Egypt’s Revolt Spurs New Public Media

By: Maria Howell

Egyptian Riot by Jerry Jackson

Egyptian Riot by Jerry Jackson

Both professional and citizen coverage of the revolt in Egypt are demonstrating the ways in which Web 2.0 production has risen as a form of public media in emerging and unstable democracies. Participatory and mobile platforms are serving to bring a public together around issues related to the governance of the country by allowing multiple, competing perspectives to surface.

Amr Gharbeia, a protester in Egypt describes an online network that formed during the 2005 presidential elections for social change. Facebook, Twitter and blogs were used to helped to solidify an interest group that was recently activated for the January 25 riots. Gharbeia wrote in an BBC article, “I hope that when we have finished this sit-in, we will have won the right to organise ourselves outside the internet.”

While Gharbeia’s example illustrates how social media has allowed people to organize within the country, we’ve seen its reach is not limited to Egypt’s physical boundaries. His Twitter updates have become part of a global conversation about the current political upheaval. Looking at the hashtag #Egypt in Twitter opens up a multi-lingual dynamic conversation from interested parties inside and outside of the country.

The Egyptian government immediately responded to the riots by shutting the Internet down throughout most of the country, thereby limiting the flow of information. But now the government has restored Internet service throughout most of the country and the personal accounts from those on the ground are showing up online.

How communication about the Egyptian riots is playing out online confirms an emergent trend articulated in the Center for Social Media’s white paper, Public Media 2.0. As noted in the white paper, “Professional media makers are now tapping user-generated content as raw material for their own productions.” We see this trend grow as traditional news outlets are now regularly incorporating Twitter and Facebook feeds into their coverage: Look at the New York Times blog on the issue and the Guardian.

This raises a persistent concern about the quality of the information being passed around and who is providing it. It is clear that the Web can be just as easily be used to amplify the voices of the oppressed as those of the oppressor. According to journalist and expert on political and social aspects of the Internet, Evgeny Morozov the power of the Web for social change should be considered in relation to the power it gives the government for surveillance, and takes from citizens via distraction through entertainment. He wrote, “The point here is that while the Internet could make the next revolution more effective, it could also make it less likely.”

This is further confirmed by reports from Egypt that the government is using mobile devices to propagate support for the state. While text message services have been cut off, Egypt’s leading cell phone company, Vodafone, was hijacked by the Egyptian government to send customized text messages to mobile phone users. The messages urged citizens to fight against the anti-government protestors. The move to control the messages communicated during political upheaval is not a new concept, as many governments impose censorship and disseminate propaganda in times of war. What is new is the government taking control of a company to send anonymous political messages directly to citizens’ pockets.

Such government interference cannot be tolerated if a robust public media system is to be established in Egypt. What’s worse, it seems that information is currently further being controlled by the Egyptian government through arrests and detainment of journalists, making it more dangerous for reporters to cover the conflict and also removing on-the-ground updates from the conversation.

However, despite these limitations, the volume of information from Egypt proves that where there is a will, there is a way. And increasingly, voices of the public for the public are informing the conversation.