Digital Revolutions: A quick look at new media & the Internet in shaping civil movements in Egypt & beyond

Tuesday, February 01, 2011 at 10:03 am
Jennifer Dick's picture

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In the Orange Revolution of 2004 , the Ukrainian people used cell phones and text messaging to help organize protests of a corrupt election. In 2009, protesters in Moldova used Twitter to mobilize protests against election results in the Grape Revolution. This was quickly followed by the larger Green Revolution in Iran, which used Facebook and YouTube in addition to Twitter to share with the world what was happening to protesters around the country, documenting both amazing solidarity and horrific violence. Where once traditional media outlets were limited getting information from a handful of sources, now anyone with a cell phone or Internet connection can upload photos from the ground or give an account of their experiences to the world. Such happened in Tunisia, and while the government temporarily shut down their already heavily censored Internet access, Tunisians used their cell phones to upload pictures and video to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

The Egyptian government has apparently been paying attention to how new media can provide a worldwide platform for speech and digital documentation because they shut down all Internet access and cell phone service just prior to the protests. In response, a handful of internet service providers around the world are providing free dial-up service for Egyptians looking to connect, not unlike the proxy servers that concerned people around the world set up for Iranian protesters. Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices, an internationally-focused blogging community, has been writing about the situation in Egypt and helps put things into perspective:

The shutdown is significant because it means the pictures we’re getting of events on the ground are coming largely via journalists — i.e., our picture of the protests today are very much a pre-internet form of reporting. As I hang out on Twitter, my friends are doing what I’m doing — listening intently to Al Jazeera English and discussing what we see. The implications of this shutdown, long term, are pretty massive. Cutting a nation of 80m off the internet is a pretty clear admission of fear and panic from the Mubarak government. The main implication, I think, is that it’s going to be very hard for things to return to “normal” in Egypt. The internet shutdown is a small, but telling, part of a larger picture: nothing will be the same tomorrow morning.

Is access to the internet a human right? The right to speak, to be heard, to organize, to air grievances are all rights protected under the universal declaration of human rights. When we defend those rights nowadays, we defend them online as well as offline, because the public sphere includes the digital as well as the physical. I think the notion of an internet shutdown is viscerally uncomfortable to US audiences because it suggests a thuggish government willing to silence all dissent if possible. But human rights are being much more enthusiastically violated by the riot police beating demonstrators, dragging them into vans and leaving them by roadsides in the desert. If an internet shutdown is what it took to get Americans to realize that Egypt — a nation we support with $1.3b of military aid a year — has a serious human rights problem, then we just aren’t paying attention.

Like many other analysts of such actions, Zuckerman is quick to note—and rightly so—that while new media helps document and disseminate dissent, it’s the people taking action on the ground who move a digital revolution from cyberspace into the real world to create change.