So much has been said and written about the use of social medias in the Egyptian uprising. I won’t tell you anything you don’t already know if I tell you that the censorship and the official media propaganda made Facebook and Twitter the favored source of information for a young, urban and educated youth. You’d certainly know too that bloggers among other activists were phished by the Mukhabarat (Egyptian Intelligence) for their strong influence and that the strong political conscience of young Arabs surprised at the same time the old cast of autocrats AND the Western World. You certainly know all of this.
But since the stepdown of Mubarak, does the new democratic state still need so much activism on the social medias, or the newly free traditionnal medias (television, radio, newspapers) are enough? Now that everybody can openly speak their minds, will the social medias go back to what they were originally used for, socializing and entertainment, aren’t they? After all, in a democratic US and Europe, teenagers and young adults mainly tweet and facebook about their moods, party pictures or congregate into groups of interests for artistic activities or social events. As far as we can witness today in Egypt, no, the political role of social media information is not over, but the use has slightly changed: it went from an information channel when under repression, to an open debate scene since revolution.
The young egyptian bloggers do not have to hide anymore, they are even invited on TV broadcasts, their faces are known and their columns are published in newspapers. But even if this bit of “prestige” made to the political numerical scene on the traditionnal media scene is quite honouring, the #jan25 youth (if you are familiar with the twitter popular hashtag for the egyptian contestation movement) do not seem to fall into line. Yes they read the news, yes they watch TV speeches, youtube video’s and Al Jazeera (Arabic or English), but they build away from any influence their own opinion – and they share it. The referendum for the new Constitution of the Republic of Egypt (dostoor in arabic) has been the occasion of a vaste, multipolar open debate. Twitter is used as a giant web 2.0 agora where thousands of voices can express at the same time without one shouting louder than others. Display pictures are replaced by “No” written in white on a red background or “Yes” on a green background (and all the derivatives and parodies), a simple way for every twitterer to declare what they intend to vote. Arguments and critics on amendments go back and forth, with or without # or @. Relevant civil actions are relayed, when they are too small to interest a traditionnal media (a newspaper will not “use the time” of the journalist it employs for a flyers distribution on the Tahrir square) or brainstorming sessions are improvised (like the #EgyptHas one a few days ago aiming in listing everything that would encourage tourists to come). And inbetween, some breaknews from other arab revolutions, the Egyptian feeling very supportive of Libya, Bahrein or Yemen, and some entertainment with songs or a funny video.
This large online agora is one of a new kind: it is not a sum of persecuted voices that cannot express elsewhere, it has become a normal way of political expression besides all the other means. The Twitter and Facebook do not make a revolution and a democracy, it is the sum of all the interactions in a civil society that do, and the social medias have been now as normal as anything like a text message, e-mail service or as complementary as an organized meeting: what matters is how they are used, if they are used to transmit the free opinions of people and their true minds, or if they are used and misused to spread propagands. The main difference I see with the american/european social media scene is that the Egyptian couterpart is much less hierachized and specialized: the western world political content tweets and retweets go more into public figures or institutions with thousands of followers, witty bloggers and their fans, supporters of one or the other political parties (the young green party, etc) or activists among specific networks of similar interests, while the Egyptians seem to be in a more generalist perspective: very few are part of any institution of a kind, official stakeolders (like political parties) have a very limited social media activity (even for example somebody like the former Atomic Agency General Secretary, Nobel Prize winner and candidate for Egyptian presidency Mohammad Al Baradei have not that much impact on the social medias). Just speak your mind in 140 characters, use the appropriate tag to be accessible to the rest of the users who are discussing the same thing than you, and Marhaba!
This “non-organization” specifity of the Egyptian agora makes the work of those who want to influence opinions through mass numerical media difficult, if not impossible: for every single info shared, for every argument expressed, there are 10 people objecting and analyzing on the live, and the “non-organization” of the crowds makes it almost impossible to categorize people into “pro-” or “anti-” something. Meaning it is their clustering into categorizable group of ideas that make people be possibly analyzed and inflirtated by strategic media specialists who look for subtle yet efficient ways to influence. So that’s something that we should maybe learn from this for anywhere in the world: if you want to be targetable as less as possible to political communication campaigns and to opinion formating, do not stick your presence on social medias on the clusters around opinion leaders, affiliated groups or currents; you should rather follow people like you and me, normal citizen that share their views, don’t exclude other currents of thoughts than yours, use your critical mind for everything that you read from others without hesitating in criticizing an illogical opinion. Because, if we are agree that dictatorship restricts citizen freedom of speech and act in ways we know, we should also be aware that the opinion formatting and mind manipulation the advertising and political communication specialists trying to implement to increase the number of their devotees,is not exactly what we could call democraty.
Egyptians are this morning on their way to vote for the constitution. Thanks to smartphones, the Constitution referendum was not only debated fow weeks, it is now too precisely observed and reported over regularities and irregularities: still need external observers? We read messages like: “At voting station in school in Helwan. Looks clean and well organized. Judges in every booth, teachers running process.Ok” or “people reporting ballots not stamped in Heliopolis #dostor2011” or “I voted in AlManial ElE3dadeya things are very positive, police officers are helpful & all papers are stamped. Things are great.“.
Whatever the result of the referendum is, this morning we can say that the new democratic Egypt is here and intends to stay: the voices of the young and the less young are heard in polling stations, but also on the virtual public scene. Whether the result will be a “YES” or a “NO” for the Constitution amendments, the Egyptians have already won their first electoral battle: they went massively to vote and they freely chose. Sounds very promising: a poitical sciencce empirical theorem states that anything significant that happens in Egypt, tends to spread and happen afterwards in the rest of the Arab World.