By Samuel Planck
In early 2011, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian protesters took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of an authoritarian regime. Most famously, thousands gathered at Tahrir Square on January 25 in a demonstration of social media mobilization the likes of which had never seen before.
The West was cautiously optimistic about Egypt’s future. Even President Obama issued a statement after Mubarak’s resignation, saying, “For Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.”
Many attributed the perceived success of the revolution to social media use. As the Wall Street Journal remarked on February 14, 2011 “For authoritarian leaders used to controlling media and events, time, and technology are not on their side.”
While it is clear that social media use was prevalent in mobilizing the Arab Spring (the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam measured an increase of two orders of magnitude in tweets from Egypt per day in the week before Mubarak resigned), whether it was altogether positive remains up for debate.
Some claim that the greatest power of social media during the Revolution was its ability to spread awareness to the outside world. As Foreign Policy reported in December 2011, “This year, according to Twitter, the top hashtag on the microblogging site was… #egypt, which users used to categorize tweets related to Egypt’s revolution.”
This ability to document the violence used by authoritarian regimes had never been seen before. Citizens live-tweeted the clash for Tahrir Square on the night of February 2 into the morning of the 3, later compiled together into a cohesive narrative by the Guardian.
However, The MIT Technology Review evaluated the post-revolution social media landscape and argued that social media made it easier for revolutionary groups to fragment into echo chambers and radical factions. This ended up weakening the movement as a whole and allowing the military to enforce its power over the country.
As Wael Ghonim, one of the online figureheads of the 2011 Revolution said during a TED talk, “the same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Anti-revolutionary groups began to use social media for their own purposes as well. Five years after the first Tahrir Square protests, as the provisional government cracked down on physical protests, many took to Twitter with the hashtag:
Opposition groups met them with criticism, as the Guardian reports, and protesters who were voicing their support for events five years ago were told by some Twitter and Facebook users that they should be ashamed for the years of turmoil that had followed, and that the revolution was a crime.
As analysts review the course of the revolution, many see social media as a crucial part. As MIT stated, “Power always learns, and powerful tools always fall into its hands”. They compare the handling of the internet under Mubarak’s regime, “Egypt’s weary autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, had clumsily cut off the internet and cellular service. The move backfired”, to that of the provisional government, “Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces promptly opened a Facebook page and made it the exclusive outlet for its communiqués. It had learned from Mubarak’s mistakes; it would play ball on the dissidents’ turf.”