka when they start round­ing up peaceniks in Iowa”:www.nytimes.com/2004/02/10/national/10PROT.html
bq. To hear the anti­war pro­test­ers describe it, their forum at a local uni­ver­si­ty last fall was like so many oth­ers they had held over the years. They talked about the non­vi­o­lent philoso­phies of Mahat­ma Gand­hi and the Rev. Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr., they said, and how best to con­vey their feel­ings about iraq into acts of civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. But last week, sub­poe­nas began arriv­ing seek­ing details about the forum’s spon­sor — its lead­er­ship list, its annu­al reports, its office loca­tion –and the event itself.
Mild-mannered pro­test­ers wear­ing 1980s-style Guatemalan cloth­ing, talk­ing about Gand­hi and climb­ing the fences of Nation­al Guard bases are not a threat to state of Iowa. But this kind of strong-arm tac­tic is a clear threat free speech and a clear act of intim­i­da­tion to those who might join the peace move­ment. How sad. Unfor­tu­nate­ly I know lots of peo­ple who are already afraid to speak out to loud­ly – this will silence at least some of them.
Of course, it’s hard to get too worked up about Iowa sub­poe­nas, when much more seri­ous civ­il rights vio­la­tions have been going on since the start of the Afghanistan War. The “pris­on­ers of war” down in the Amer­i­can base at “Guan­tanamo Bay have been held with­out charge or tri­al for two years now”:http://web.amnesty.org/pages/guantanamobay-index-eng.