There’s been a lot written about the role that Facebook and Twitter has played in the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt – and also Ben Ali in Tunisia – so I thought I’d add my own thoughts.
There are two main things I want to focus on:
1. The power of weak ties
2. A virtual civil society
Egypt and the Middle East has a growing educated middle class. From what I’ve read, youth unemployment (and unemployment generally) was very high – in excess of 10 percent. This is a tinder-block for dissatisfaction and unrest. In a very simplified historical overview, revolutionary situations have mostly been led by the middle classes or educated groups demanding more rights and civil liberties (as well as reacting to economic woes, poverty and unemployment).
Firstly, weak ties. Social networking is an excellent medium to create scores, or hundreds, of weak ties. The friend of a friend, a distant relative, and acquaintance, so on. People with whom you do not have a deep personal relationship are still able to communicate with you freely, share their ideas and their views.
In Egypt, these weak ties meant that disaffected Egyptians were able to share their anger and desire for action with an audience far larger than just the people they knew personally. Their tweeting and Facebook updates were able to reach a large audience of like-minded, angry, disaffected, and educated Egyptians. With no single guiding force or organisation behind the uprising against Mubarak, the strength of weak ties meant that the independent fire-starters had their message shared widely. The “crowd” effect of social media aided this. As more and more people shared or re-tweeted the calls to action, it galvanised people who otherwise would never have heard of the uprising.
Secondly, a virtual civil society. Developing countries like Egypt – especially ones with totalitarian regimes – have a weak or thin civil society. Civil society is an essential pre-requisite for any social change. The metaphorical town square, it also includes the discourse and debates that occur between the technicians of the ruling classes – the lawyers, doctors, judges, teachers, and other educated professionals in the society.
Under a dictatorship, civil society is stunted and deformed: there is no space for the free debate that is characteristic of western liberal democracies. Social media allowed the middle classes of Egypt to create a virtual civil society in place of a physical one. These online tools created space for the growing educated middle class to air their dissatisfaction and anger with few of the repercussions of doing so “in the real world”.
Ultimately these two things converged in real world action. Twitter alone or Facebook alone would not have toppled Mubarak. By assisting real people to come together and take action in the real world, social networking aided the protesters in ways that have not existed before.
I’m no expert on Egyptian politics – and obviously I’m a long way away from Cairo, so I don’t have any special insights from the ground. These thoughts are based on watching and reading the constant news that has come out of Egypt over the last few weeks, and they are fairly brief. More could be written (and no doubt will be) about the role of online communication and social networking played in Egypt. (More could also be written about the role that mobile technology played.)