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.

From the Vault: More Victims Won’t Stop the Terror (10/2001)

Today is the ninth anniver­sary of the war in Afghanistan. In recog­ni­tion, here’s my Non​vi​o​lence​.org essay from 10/7/2010. It’s all sad­ly still top­i­cal. Nine years in and we’re still mak­ing ter­ror and still cre­at­ing ene­mies.

The Unit­ed States has today begun its war again­st ter­ror­ism in a very famil­iar way: by use of ter­ror. Igno­rant of thou­sands of years of vio­lence in the Mid­dle East, Pres­i­dent George W. Bush thinks that the hor­ror of Sep­tem­ber 11th can be exor­cised and pre­vent­ed by bombs and mis­siles. Today we can add more names to the long list of vic­tims of the ter­ror­ist air­plane attacks. Because today Afghanis have died in ter­ror.

The deaths in New York City, Wash­ing­ton and Penn­syl­va­nia have shocked Amer­i­cans and right­ly so. We are all scared of our sud­den vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. We are all shocked at the lev­el of anger that led nine­teen sui­cide bombers to give up pre­cious life to start such a lit­er­al and sym­bol­ic con­fla­gra­tion. What they did was hor­ri­ble and with­out jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. But that is not to say that they didn’t have rea­sons.

The ter­ror­ists com­mit­ted their atroc­i­ties because of a long list of griev­ances. They were shed­ding blood for blood, and we must under­stand that. Because to under­stand that is to under­stand that Pres­i­dent Bush is unleash­ing his own ter­ror cam­paign: that he is shed­ding more blood for more blood.

The Unit­ed States has been spon­sor­ing vio­lence in Afghanistan for over a gen­er­a­tion. Even before the Sovi­et inva­sion of that coun­try, the U.S. was sup­port­ing rad­i­cal Muja­hadeen forces. We thought then that spon­sor­ship of vio­lence would lead to some sort of peace. As we all know now, it did not. We’ve been exper­i­ment­ing with vio­lence in the region for many years. Our for­eign pol­i­cy has been a mish-mash of sup­port­ing one despotic régime after anoth­er again­st a shift­ing array of per­ceived ene­mies.

The Afghani forces the Unit­ed States now bomb were once our allies, as was Iraq’s Sad­dam Hus­sein. We have rarely if ever act­ed on behalf of lib­er­ty and democ­ra­cy in the region. We have time and again sold out our val­ues and thrown our sup­port behind the most heinous of despots. We have time and again thought that mil­i­tary adven­tur­ism in the region could keep ter­ror­ism and anti-Americanism in check. And each time we’ve only bred a new gen­er­a­tion of rad­i­cals, bent on revenge.

There are those who have angri­ly denounced paci­fists in the weeks since Sep­tem­ber 11th, angri­ly ask­ing how peace can deal with ter­ror­ists. What the­se crit­ics don’t under­stand is that wars don’t start when the bombs begin to explode. They begin years before, when the seeds of hatred are sewn. The times to stop this new war was ten and twen­ty years ago, when the U.S. broke it’s promis­es for democ­ra­cy, and act­ed in its own self-interest (and often on behalf of the inter­ests of our oil com­pa­nies) to keep the cycles of vio­lence going. The Unit­ed States made choic­es that helped keep the peo­ples of the Mid­dle East enslaved in despo­tism and pover­ty.

And so we come to 2001. And it’s time to stop a war. But it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly this war that we can stop. It’s the next one. And the ones after that. It’s time to stop com­bat ter­ror­ism with ter­ror. In the last few weeks the Unit­ed States has been mak­ing new alliances with coun­tries whose lead­ers sub­vert democ­ra­cy. We are giv­ing them free rein to con­tin­ue to sub­ject their peo­ple. Every weapon we sell the­se tyrants only kills and desta­bi­lizes more, just as every bomb we drop on Kab­ul feeds ter­ror more.

And most of all: we are mak­ing new vic­tims. Anoth­er gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren are see­ing their par­ents die, are see­ing the rain of bombs fall on their cities from an uncar­ing Amer­i­ca. They cry out to us in the name of peace and democ­ra­cy and hear noth­ing but hatred and blood. And some of them will respond by turn­ing again­st us in hatred. And will fight us in anger. They will learn our lesson of ter­ror and use it again­st us. They cycle will repeat. His­to­ry will con­tin­ue to turn, with blood as it’s Mid­dle East­ern lubri­cant. Unless we act. Unless we can stop the next war.

Sexual assaults on campus then and now

Back in the late 1980s when I was a Vil­lanova Uni­ver­si­ty under­grad, sex­u­al assault didn’t hap­pen. True sto­ry.

It will sur­prise no one to learn that I co-edited an alter­na­tive, “under­ground” week­ly junior and senior year. We called it the VACUUM, a name whose acronym changed every issue. Read­ing about an ear­ly “date rape” study in my fem­i­nist stud­ies class I extrap­o­lat­ed how many rapes should rea­son­ably be expect­ed to occur on a cam­pus of Villanova’s size. I added a few anec­dotes from my all-male dorm expe­ri­ence and pub­lished it in the VACUUM. A short while lat­er some friends of mine who edit­ed the offi­cial stu­dent paper picked up the sto­ry and even cit­ed an anony­mous quo­ta­tion from me in what is prob­a­bly the only offi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion of the VACUUM’s exis­tence in the V.U. archives.

Right around this time a female stu­dent brought her alle­ga­tions of an on-campus sex­u­al assault to the local police. Cam­pus offi­cials feigned sur­prise and pro­vid­ed the local media with par­rot­ed quotes: “In all my xyz years work­ing here I have nev­er ever heard of an alle­ga­tion of rape.” Chief of Secu­ri­ty, Dean of Stu­dents, etc., all deliv­ered the same line, clear­ly coached by a pub­lic rela­tions team, with only the years changed to reflect their cam­pus tenure. Thou­sands of stu­dents, dozens of years, hun­dreds of frat par­ties, tanker-fulls of cheap beer and not a hint of impro­pri­ety.
Last night I chanced on my alma mater’s web­site and saw a link right there on the home­page to an arti­cle mys­te­ri­ous titled Recent Cam­pus Inci­dent (gener­ic URL, prob­a­bly designed to dis­ap­pear soon). It doc­u­ment­ed an alleged assault on a female stu­dent by three mem­bers of the foot­ball team last mon­th. The announce­ment reports that the Uni­ver­si­ty found them in vio­la­tion of the campus’s Code of Con­duct and “rescind­ed the admis­sion of the three young men.”

A Google News search turns up that this has been exten­sive­ly cov­ered by the media with almost 500 hits. The Del­co Times reports that the 1990 Clery Act and its amend­ments have made uni­ver­si­ty cover-ups ille­gal and required reports and speci­fic pro­to­cols for respond­ing to cam­pus crimes. The cur­rent media spot­light and long-standing fed­er­al laws cer­tain­ly account for much of Villanova’s 2007 enlight­en­ment. What­ev­er the source of change, it’s nice to see. Even three play­ers from the beloved foot­ball team can get the boot (sor­ry, have their admis­sions rescind­ed) for crim­i­nal behav­ior. Bet­ter still, the uni­ver­si­ty can fess up to the crime and take some respon­si­bil­i­ty. The times, they have a’ changed.

Lead-painted toys? Aye-Yeash!

Trains & MessesThe Times has a fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle on the rise of recalls on Chinese-made toys over the last few years. Two of our kid’s “Thomas and Friends” wood­en trains are part of the lat­est recall because of lead paint. We’ve long pre­ferred the met­al Thomas trains since 21-month old Fran­cis chews on the wood­en ones and gnaws their paint off.

We learned about the lead paint­ed Thomas’s on the same day that our fam­i­ly doc­tor told us that it was offi­cial­ly time to become con­cerned with Francis’s slow speech devel­op­ment. When Theo was just a lit­tle old­er than Fran­cis is now we put togeth­er a dic­tio­nary of his vocab­u­lary. Fran­cis makes cute sounds and seems bright and curi­ous but he’s not even got­ten out a con­sis­tent mama or papa and we haven’t been able to fig­ure out a mean­ing for his most com­mon word (Aye – YEASH). He’s got an appoint­ment six months from now with spe­cial­ists at Wilmington’s Nemours (that’s how backed up they are!).

We’re not blam­ing the trains — the lead ones we had were rel­a­tive­ly unpop­u­lar and have few signs of wear. And we’re not pan­ick­ing. My moth­er brush­es off all con­cern with the assured dec­la­ra­tion that kids learn to talk at lots of dif­fer­ent ages. She could cer­tain­ly be right of course: our doc­tor sent us to Nemours for Theo with the wor­ry that he had a big head. If Fran­cis does turn out to be a lit­tle “slow,” well then we’ll just take that as anoth­er lesson plan God has for us.

For other uses, see Light (disambiguation)

Even though my last post was a five min­ute quick­ie, it gen­er­at­ed a num­ber of com­ments. One ques­tion that came up was how aware indi­vid­u­al Friends are about the speci­fic Quak­er mean­ings of some of the com­mon Eng­lish words we use — “Light,” “Spir­it,” etc.(dis­am­bigua­tion in Wiki-speak). Mar­shall Massey expressed sad­ness that the terms were used uncom­pre­hend­ing­ly and I sug­gest­ed that some Friends know­ing­ly con­fuse the gener­ic and speci­fic mean­ings. Mar­shall replied that if this were so it might be a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence based on geog­ra­phy.

If it’s a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence, I sus­pect it’s less geo­graph­ic than func­tion­al. I was speak­ing of the class of pro­fes­sion­al Friends (heavy in my parts) who pur­pose­ful­ly obscure their lan­guage. We’re very good at talk­ing in a way that sounds Quak­er to those who do know our speci­fic lan­guage but that sounds gener­i­cal­ly spir­i­tu­al to those who don’t. Some­times this obscu­ran­tism is used by peo­ple who are repelled by tra­di­tion­al Quak­erism but want to advance their ideas in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, but more often (and more dan­ger­ous­ly) it’s used by Friends who know and love what we are but are loathe to say any­thing that might sound con­tro­ver­sial.

I’ve told the sto­ry before of a Friend and friend who said that every­time he uses the word com­mu­ni­ty he’s mean­ing the body of Christ. New­com­ers hear­ing him and read­ing his arti­cles could be for­given for think­ing that com­mu­ni­ty is our reason-for-being, indeed: what we wor­ship. The prob­lem is that ten years lat­er, they’ll have signed up and built up an iden­ti­ty as a Friend and will get all offend­ed when some­one sug­gests that this com­mu­ni­ty they know and love is real­ly the body of Christ.

Lib­er­al Friends in the pub­lic eye need to be more hon­est in their con­ver­sa­tion about the Bib­li­cal and Chris­tian roots of our reli­gious fel­low­ship. That will scare off poten­tial mem­bers who have been scarred by the acts of those who have false­ly claimed Christ. I’m sor­ry about that and we need to be as gen­tle and hum­ble about this as we can. But hope­ful­ly they’ll see the fruits of the true spir­it in our open­ness, our warmth and our giv­ing and will real­ize that Chris­tian fel­low­ship is not about tel­e­van­ge­lists and Pres­i­den­tial hyp­ocrites. May­be they’ll even­tu­al­ly join or may­be not, but if they do at least they won’t be sur­prised by our iden­ti­ty. Before some­one com­ments back, I’m not say­ing that Chris­tian­i­ty needs to be a test for indi­vid­u­al mem­ber­ship but new mem­bers should know that every­thing from our name (“Friends of Christ”) on down are root­ed in that tra­di­tion and that that for­mal mem­ber­ship does not include veto pow­er over our pub­lic iden­ti­ty.

There is room out there for spiritual-but-not-religious com­mu­ni­ties that aren’t built around a col­lec­tive wor­ship of God, don’t wor­ry about any par­tic­u­lar tra­di­tion and focus their energies and group iden­ti­ty on lib­er­al social caus­es. But I guess part of what I won­der is why this doesn’t col­lect under the UUA ban­ner, whose Prin­ci­ples and Pur­pos­es state­ment is already much more syn­cretis­tic and post-religious than even the most lib­er­al year­ly meet­ing. Evolv­ing into the “oth­er UUA” would mean aban­don­ing most of the valu­able spir­i­tu­al wis­dom we have as a peo­ple.

I think there’s a need for the kind of strong lib­er­al Chris­tian­i­ty that Friends have prac­ticed for 350 years. There must be mil­lions of peo­ple parked on church bench­es every Sun­day morn­ing look­ing up at the pul­pit and think­ing to them­selves, “sure­ly this isn’t what Jesus was talk­ing about.” Look, we have Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians com­ing out again­st the war! And let’s face it, it’s only a mat­ter of time before “Emer­gent Chris­tians” real­ize how lame all that post-post can­dle wor­ship is and look for some­thing a lit­tle deep­er. The times are ripe for “Oppor­tu­ni­ties,” Friends. We have impor­tant knowl­edge to share about all this. It would be a shame if we kept qui­et.

The Left Wing Conspiracy Revealed by Non​vi​o​lence​.org

Non​vi​o​lence​.org read­ers may not be aware that my per­son­al site has been the talk of the polit­i­cal inter­net for the last few days. Since post­ing an “account of get­ting a phone call from a CBS News pub­li­cist”, I’ve been linked to by a Who’s Who of blog­ging glit­er­at­ti: Won­ket­te, Instapun­dit, The Volokh Con­spir­a­cy, Lit­tle Green Foot­balls, Rather­Biased, etc. For a short time yes­ter­day, the sto­ry was a part of the second-ranked arti­cle on Technorati’s Pol­i­tics Atten­tion index.

A hack from CBS News called me to say they were doing a pro­gram on an issue that’s cen­tral to Nonviolence.org’s man­date: con­sci­en­tious resis­tance to mil­i­tary ser­vice. After look­ing over the mate­ri­al, I thought the inter­views of resisters who have fled to Canada would be inter­est­ing to my read­ers and so wrote a short entry on it. Think­ing it all a lit­tle fun­ny that a pub­li­cist would care about Non​vi​o​lence​.org, I men­tioned the inci­dent in the “Sto­ries of Non​vi​o​lence​.org” sec­tion of my per­son­al site. One by one the lead­ing polit­i­cal sites of the blo­gos­phere have run the sto­ry as fur­ther proof of the vast left-wing main­stream media con­spir­a­cy. It’s rather fun­ny actu­al­ly.

I have to won­der is who’s kid­ding who with all this feigned out­rage? For those miss­ing the irony gene: the Non​vi​o​lence​.org Pay­Pal account cur­rent­ly has a bal­ance $6.18, the bulk of which comes from the last dona­tion – $5.00 back on Novem­ber 20th. My cor­ner of the left wing con­spir­a­cy is fund­ed by the vast per­son­al wealth I accu­mu­late as a book­store clerk.

Wonkette’s pages adver­tise “spon­sor­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties,” she’s a recent cov­er girl on New York Times Mag­a­zine, her hus­band is an edi­tor at New York mag­a­zine and in Octo­ber she cashed out her blog­ging fame for a $275,000 advance for her first nov­el (“It’s not Brid­get Jones does Wash­ing­ton, it’s Nick Horn­by does pol­i­tics”: good grief). Eugene Volokh has clerked on the U.S. Supre­me Court (for San­dra Day O’Connor), teach­es law at UCLA and just had a big op-ed in the Times. Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds teach­es law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ten­nessee, has served on White House advi­so­ry pan­els, and is a paid cor­re­spon­dent for MSNBC. Yet he, like the oth­ers, calls a two min­ute phone call “recruit­ing”?

I’m begin­ning to think the real inter­est comes from the fact that this top tier of blog­gers is total­ly in bed (lit­er­al­ly) with the MSM. Their income comes from their con­nec­tions with media and polit­i­cal pow­er. Their carefully-crafted fas­cade of snark­ish inde­pen­dence would crum­ble if their phone logs were made pub­lic. They’re not real­ly blog­ging in their paja­mas, folks.

By men­tion­ing the exis­tance of blog pub­li­cists, I’ve threat­ened to blow their cov­er. Pay no atten­tion to the men behind the cur­tains: my social gaffe was in pub­licly admit­ting that the main­stream media courts polit­i­cal blogs. Kudos to jour­nal­ist Derek Rose on admit­ting the prac­tice:

But why shouldn’t a news organization’s pub­lic­i­ty depart­ment court blog­gers? As a MSM mem­ber, I get emails from TV flacks all the time pro­mot­ing their scoops. From ABC, for exam­ple, I’ve received emails regard­ing a tape they got of the Belt­way sniper’s call to the Rockville police; Bar­bara Wal­ters’ Hillary Clin­ton inter­view; and their ‘Azzam the Amer­i­can’ video … as well as a Rush Lim­baugh drug laun­der­ing sto­ry that nev­er panned out. I even got atten­tion from pub­li­cists when I was work­ing for a news­pa­per that didn’t have a 20th of the cir­cu­la­tion of Instapun­dit…

Rose aside, there’s incred­i­ble dis­tor­tion in the “report­ing,” a term I have to use very loose­ly. Won­ket­te says “Kel­ley claims that a CBS min­ion put the screws to him to post some­thing about a ’60 Min­utes’ pack­age on con­sci­en­tious objec­tors” yet all read­ers have to do is fol­low the link to see I nev­er said any­thing like that. Why do the cream of blog­gers feel like a pos­se of self-absorbed sev­en­th graders? When I start­ed Non​vi​o​lence​.org back in 1995, I thought the brave new polit­i­cal world of the inter­net might be All the President’s Men. Boy was I wrong: it turns it’s just Heathers. God help us.