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​.south​coast​to​day​.com/​d​a​i​l​y​/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. Non​vi​o​lence​.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 “mêlée” 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.