The Effects of Social Media on Egyptian Revolution of 2011

Executive Summary

This research paper investigates the effects of social media on the Egyptian revolution in 2011. The paper starts with an introduction, which indicates the social, economic and political conditions in Egypt prior to the revolution. The paper identifies the problem statement as the contention that exists among analysts about the effect of social media on the revolution. By identifying the exact effects that social media had on the revolution, the paper indicates that it would fill an existing gap in knowledge occasioned by the contention among analysts.

The paper identifies the network society theory and the social movement theories as applicable in the Egyptian context. The Darwin’s’ meme theory has also been identified as applicable in explaining the diffusion of social media among young people.

A detailed literature review has been used to identify the effects of social media on Egyptian revolution, and in the analysis section, notes that social media had motivational, directing, and organising effects. The paper notes that social media had limitations which included turning online supporters to offline protesters, the low percentage of Egyptians who had internet access, and possible interference of social media by external forces. In the concluding segment, the research paper reiterates that the social media had significant effects on Egypt’s revolution, which included enhancing the speed, connectivity and networking among protesters.

Introduction

By 2011, statistics show that Egypt, a country whose population is estimated to be more than 80 million people, had 2.5 million people living in extreme poverty. Another 48 million people were living in different types of poverty. Approximately three million Egyptians were unemployed despite being literate and skilful (Bakr 2012). Even worse was the decreasing democratic space that the country was experiencing. The then president, Hosni Mubarak had assumed power in 1981 and had ruled Egypt for three decades. Moreover, constitutional amendments in 2005 made hereditary rule in the country possible. The foregoing was through a disguise of centralized administration, which was embedded in the constitutional amendments (Bakr 2012).

The legislative elections in 2005 and 2010 have been characterized by fraud, and people expected that the presidential elections that were to be held in September 2011 would be no different. Perhaps more relevant to this paper is that 23% of Egypt’s population is made up of young people between 18 and 29 years of age. During Mubarak’s rule, they felt left out of government, and further felt that the government was not acting in their interest (Bakr 2012). Their clamour for social justice, and specifically their push to end Mubarak’s reign in power was made possible by unprecedented levels of information technology penetration among young people. Interestingly, internet penetration in the country was made possible by a well-planned and executed government strategy. The strategy was meant to attract foreign direct investors by positioning Egypt as a leader in information technologies among other Arabic countries (Bakr 2012).

By the time the revolution took place in January 2011, more than 20 million Egyptians had access to the internet. Additionally, Egypt was registering high economic development, although that development favoured a social narrow base. Even more concerning to young people was the rising unemployment levels, which stood at 9.7% at the time. Most of the unemployed people were young university graduates (Bakr 2012). Corruption cases were also at an increase, and the country was ranked as the 80th most corrupt country in the world (Bakr 2012). At the time of the revolution, Bakr (2012) observes that Egypt’s GDP was on an upward trend. In other words, the economy seemed to be performing impressively. In reality, vital variables such as unemployment among the youth, equality in development among different regions in Egypt, and transparency in governance were lacking.

Politically, Egypt was, according to analysts, on a downward trend. Political intolerance and human rights abuses were common, with the torture and brutal killing of Khaled Said being one example if police brutality (Bakr 2012). Khaled’s killing prompted several Egyptian youth to take a defensive stand on the internet, with a Facebook page named, ‘we are all Khaled Said’ https://www.facebook.com/elshaheeed.co.uk being set up. The page garnered 250,000 ‘likes’ in just three months and by the time of writing this paper, had 338, 253 likes. The saying ‘we are all Khaled Said’ was further adopted by youth activists who argued that the political intolerance in the country exposed them to the same fate that Khaled had suffered (Vargas 2012, para. 7).

On the international level, most young people had the impression that Mubarak and his government were puppets of the United States of America. Egypt’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was opposite of the stand that many Arabic countries had taken. Egypt’s stand delegitimized its relative position among other Arabic countries (Bakr 2012). Another contention that a majority of Egyptians had with their government’s position in the Israeli-Palestinian matter was that, its association with the US had cost Egypt its regional power, especially in its relationship with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Bakr 2012).

Overall therefore, it would seem that the Egyptian revolution was occasioned by a combination of social, political and economic reasons. Social media, however played a facilitative role in that before Egyptians took to the streets, they had mobilised themselves, understood their position relative to what the government was doing, and laid bare their agenda in relation to what they wanted done. The protests staged in Cairo and elsewhere and the revolution that ensued was hence the culmination of debates and mobilisation exercises that had started on social media – especially on Facebook.

Background of the Study

Facebook and Twitter are two social media channels that are increasingly used for communication and networking by young people across the world. The mediums are not only important for informal social communication and networking, but also for more serious causes such as education and advocating for certain economic, political, cultural and even environmental issues. The political revolutions and uprisings in the Middle East, which started in 2010, have especially been linked to the ease of communication made possible by the social media (El-Nawawy & Khamis 2012). It is indicated that the ease by which young people can communicate via social media channels have made it easy for them to instigate, organise and accelerate advocacy in specific causes (El-Nawawy & Khamis 2012). It is further argued that social media has played a galvanising role, where young people in different areas of (say) the same country are given a voice and a platform where they can voice their concerns, share ideas, and generate viable solutions for prevailing social and/or political problems (El-Nawawy & Khamis 2012).

The revolution that occurred in Egypt on January 25, 2011 has been positively linked to the communication, mobilisation, and networking that took place mostly on Facebook, and on a lesser degree on Twitter (El-Nawawy & Khamis 2012). The revolution, aptly dubbed ‘Facebook revolution’ succeeded in toppling Hosni Mubarak’s government. Yet, the foregoing does not always mean that social media provides effective channels through which such revolutions can be instigated, organised or even accelerated. In Iran for example, a clamour for change through Twitter did not succeed.

According to Ghonim (2012, p. 4), social networks not only inform people, they also ‘mobilise, entertain, create communities, increase transparency, and seek to hold governments accountable’. Critically though, and especially in Egypt, it is indicated that social media (most especially Facebook) helped the people clamouring for change to join together and organise protests without meeting physically. It was thus not only an easy undertaking, but one that did not consume a lot of time. Notably, the organisers received support for their cause from the Egyptians in the Diaspora, and non-Egyptians in and out of the country who felt that the country was ripe for change (El-Nawawy & Khamis 2012).

Yet, there is contention on just how important social media was in the Egyptian revolution. Gladwell (2011, cited by Aday et al. 2012) for example refutes that social media had any major influence on Egypt’s revolution. Instead, Gladwell (2011, cited by Aday et al. 2012) claims that revolutions do not need real-time updates in order to happen successfully. He argues that the grievances and political organisation that existed in Egypt would have led to a revolution with or without social media. Other critics such as Aday et al. (2012) argue that the enthusiasm about the social media role in the uprising witnessed in the Arab world runs the risk of exaggeration. Such exaggeration, it is argued, can blind casual observers to offline actors and other causal factors that led to the uprising. Arguably, such criticism seems to be off the mark. While most of the literature analysed in the course of this research suggests that social media played a critical role in the Egyptian revolution, none of them suggests that social media caused the revolution. It is therefore rather clear that different scholars and analysts agree that there were offline causal factors that contributed to the uprising, and social media only made the communication, mobilising, and networking aspects of the uprising much easier.

Problem Statement

It has been hypothesised that social media affects people’s attitudes towards a specific cause, affect how groups relate, affect how protests are organised, and affects the local and international attention that a particular cause attracts (Aday et al. 2012). Yet, it has also been argued that the effects that social media had on the Egyptian revolution and other uprisings in the Arab world is an exaggeration (Aday et al. 2012). It therefore seems there is a contention about the real contribution that social media had in the revolution. This research paper will adopt an objective approach by analysing journals which support and/or opposed both arguments, and in the end, will make an evidence-based judgement on whether there were any effects that social media had on Egyptian revolution 2011. If proven, the research will identify the specific effects that social media had on the revolution.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to investigate the effects of social media on Egyptian revolution of 2011. To understand such effects, this research paper will try to investigate why Egyptians opted for new media (which include social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter) as opposed to mainstream channels, which include mediums such as Television, radio, and newspapers. The research applies several theoretical frameworks in an effort to understand the effect that social media had on the revolution. The paper will attempt to fill an existing gap in knowledge by indicating the exact effects that social media had on the revolution. The gap in knowledge exists because there is contention in the literature as to whether social media played any major role in the revolution. One part of the divide argues that social media’s contribution is overrated, while the other part of the divide argues that the revolution would not have happened were it not for social media. This research paper indicates that social media played an effective role in disseminating information, mobilising people, motivating and inspiring young people, directing and organising people. Perhaps most importantly, social media challenged the apolitical youths to be proactive in agitating for a change in government.

Research Questions

The main research question in this paper is:

  • What effects did social media have on the Egyptian revolution of 2011?
  • What were the factors that made social media more preferable for young people compared to mainstream media?

Hypothesis

H1: There is a positive correlation among the number of users of social media and the number of people involved in the Egyptian revolution.

Definition of Terms

Social Media

Applications based on the internet, which enable users to take part in social networking. Social media further enables people to publish and share content, which they generate or find useful, interesting or worth sharing.

Mainstream media

Media channels which publish content on traditional distribution channels such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines. They represent mediums that have huge consumer audiences.

Web 2.0

The second development stage of the World Wide Web (www), which is superior to web 1.0. Web 2.0 is mainly characterised by dynamic content that does not require publishers to understand Hypertext Mark-up Language (html) and other technical formatting techniques. Web 2.0 is responsible for the growth of user-generated content and the increase in social media usage.

Egyptian revolution

A popular uprising that started in January 25, 2011, and which characterised non-violent resistance by citizens, labour strikes, demonstrations, plaza occupations, and marches. It succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak had occupied the presidency in Egypt since 1981.

Significance of the Study

Facebook did not attend the protests staged at Egypt’s Tahir square on January 25, 2011; no one expected it would. However, it played a critical role. It acted as a channel through which people identified a common cause, gathered enough courage, and motivated each other to be proactive in demanding change from the Mubarak government. Interestingly, even the illiterate and older people who had never been on social media got to know about the planned demonstrations from coverage afforded the social media by mainstream media and as such, many participated in the same.

According to Abdulla (2010), Egypt’s revolution gained momentum 11 days prior to January 25, 2011 when people were urged to click the ‘I’m attending’ button on several Facebook pages, thus confirming that they would participate in the revolution. Unofficial statistics given by Ghonim (2012) indicate that as many as 100,000 people confirmed their attendance to the protests through the ‘I’m attending’ button on the ‘we are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page. Yet, Social media was just a reflection of the activism that had taken place both offline and online for years. For young Egyptians, social media prepared them, and enabled them to take advantage of an opportunity to voice their discontentment with the government. Giving a voice to the Egyptians was a significant step by the social media, especially in a country where the citizenry had their voices muffled by a totalitarian government.

Social media is by far a more democratic medium compared to the mainstream media. Considering the foregoing sentiments, this study is significant in that it will not only identify the effects of social media on Egypt’s revolution, but will show the factors that made social media a preferable approach for use among young Egyptians compared to mainstream media.

Context of the Study

This research has been conducted at a time when some critics (e.g. Aday et al. 2012) argue that the role of social media in the Arab Spring has been overrated. Other authors (e.g. Eaton 2013) indicate that while social media was an important aspect in Egypt, it was not the only factor that led to the revolution. This research agrees with Eaton (2013) and hence sets out to identify the exact effects that social media had on the revolution. While the research conducted herein considers Egypt as the subject country, the main research is done via a review of existing literature. According to Hart (1998), a good literature review involves: a search of literature; sorting retrieved literature and prioritising it; reading the identified literature well; evaluating the literature; comparing different studies; organising content; and finally, writing a literature review. The literature review herein is a synthesis of existing research based on a critical evaluation of the same. Additionally, the research has attempted to include the appropriate depth and breadth in the reviewed literature in order to have a content that is valid, objective, clear and concise.

Limitations

Since this research is based on a review of existing literature, it has limitations which include the assumption that most writers have about the existence of multiple realities. The foregoing explains why different authors seem to disagree on the exact role that Social media played in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Additionally, since this research is using a qualitative approach, it is concerned with the attitudes, feelings, and experiences rather than the precise measurement of the effects that social media had on the Egyptian revolution. Such attitudes, feeling and experiences are hard to gauge, especially when relying on existing literature as the main source of information.

Another limitation comes from this paper’s inability to verify some of its findings; rather, and like other qualitative researches, this paper’s focus is on describing and discovering the effects of social media on the Egyptian revolution rather than on verification of the same.

Theoretical Framework

A theoretical framework is defined as the combination of concepts and their definitions as used in a specific study (Trochim 2006). The role of a theoretical framework is to ‘demonstrate an understanding of theories and concepts that are relevant to the topic of a research paper’ (Trochim 2006, p. 34). In this paper, several theories relevant to explaining the effect that social media had on Egypt’s revolution will be used.

The Network Society Theory

The Network society theory is a proposition of Manuel Castells, who argues that a network society has a social structure characterised by networks. Networks are made possible by the use of communication technologies and microelectronics-based information (Castells 2004). The theory indicates that networks do not have a centre; rather they are characterised by nodes whose relevance to the network is based on their respective contribution to the goals of a network.

In modern societies, information technologies are the new thing. By entering into a new technological paradigm, Castells (2000) indicates that people start experiencing a life centred on information/communication technologies and electronics among other engineering innovations. Castells (2000) therefore argues that while information and knowledge are critical to a network society, it is the information technologies that make connectedness possible. Castells (2000, p. 10) further explains that the technological paradigm central to the network society theory underscores the ‘use of knowledge-based, information technologies to enhance and accelerate the production of knowledge and information, in expanding, virtuous circle’.

The social network theory is applicable in the new economy, whose fundamental features include: I) being informational – knowledge is generated and information processed and/or managed in a manner that determines the competitiveness and productivity of different functions in the society; II) being global – this enables the modern society to accomplish strategic activities (e.g. communication) at chosen times and in real time; III) being networked – this enables individuals, groups, or corporations to connect, share information, and determine the way forward (Castells 2000).

Defining communication networks, Monge and Contractor (2003, p. 39) indicate that they are ‘patterns of contact that are created by flows of messages among communicators through time and space’. Modern communication networks are more efficient compared to their predecessors because they are more flexible and scalable. Additionally, they have a survival element that makes them able to operate in different configurations. Applied in the context of social media use in Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the aspects of flexibility, survivability and scalability are evident in the configuration of social networks based on prevailing environments. For example, when the Arabic version of ‘we are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page was pulled down for unclear reasons in 2010, its followers were urged to follow the English version of the page or register their participation in different blog pages.

Additionally, the administrators of the page started a similar page on Facebook. In relation to scalability, the network society theory indicates that networks can shrink or expand without major disruptions. Mainly, and especially on Facebook and its role in Egypt’s revolution is that people could easily join the network by ‘liking’ different pages dedicated to the revolution, and as long as they were part of the network, messages communicated by the administrators would appear on their individual Facebook ‘walls’. The survivability factor is seen in social media usage in Egypt in that networks could resist attacks. For example, when internet coverage was disconnected by government machinery, Egyptians still found ways to connect to Twitter. Even more interesting was that internet disconnection motivated more people to actively join the revolution through physical attendance. Castells (2004) observes that ICT has enabled the network society to deploy itself in full capacity. Such full capacity deployment has made it possible for the network society to transcend historical limits that capped the social interaction and organisation.

The network society theory contradicts information society and knowledge society theories by arguing that information and knowledge have always been part of human existence. However, each those (i.e. information and knowledge) do not have much value if they cannot be used for a purpose (Castells 2004). Applied in context, it would appear that Egyptians always knew that Mubarak’s government was dictatorial, torturous to opponents, and did not have the interest of ordinary citizens at heart. Yet, people were not able to use the information and knowledge they had, because they did not have the tools to organise such information and knowledge into useful forms. The advent of social media, which was easy and convenient to use enabled the Egyptians to share, organise and utilise their collective knowledge to ouster Mubarak.

One of the ways that network society theory is manifest is through a change in how people socialise (Castells & Cardoso 2005). While face-to-face communication used to be the dominant way of socialising in the past, new communications has made it easier for people to socialise remotely. In the latter form of socialisation, people are more physically isolated, but are nevertheless able to attain higher levels of socialisation. Socialising on the internet for example, enables people to have more connections, contacts and even friends on varying social platforms. As a result, people who have adopted the new forms of socialisation are considered more active on social and political spheres depending on what interests them (Castells & Cardoso 2005).

Interestingly, there is a direct link between increased socialisation on social media, and the increased likelihood of people meeting physically (Castells & Cardoso 2005). For example, groups formed on social platforms may decide to meet physically, therefore creating solid networks. Applied in context, the transformation of sociability where people have adopted social media interaction more is evident in Egypt’s case. The usage of Facebook to motivate people to support the January 25th uprising was encouraged through urging people to confirm their attendance by clicking on ‘I am attending’ button. Consequently, people who had never known each other or met before rallied behind a common cause by attending the January 25 demonstrations. But perhaps the concept of social network society is best summed up by Castells and Cardoso (2005, p.11), who indicate that

‘The network society is a hyper-social society, not a society of isolation. People by and large do not fake their identity in the internet.., people fold technology into their lives, link up virtual reality and real virtuality (sic), and they live in various technological forms of communication, articulating them as they need it’.

Social Movement theories

Social movement theories explain the reasons why social mobilisation happens, how it is manifested, and the political, cultural and social consequence it has on a population. It is important to indicate the social movement theories do not represent a single concept. Rather, they are different concepts all trying to explain the same thing.

The collective behaviour theory is among earlier social movement theories which try to explain what motivates people to join a social movement. The theory indicates that people get involved in a social movement when they have deeply-felt grievances (Langman & Morris 2004). In the era of the ‘network society’ as indicated in the network society theory above, modern social movement theories have to consider that resistance to domination and project/cause identities can be articulated via internet and hence facilitate the formation social movement organisations that are different from what past generations knew.

The social movement (SM) theories are set on an understanding that social movements need in order to have mobilising capacity that is sustainable (Fuller 2010). SM theory indicates that people agitate for a common end through non-institutional means such as sit-ins, boycotts, and or marches among other protest activities. The notion of collectively pushing for social change is a central tenet of SM theory. The theories further suggest that short-lived impulses by individuals can easily turn to long-term aims by a social movement through sustained association, especially as people interact, share ideas and form situational groupings. Several theories indicated below are worth considering.

Structural-strain theory

This theory posits that the formation of social movements represents semi-rational responses ‘to abnormal conditions of structural strain between the major societal institutions’ (Fuller 2010, p. 26). According to this theory, social systems malfunction when strains exist. The development of social movements according to this theory is encouraged by structural conduciveness (i.e. where people are convinced that problems exist in the society), by structural strain (i.e. deprivation in the society) and by the possibility of finding solutions (can occur through proposals made and advocated for by members of a social movement). Additionally, precipitating factors (i.e. a catalyst that makes social movement possible), the absence of social control (e.g. if a government does not act fast enough to suppress the social movement), and mobilisation (involves organising people to pursue a specified goal) are other factors that lead to the creation of social movements. Notably, this theory considers social movements to be a collective social disorder, which is at best irrational. The foregoing consideration makes it irrelevant for application in Egypt, because as indicated in the introductory part, the young people in Egypt had reasons enough to fight against an authoritarian and repressive regime that had arguably outlived its use in improving the country’s social, economic and political fortunes.

Deprivation theory

This theory posits that deprivation is the main reason why people create social movements (Fuller 2010). The theory argues that the need to defend (or improve) prevailing conditions in a society pushes people to form movements through which they can advocate their causes. This theory further contends that social movements are mild forms of a revolution (Fuller 2010). This theory can be used to explain why jobless youths, people who felt that their democratic space was constricted, and people who felt that their country was not being well governed came out in large numbers to protest during the Egyptian revolution.

Mass-society theory

This theory suggests that feelings of insignificance or/and social detachment push people to create social movements. By forming and belonging to social movements, people find some sort of empowerment (Fuller 2010). Although this theory does not have much support in literature, it can arguably explain why individual Egyptians who previously felt powerless against the dominant political order found some sense of belonging and empowerment is social media platforms, and in the end, went out into the streets to join the protests.

Resource-mobilisation theory

This theory posits that social movements emerge when people who have grievances mobilise enough resources to enable them take an impactful action (Fuller 2010). According to the theory, resources can take the form of media, finances, cohesion, manpower, legitimacy and/or support from financiers. The theory is based on several assumptions, which include: people are rational actors; there will always be deprivation, grievances and discontent that will always lead to protests in the modern world; how well a social movement is organised depends on the resources it has; membership recruitment to a social movement is through networks; social movements need leadership and resource; organisers act as catalysts that turn collective discontent in the society into social movements; and resources determine the activities adopted by the social movement (Fuller 2010).

In Egypt, social media aroused interest in the causes that protesters were agitating for and as a result, attracted attention and coverage from the mainstream media. Additionally, there was internal and external support from people within and outside Egypt. Solidarity was also evident among millions of people who indicated their desire to see change in the country. While this theory could be applied in the Egyptian context, it is not clear whether Egyptians formed social movements after mobilising enough resources to take action or whether the social movements were formed in the course of mobilising resources. One thing that is evident however is that the January 25 protests were the culmination of social resources that different social movements have been accumulating for months (and even years).

Political process theory

This theory emphasises the role that political opportunities have in the formation of social movements by arguing that movement formation is dependent on insurgent consciousness within the people, the organisational strength of leaders, and the political opportunities that exist in a specific environment (Fuller 2010). Opportunities in the political environment refer to the accessibility and the weaknesses in the political system (Fuller 2010). In Egypt, it would appear that the political class underplayed the significance of discontentment expressed in social media, and the capacity of young people to organise protests (and a revolution) on social media. Perhaps, Mubarak had grown complacent in the belief that no one could successfully oppose especially considering the political oppression that his dissenters were subjected to.

Culture theory

This theory emphasises the critical role that culture plays in the formation of social movement by arguing that social networks play an important role in enhancing connectedness, and the inclusion of an injustice frame (Fuller 2010). The injustice frame is made up of symbols and concepts gathered among social movement participants, for purposes of illustrating the significance of a society collectively faces. The injustice frame also provides solutions on how the problem can be alleviated. In the Egyptian revolution, some people (arguably used as symbols) were used to show the larger Egyptian population the magnitude of the problem they faced. The brutal killing of Khaled Said is arguably one such symbol that was used to sensitize Egyptians about police brutality, torture and the extremes to which the totalitarian government could go to silence dissenting voices. The use of social networks was also evident in increased Facebook in the build-up to the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution.

New media and social/political/global activism

Protesters have in the past argued that the mainstream media criminalises protests and protestors (Bennett 2003). This is because of the negative coverage that demonises the protestors in the eyes of viewers, readers or listeners by portraying them as hooligans and perpetuators of violence. New media brings some objectivity in covering activism in that both sides of a story are covered either voluntarily or through engagement where the publisher receives questions, which he is expected to answer. As Kahn and Kellner (2004, p. 86) indicate, ‘internet may be deployed in a democratic and emancipatory manner by a growing planetary citizenry that is using the new media to become informed, inform others, and to construct new social and political relations’. As a result, the new media enhances the creation of highly-informed communities that join together to support specific political demands among other things. By joining together, they form networks of activists or citizens and by so doing, transform the formerly inactive masses into smart proactive people. As Kahn and Kellner (2004) indicate networking is done on the internet and made possible by different devices which include cell phones, tablets, and computers among other devices.

Networking with new media gives people an impetus to experiment with identity construction (Kahn & Kellner 2004). In Egypt for example, young people became creators of information and disseminators of the same as opposed to what would have happened if they relied on mainstream media channels. According to El-Nawawy and Khamis (2012), the youth in Egypt grew up in an environment where the government and other sources of authority in the country always talked to them as opposed to talking with them. Arguably, being talked to would have created an impression that their opinions did not matter. However, new media opened up new channels of communication, where most came to realise that their opinions not only matter, but the same sentiments they held were shared by multiple other Egyptians. An interesting fact about new media is that those who use it are not necessarily physically passive people who sit behind computers and/or other hand-held devices and update their status or write and post stories. In mainstream media, the foregoing would equate to arm chair journalism. Rather, a significant amount of the information published on new media is a result of active participation in activism. During Egypt’s revolution, for example, protestors would upload photos Facebook, Twitter and on YouTube, thus updating others on what was happening on the ground (El-Nawawy & Khamis 2012).

Overall, it would appear that social/political/global activism has found a platform on new media. As Kahn and Kellner (2004) note, the new media increase the freedom realm that activists have, and generates a sense of community and empowerment on online platforms. As evident from Egypt’s revolution, translating online calls to actual action on the streets is not a far-fetched thought as some critics may indicate. To a meaningful extent, the new media and its relations with social/political/global activism is a reflection of the dramatic transformation of modernity. Specifically, people no longer need to meet physically in order to communicate and network. Rather they can do so from remote internet locations and attain the same (or better results) compared to what they would have attained through offline activism.

User generated content

The term ‘user generated content’ (UGC) refers to audience-generated material that includes: images, videos, opinions, comments, and discussion strands shared on social media (Centre for Global Communication studies (CGCS) 2012). UGC can contain professionally written or shot (in case of images and videos) content, but can also contain information generated by amateurs. Whatever the quality, it is the value of the content that matters most. The picture of Khaled Said’s disfigured face was, for example, taken on a cell phone camera by his brother. Yet, it was not the professional nature of the photo (or the lack thereof) that mattered to audiences; rather, it was the reflection of the torture that Khaled had to endure in the hands of Egyptian police that motivated Wael Ghonim to start the ‘we are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page. It is the same image that moved people to support the causes that were being advanced in the Facebook page (Eltantawy & Weist 2011). While the Facebook page was initially a memorial page for the young man who was killed aged 28 years only, it fast became a platform where dissident voices against the ills that plagued Egypt were voiced.

Interestingly, UGC has transformed people from being passive audiences to active consumers of news (CGCS 2012). It has also led to increased instances of citizen journalism, which is a refreshing concept because information published on online platforms no longer needs to conform to specific media house policies, or media owners-dictated approaches of news coverage and reporting. It is also interesting to note that UGC has become a major news source for mainstream media.

Web 2.0

Before Facebook became the mainstay for activism in Egypt, Eaton (2013) indicates that web logs (blogs) had been used extensively in the country since 2002. Notably, blogging is one of the Web 2.0 highly hyped features. Other web 2.0 featured include Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Flickr among others. But what exactly is web 2.0? Thomson (2008, p. 1) describes it as ‘a variety of websites and applications that allow anyone to create and share online information or material they have created’. While Egyptian activists had initially used blogs to express their opinions and rally support for different issues, the advent of social networking brought in an easier option where activists could network and communicate in real time, while forming online communities around a specific issue.

True to O’Reilly’s (2005, p. 6) words that web 2.0 enabled people to use ‘the web as a platform’, activists in Egypt used Facebook and twitter as platforms to effect political change by mobilising, sensitizing, and motivating people to support a specific cause. Initially, activists popularised the need to make the government stop torture and other vices that included corruption, segregated development, and unaccountability in leadership (Eaton 2013). The revolution however, was more successful than even the activists had envisaged because the resignation of Hosni Mubarak was not initially in the activists agenda (Eaton 2013). His resignation in February 2011 marked a new start for Egypt, and this showed that if used for the right reasons, Web 2.0 can be a powerful platform.

Social media

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2013, para. 1) defines social media as ‘forms of electronic communication…through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages and other content’. Analysing the increase use of social media, Samaras (2014) argues that Richard Dawkins’ Meme theory offers a plausible explanation since it indicates that change evolves just as much as culture evolves. Dawkins used the meme theory to parallel how cultural changes occur and how such changes are transmitted to genetic evolution. He referred to memes as units of cultural evolution, therefore suggesting that some genes penetrate more compared to others because the appeal of memes varies. Applied in social media, progression of memes from one host to another is fast, and as a result, an equally fast evolution of culture can occur.

Applied in the Egyptian context, it could be that Facebook and other social media features are the memes which have facilitated an evolution of culture. As a result, people are no longer using traditional media in communicating, but are more inclined to use new media to exchange information. Samaras (2014, para. 2) further observes that ‘ideas are able to ‘infect’ individuals at tremendous rates largely because of social media’. In other words, activists might have been unable to popularise their cause as fast as they did if it were not for social media. Notably, even if the Facebook meme was only used by Egyptians who had a level of literacy needed to open an account and participate in networks that interest them; the cultural uniformity (which would in this case be the clamour for change in Egypt) went beyond Facebook. Specifically, the illiterate masses soon picked up the calls to join in the demonstrations and by so doing, became part of the revolution. The Facebook meme therefore had a direct effect on its users, and an indirect effect on those who did not use it, but who joined causes that had been planned on the Facebook platform.

Literature Review

The effects of social media in Egypt have been discussed by multiple authors. El-Nawawy & Khamis (2012) are among authors who argue that social media provided Egyptian youth with a platform on which they could express their solidarity on matters of governance. On his part, Abdulla (2010, para. 5) notes that Facebook was instrumental in ‘organising, motivating, and directing the crowds as to where to go and what to do’. According to Abdulla, the Egyptian revolution was based on the internet (although the real action happened in the streets), and accelerated through the same social media channels. But before protesters took to the streets, social media acted as a platform through which Egyptians prepared themselves and each other for the revolution (Abdulla 2010). Additionally, social media enabled millions of Egyptians to capitalise on the opportunity to chart their country’s future when the time (i.e. January 25) came.

Perhaps the greatest effect that social media had on the Egyptian revolution was turning a previously apolitical generation into active political commentators and participants. Abdulla (2010) notes that for the first time, Egyptian youths believed in their worth as valuable contributors to their country’s destiny. For the first time, young Egyptians started understanding that complacency on their part would lead to a worse Egypt – more corruption, more human rights abuses, increased unemployment, an unaccountable government, and a more dictatorial regime among other ills. It is this new awareness that made the Egyptian youth more proactive and willing to go out into the streets to advocate for the causes that had become ingrained in their psyches, courtesy of being part of networks in the social media. The foregoing is closely linked to the motivation effect that Mainwaring (2011) indicates social media had on Egyptian protestors. According to him, the authoritarian regime had instilled fear in most Egyptians. Police brutality was one of the ways through which dissenters were silenced.

The government and the police used phrases like ‘walk quietly by the wall (where you cannot be noticed’; ‘mind your own business and focus on your livelihood’; and ‘whosoever is afraid stays unharmed’ to discourage people against opposing them (Khonim 2012, p. 66). It therefore took a lot of convincing in the social media for young people to understand that fear was the main way through which the Mubarak government dominated the society and perpetuated all kinds of social evils (Elshahed 2012). After all, the government knew that few people would dare go against them, and even if they did, such people would be quickly apprehended and their fate sealed either through imprisonment or through brutal killings similar to what Khaled Said was subjected to. Even more interesting was that journalists in the mainstream media were practising self-censorship as they avoided being branded state enemies (Khonim 2012). Consequently, the mainstream media which would otherwise have been instrumental in providing citizens with objective information became compromised. Social media platforms were the opposite of what mainstream media had been; while social media was daring in opening up the democratic space, mainstream media stuck with what favoured the government in fear that doing otherwise would have negative repercussions.

Removing fear from people’s mind was therefore the starting point if citizens were to be led towards emancipation. Social media provided the right platform to restore confidence in people, and when they felt ready, they organised for street protests. In other words, social media disseminated courage. Overall, it is the exchange of information that occurred in social networking sides, the affirmation by others that the time for change was ripe, and the sense of security founded among groups that motivated people who had never before participated in protests to do so.

The second effect was that social media increased horizontal communication in Egypt, and this is something that was new to a generation which was accustomed to being talked to as opposed to being part of the conversation (Abdulla 2010). Social media made its users more aware that communication can be democratic in nature, especially if people’s opinions could be validated based on the content and practicality of such opinions. In the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, Abdulla (2010) notes that not much horizontal communication was allowed in Egypt; rather, the authoritarian regime issued orders which were to be followed by everyone in lower hierarchies of the vertical form of communication. Abdulla’s (2010) views are similar to Eltantawy and Wiest’s (2011) observations that social media enhanced interactivity. In the past, organisers and their audiences would have needed to use faxes, posters and/or leaflets to communicate (Eltantawy & Wiest 2011). The foregoing not only limited the reach that the message would have had, but also the speed and effect of communication. Notably, social media was fast, and enabled people to interact online in real time.

Through horizontal communication, social media created awareness about the joint suffering of the Egyptians, and brought to the fore the realisation that people wielded the powers to turn things around. As Ghonim (2012) indicates, the power that people collectively supersedes the power that people in power have. The term ‘people in power’ was in this case used in reference to Egyptian leaders and their mercenaries. The power of the people on the other hand, generally referred to the collective powers that the Egyptian citizens had over their government. Notably, it took some re-awakening through networks, discussions and brainstorming sessions carried on Facebook for a majority of young people to realise just how much power they wielded. That realisation brought forth a motivation to actively demand for a better Egypt (Ghonim 2012). Specifically, social media (especially Facebook) motivated people to actively demand what they considered right. Previously, and with no way of networking and communicating without attracting the attention of Egyptian police, people suffered in silence.

Mainwaring (2011) notes that social media spread cognitive dissonance among Egyptians, mainly contrasting what the government had fashioned them into believing they could not do, and what the champions of change in social media platforms told them they could do. In the end, people who never believed they could protest against their government, and/or those who thought that their protest action would not have much effect, became willing to actively participate in demonstrations. Brian Solis (cited by Mainwaring 2011) argues that social media was important in creating the masses, the connections, and the unity needed to rally behind a common cause, which was to demand for changes in governance. Social media also countered misinformation by providing transparent information, which otherwise would have never been known by the public. Mainwaring (2011) notes that social media further enabled Egyptian citizens to align themselves along the values they shared, challenges monopolistic notion of power which had led to the deterioration of the social fabric in the country, and re-assert beliefs that government official should not only be democratically elected, but should also serve the interests of the electorate.

Admittedly, Mainwaring (2011) notes that social media may not have gone to the streets on January 25, but it played a facilitating role by facilitating connections and sharing of values. Through the foregoing actions, social media effectively shifted power back to the citizens. Consequently, Social media can be said to have re-aligned Egyptians’ interests in their country. Specifically, it brought to the fore the need for shared values and unity, which were connected in the social media.

Social media also helped people know that they were not alone in their discontentment and desire for change. This knowledge came before social media could mobilise people behind the specific cause. According to Abdulla (2010) most people who turned up in Tahrir square on January 25 were not only heeding a call to action, but were also using an opportunity provided by the large numbers, to participate safely in the clamour for change. In a country where the non-political nature of meetings had to be ascertained by the government, chances of successfully organising the protests on offline platforms were slim. Online organisation not only had the benefits or speed, but of convenience too. Specifically, online organisation did not expose those who supported the ideas that were against the norms of the Mubarak government to police brutality, torture and intimidation.

Anyone with a Facebook account, and who had liked the ‘we are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page (or other pages dedicated to bringing change in Egypt) would get updates and information regarding activities that had been planned. Arguably, Facebook (and other social media) used in the revolution created a sense of community, which was translated into the massive offline attendance of demonstrations and protests that had been organised on online social media platforms. Abdulla (2010, para. 10) notes that the ‘sense of real community: is hard to attain in offline communities. Analysing the issue further, Boyd (2011, para. 6) indicated that ‘ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread’. In other words, Boyd (2011) was trying to say that social connection is high in social media and as such, such media have a major effect on the dissemination of ideas.

Another factor that has not been addressed much in literature is that social media drew the attention of mainstream media. According to Lotan, Graeff & Ananny (2011), social media has the capacity to amplify specific information and causes, such that it becomes newsworthy in the traditional sense of the term ‘newsworthy’. TV channels such as Al-Jazeera set the trend for covering the activities discussed and highlighted by Facebook users. It is interesting to note however that much of the traditional media in Egypt at the time was still controlled by government through several laws. Lotan et al. (2011) for example, notes that the same traditional media channels were used by government to de-rail the protests by announcing to their listeners, viewers and readers that protests had been cancelled. Once it became evident that mainstream media in Egypt was not entirely reliable, people increasingly started using Facebook, and without much leadership or organisation, Facebook groups became self-reinforcing.

The effect of social networks was also felt in offline communities. News coverage by mainstream media encouraged millions of people who did not know how or did not have Facebook accounts to join the protests. On his part, Eaton (2013) notes that social media effectively got people to the streets, but its role was reduced once people were on the street and the mainstream media started covering the protests in detail. Overall, Eaton (2013, p. 5) argues that social media was a tool used by ‘activists to mobilise, organise and inspire Egyptians to take to the streets on 25 January 2011’. Without social media, the rallying call may not have reached as many people as it had, and as such, the events that came thereafter (e.g. the resignation of Mubarak) might never have occurred. The foregoing argument fits into Castell’s network society theory where he explains that ‘one message from one messenger can reach, and potentially hundreds of thousands’ (Castells 2009, p. 348).

While the effects indicated herein are contested in literature (e.g. by the likes of Aday et al. 2012), Eaton (2013) indicates that the internet cut off by the Egyptian government was testament to the effect that social media had on the revolution. The cut off motivated more Egyptians to join the street protests as opposed to sitting at home and following the discussion and happenings via social media.

Another effect of social media on Egypt’s 2011 revolution is that it enlarged the democratic space in a manner that the mainstream media was unable (and perhaps unwilling to do. Ideally, the internet enables people to express their opinions without much screening. Abdulla (2010) therefore indicates that the internet is a democratic medium, mainly because anyone who has internet access can publish information. The Average Egyptian may not have had a chance to publish anything in the mainstream media, but they could easily share their thoughts and opinions on social networks, on blogs, and on websites. The internet has therefore freed the public debate space, and consequently made it harder for government censorship to limit free speech. In other words, social media has increased the elective empathy with matters and issues that affect people in a society. However, and as seen when the internet was cut off on January 28, the democratic space on social media can easily be curtailed by the government.

Factors that contributed to social media popularity among young Egyptians included being a fast, real-time medium, which enabled interactions and connectivity. The networking capacity of social media also ensured that people who previously felt segregated became part of the in-group. The foregoing is opposite to traditional media channels where coverage would have had to be authorised by journalists, editors, and even media owners. Alternatively, organisers would have needed to purchase advertising space time or space. The foregoing would have required more resource (especially financial resources) to be mobilised by the organisers. In contrast, social media only required the organisers to mobilise people to support a cause and show up during the appointed day (i.e. January 25, 2011).

Discussion

Possibilities of social media within political/social activism in Egypt

While the Tunisian revolution inspired the revolution that took place in Egypt, it is worth noting that the two were different in that the latter was characterised by extended used of technology. The importance of social media in the communication prior to and during the revolution cannot be downplayed. Specifically, it has been noted that by 10th February 2011, 2313 Facebook pages had been set up to discuss the state of Egypt. The total number of participants on Facebook was 34 million people (Bakr 2012). In the same period, 93 million tweets had been shared by people inside and outside Egypt in relation to the status of Egypt and the status of the revolution (Bakr 2012). Curiously though, and perhaps due to the fact that mobilisation of protesters was done through social media, the Egyptian revolution is cited as not having a clear ideology, and no leadership (Aday et al. 2012).

The foregoing characteristics arguably mean that the so called revolution was in reality not a revolution. According to Bakr (2012), a revolution needs a leader and strong ideologies to work with. What would appear like shortcomings were however the activists’ points of strength. For starters, the man behind the ‘we are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page successfully hid his identity from the Egyptian authorities for an extend period of time. During that time, and with the support of hundreds of other activists and thousands of ordinary citizens, he popularised the need for change in Egypt, to a point where he (and others) settled on January 25, 2011 as the day in which protests would be staged. The foregoing means that although the cause was partly led by an anonymous leader by the name Wael Ghonim, the fact of the matter was that he was still its leader. Ghonim refused to be labelled the revolution leader arguing that he does not personalise causes or revolutions.

Yet, and despite his refusal, his actions of mobilising people around a pre-defined cause indicate that he was indeed a leader in the revolution. His anonymity was made possible by social media, in that the setting up of the ‘we are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page was done through a proxy. Although Ghonim was arrested on January 28, 2011 after the Egyptian authorities discovered his identity, the ideals of his agenda had already been launched. In his book, Ghonim (2012, p. 40) indicates that he was opposed to ‘weapons of mass oppression’ (i.e. police brutality and torture) that the police used to silence people who questioned government actions. He also opposed the corruption that was extremely ingrained in the Mubarak government. The argument that the protests in Egypt did not have a clear ideology can also be refuted because, as indicated in the literature review section, change is what the Egyptians were clamouring for. They wanted an end to torture by the police, an end to detention without trial, an end to corruption, an end to segregated development, and an end to unaccountable leadership (Eaton 2013).

Theory application on the Egyptian revolution reveals that different social movement theories can be used to explain why social media played such a pivotal role. Specifically, it would appear that Facebook (and twitter to a lesser extent) provided the much needed media resource through which activists mobilised support, convinced people that they needed not to fear anymore, connected people, inspired them and even motivated them to support the quest for change in the country by joining protests in January 25, 2011. Notably however, it is important to note that the date of protests never became an agenda until later when enough support for the cause had been garnered.

Aspects of the Network society theory are also evident in the young Egyptians use of social media prior to the January 25, 2011 revolution in that information was passed among youths regardless of their geographical locations, and through social networks. As a result, activists shared their messages with individual or group followers, and as a result, a way forward (in terms of staging protests to demand for changes in government) was determined.

Limitations of social media within political activism in Egypt

The main limitation of social media within political activism in Egypt is that a significant percentage of the population at the time of the revolution did not have internet access. Of the 80 million people, only 20 million could access the internet. The issue is compounded further by illiteracy. There was also an indication that people were following the protests on social media more than they actively attended the protests. It took internet cut off by the government in January 28, 2011 for more people to actively join the protests. Additionally, and as evident when the Arabic page of ‘we are all Khaled Said’ was pulled down, social media is not foolproof and can suffer from external influences.

Hypothesis testing

The hypothesis in this paper assumes that there was a positive correlation between the number of users of social media and the number of people involved in Egyptian revolution 2011. Testing this hypothesis requires an indication of social media use, and the number of people who were involved in the revolution. The table below is an indication of different Facebook group membership in January 2011.

Facebook Page Number of Members
‘We are all Khaled Said’ (Arabic & English pages) 804,000
‘6thApril Youth Movement’ 53,000
‘Elbradei President of Egypt 2011’ 244,000

Data source: Khalifa (2012).

According to Khalifa (2012), more than 500,000 people attended the January 2011 protests across eight Egyptian cities. Gauged against the cumulative number of three Facebook pages indicated in the table above, the attendance was only approximately half of those people. From the foregoing, it is easy to conclude social media participation was not equal to the protestors who turned up in the streets in January 25, 2011. However, Khalifa (2005) indicates that when the internet was cut off on January 28, 2011, people who had been following the protests from their houses found a need to be proactive. Consequently, more than 1 million people are estimated to have taken part in the protests across 10 cities in Egypt in what is dubbed as the ‘Friday of anger’ (Khalifa 2012, para. 12).

From the table above, the three most popular Facebook pages in Egypt at the time had a collective membership of 1,292,000 people. Going by the numbers of people who participated in the protests on January 28, 2011, there appears to be a positive correlation between social media participation and the people who turned up for the protests during the revolution.

Prior to the revolution 2,312 Facebook pages had been set up with the intention of discussing the state of Egypt (Bakr 2012). Collectively, the pages had approximately 34 million members. Notably, not every Facebook member had confirmed attendance to the protests. Using the ‘I’m attending’ button placed on ‘We are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page, for example, only 100,000 people out of the 804,000 members had confirmed attendance (Bakr 2012). The foregoing notwithstanding, the positive correlation between social media participation and attendance in the protests can be proven especially because for the first time, Egyptian youths were motivated and inspired to come out in large numbers to protests a cause that they believed in.

Conclusion

This research paper has used a review of existing literature to investigate the effects of social media on Egyptian revolution in 2011. As a result, the paper has found out that social media had motivational effects, organising effects and directional effects having inspired people who were previously fearful of actively staging protests across Egypt. Simply put, social media played a major role in the planning of the Egyptian revolution, right from identifying what causes Egyptians wanted addressed, to devising ways of forcing the government to address such issues. Although there were multiple social media platforms that were used in the run up to the revolution, this paper has highlighted the role played by the ‘we are all Khaled Said’ Facebook page, whose Arabic version was started by Wael Ghonim. The foregoing page was critical to the revolution, especially considering that the January 25, 2011 date was first announced therein. Social media was specifically important because self-censorship was a mainstay thing among mainstream media channels, whose approach to news coverage was motivated by the need to adopt a government-friendly approach. The foregoing meant that even if young people wanted to use the mainstream media, their views and opinions would have to fall within the government-friendly policies upheld by mainstream media organisations. Social media was also an affordable medium compared to mainstream media since activists could hide their identities due to the intolerant attitude that the Mubarak government had towards dissenters.

Notably, even a previously apolitical generation was inspired to join the political protests. Such a generation may not have realised what consequences their participation in politics would have on their country’s future; yet, they trusted the counsel of their peers and opinion leaders whom thoughts they resonated with, on social media. Interestingly, activism that started in virtual networks had a huge offline impact especially following coverage by mainstream media. Consequently, people from older generations, and those who did not have social media skills were enjoined with the younger generation in a clamour for change. From the foregoing, it is arguable that the effects of social media did not only directly affect the motivational, organisational and direction aspects prior to the revolution, but also had indirect effects as evident from people who did not use social media, but supported the cause advocated for in social media platforms.

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