Tag Archives: egypt

The Dark Side of Social Media: How the Internet Can Hurt Revolutionaries

24 Mar
Josh Cheesman

@JoshCheesman

Much as revolution has spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, the topic of social media and the revolutions in the Middle East has spread from Georgie to Ian to Caroline, and now to me. As the title suggests, I’m going to look at the third view on how social media has affected the revolutions – in other words, the dark side of the phenomenon.

Emperor Palpatine

"Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen it. Well, except Libya. I expected that to be over a week ago."

 So, what do I mean by the “dark side”?

In her post Social Networks: Demographics and Democracy, Georgie talked about how the role sites like Twitter and Facebook have played in the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, giving the angry youth a place to voice their concerns, and to organise themselves more meaningfully.

The day after, Ian countered that the role of social media had been overplayed by the Western press, and that few people in the rebelling countries even had Facebook accounts (Are we giving Social Media too much credit for the Middle East uprising?).

I’m not going to dispute either of those arguments, but there is another angle to consider here. Namely, that when you’re planning insurgency, the last thing you want is all your personal information readily available to anyone interested in looking.

“The World’s Greatest Spying Machine

Just a few days ago, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gave a talk at Cambridge University in which he said that the internet was a great help to totalitarian regimes, allowing them to keep track of dissidents with ease.

“While the Internet has in some ways an ability to let us know to an unprecedented level what government is doing… it is also the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.”

Julian Assange

"The internet can be used to uncover all sorts of private information. I should know, it's how I made a name for myself."

Assange referenced a failed attempt at a revolution in Cairo a few years ago that was organised on Facebook.

Unfortunately, it was precisely because it was organised on Facebook that Hosni Mubarak’s forces were easily able to round up the protesters after the fact.

It’s kind of like posting some pictures of yourself drunk on Facebook and then realising that you have your boss added as a friend. Except instead of a warning, the consequence is being beaten, imprisoned and tortured.

“It is not a technology that favours freedom of speech. It is not a technology that favours human rights. Rather it is a technology that can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime, the likes of which we have never seen.” – Julian Assange

Beyond Egypt

The Cairo example Assange gave is not an isolated case. While most of the Western media has been trumpeting the achievements of social media in the Middle East, a few reporters have been looking at the negative effects in other authoritarian states.

Evengy Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World, wrote an article for The Globe and Mail called The dark side of internet for Egyptian and Tunisian protesters (obviously I wasn’t the only one who immediately thought of Star Wars allusions when faced with this topic). The article starts by talking about two Iranians hung for posting video online of the country’s “Twitter Revolution”, largely ignored by a media focused on Tunisia and Egypt at the time.

While Morozov goes on to give a balanced account of how the internet can both help and hinder revolution (it’s interesting to note that she cites Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s access to an internet “kill switch” as a must for all dictators – a sign that they do fear the internet), she nicely outlines the reasons why the internet can be such a danger:

“The secret police can now learn more about those opposing the state by looking up their profiles – and their friends’ profiles – on social-media sites. The state ideologues can now bolster the legitimacy of the regime by creating suave new media propaganda and claim that it represents ‘the voice of the people’. Young people can be distracted away from politics by the new i-opium of the masses that is never in short supply online.”

Morozov has also been quoted in an article by al-Jazeera, The dangers of social media revolt. There, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Tunisia are mentioned as examples of countries where dissidents have been caught as a result of their Facebook or Gmail accounts.

The author, writer and blogger Jillian York, posits that this is not even necessarily a case of the government hacking in, but could be the result of undercover agents creating fake online profiles.

Even if this isn’t true, the possibility alone will make potential insurgents that little bit more hesitant to spout revolutionary rhetoric.

And moving beyond the Middle East, how could we forget our old friend China? Well known for its government’s iron grip on internet access, Chinese authorities last month foiled a planned simultaneous protest simply by putting under house arrest everyone who searched the word “Jasmine” (the failed protests were nicknamed the “Jasmine Revolution”) on Twitter or similar sites.

Again, if you’re afraid to even make a search, what’s the likelihood of you actually saying anything to challenge the state?

Final Thoughts

At a Question-Time-style debate at City University last Friday, Times columnist David Aaronovitch responded to Julian Assange’s claim that the internet was the world’s “greatest spying machine” by saying that it was a tool, completely neutral in and of itself, that could be used for both good and evil.

This is the point I think we should take away from all this. Yes, social media may have had a positive effect in the Middle East, but it can prop up totalitarian regimes as easily as it can bring them down. Maybe we shouldn’t be lauding Twitter as the herald of the revolution just yet.

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Twitter promoted Tweets – does it corrupt online journalism?

13 Mar

Caroline James @CarolineJames1

It began with Toy Story 3.  Finally, Twitter happened on a means of making money in the form of “promoted Tweets”.

Fair enough: if you don’t like the look of what’s being promoted, you don’t have to click on it.

But what happens, when news channels start promoting their news coverage via Twitter? The issue of how commercial pressures impact upon news coverage is something oft discussed by journalists: The Independent’s David Lister wrote about it back in 1993.  Commercial broadcasters, like ITV, are dependent on advertising revenue to finance their programmes, including news coverage.  So, the debate comes when viewers feel the news agenda is being dictated by these financial pressures, rather than editorial ones.

Al-Jazeera is having something of a moment in terms of its news coverage right now.  As early as January, it saw an increase in traffic to its site by a staggering 2,500%. Positioned in the perfect spot to cover the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, it has leapt on the Twitter band-wagon to take advantage of this:

Al-Jazeera began promoting their tweets with the Egypt coverage

So, not only are they in the perfect spot to provide the most “on-the-ground” or “close-to-the-source” journalism, but they’re directing more traffic to their news coverage via promoted Tweets.

While it’s a fantastic application for social media on a new journalistic distribution platform – TV – the idea of paying to increase the size of your audience has its critics.

Data scientist, Ed Borasky points to Al-JAzeera’s purchase of major Egypt-related hashtags: #Egypt #jan25 #Mubarak and some of the new cabinet ministers, too.  He concludes: “This is about money pure and simple.  This is about closing sales.”

Borasky also flags up the fact that Al-Jazeera has gone even further than just hashtags and tweets.  It’s purchased a “Twitter promoted account”, which means it can crop up at the top of “who to follow lists”. 

So is it a question of Al-Jazeera unfairly exploiting Twitter and tricking users for its own gain? Or, is it merely an example of excellent mutual opportunism from both sides?

Twitter makes money from its promoted tweets and accounts and I’m sure Al-Jaz are paying handsomely for the privilege.  There doesn’t seem to be any definitive answer from Twitter on how much this all costs – whilst the Twitter blog introducing the concept in April last year raves about how “really excited” this new platform makes them, it doesn’t mention money and more significantly, the specific costs of promoting a tweet. Surely, this is a key question? Can I afford to promote my tweets, too? Or, do I need the financial backing of the Qatari Emir, as Al-Jazzera has?

Jeremy Shoemaker with his blog post on advertising with Twitter is more scathing still, asserting: “users get the shaft”.  He reminds us that, if Twitter chooses to promote my tweets, his tweets, or your tweets, we don’t get a penny.  He sums it up: “This is the first advertising model I can think of where the user who is creating 100% of the content being paid to advertise is getting zero percentage of the revenue”.

While I don’t like the idea of one news outfit attracting more coverage than another, simply because it has more money, Al-Jazeera does seem to have struck gold with Twitter promoted tweets.  It’s in the right place at the right time and exploiting that position to cement itself as THE place to go to for the latest on what’s unfolding in the Middle East.  It looks like we’re going to be hooked on what’s happening in the region for the foreseeable future so you can’t help but admire Al-Jazeera’s new marketing strategy.

This is beyond social media in online journalism, this is social media in online AND TV journalism: a new and exciting concept altogether.

 

Libya: Partisan coverage from mainstream media

6 Mar

Caroline James @CarolineJames1

There’s something about news coverage of what’s going on in Libya that makes me uneasy.

In the UK, we might be guilty of condescension towards Fox News, which we deride for its partiality.  The University of Maryland has even commissioned a study, claiming “extended exposure to Fox News makes voters stupid”, according to one article.

But are we any better?

Blind to what’s been going on in the MENA region for years, we’ve praised the Tunisians/Egyptians/Libyans for rising up in defiance of dictators who’ve too long held them in the grip of oppressive regimes.

And yet, Western governments have ignored, even rubber stamped, Gaddafi’s dictatorship for four decades.  So long, that the recent surge of anti-Gaddafi feeling in the mainstream media smacks of guilt:  kiss-and-tells, articles ridiculing Gaddafi’s sanity and SUDDENLY, he is to be investigated for war crimes.

We ignored it as it happened, but now we’re quick to condemn it.  Take, for example, Sir Howard Davies’ resignation as director of the LSE over its links to the Gaddafi regime.

I don’t condone the Gaddafi rule, but I do want to highlight the hypocrisy surrounding the media coverage of Libya.  Where’s the neutrality and impartiality that we expect from British journalists? Where are the pro-Gaddafi voices we should be obligated to hear in the pursuit of balanced coverage?

In one article, in the Ham & High, I direct you to the first line of the second paragraph:

Ham & High: "Gaddafi son told: quit suburb NOW"

 

Alleging Said Gaddafi is a “mass murderer” is surely grounds for libel.  Until The Hague can pin a war crime on the man, we cannot hold him accountable for sins of the father.  The mainstream press is going too far.

This raises an interesting point on the relationship between the official journalist and his citizen counterpart.  Type “Libya” into Twitter and try not to drown under a surge of anti-Gaddafi sentiment:

Anti Gaddafi tweet

There’s even an “Enough Gaddafi” profile .  It seems that, suddenly, everyone has something to say about Gaddafi – and their opinions have been heavily informed by what they’ve see on the news or read in the papers.

The lone voices who dare show a pro-Gaddafi stance are remarkable in their infrequency and derided for doing so (note the disparaging quotation marks around the trivialising adjective “voluptuous”):

Pro-Gaddafi voices are undermined

And, yet, we’ve ignored what Gaddafi was doing in Libya for years and, implicitly, given his dictatorship the green light to carry on.

The citizen journalist isn’t governed by the same pressures as the mainstream media, free to express a dissenting opinion or challenge what their official counterparts are doing.  There’s a pro-Gaddafi Facebook group, for example.

Anthony Loewenstein’s blog finds space to accuse western media of over simplification: Gaddafi is “bad” and we are “good”.  He accuses reporters of defending “the government line” because “that is their only logical perspective”.   This balance is rare on the tide of public sentiment towards the Libyan leader and his family.

We need more even-handed coverage of events in Libya.  If the pro-Gaddafi voices are discredited, before we give them a platform on which to be heard, it stokes the fire of “media conspiracy”.

As Ian and Georgie have argued in turn, social media has had some part to play in what’s going on in the Middle East.  I’ve found myself turning to it, too, to provide some antidote to the assumption that “West is best”, with blogs like Anthony’s and Dissident Voice.  Social media is, at present,  the only place we’re able to hear both sides: pro-Gaddafi alongside protester.

Are we giving Social Media too much credit for the Middle Eastern uprising?

28 Feb

Ian Kearney

@IanKearney

You may have read my colleague Georgina’s thought provoking piece on social networking and the fight for democracy in the Middle East. Yes undoubtedly social networks have and are still playing a part in rousing a lust for democracy, bringing repressed revolutionaries together and letting the world know what’s happening, but are we giving them more credit than they deserve?

Perhaps I’m being cynical or maybe I’m just plain wrong but it is important to question these things. Just because the mass media has given us the perception that Social Media played a huge role in the Middle Eastern uprising it doesn’t mean we should consider it fact without further thought.

Consider this, soon after the Egyptian uprising began the internet was shut down. This didn’t stop the growth of the protests, in fact we sat there day by day watching the masses grow.

How many people even have social networking accounts in these countries? The relevant Twitter statistics are not available but according to Facebook Statistic website SocialBakers;

  • Egypt has: 5 651 080 users and has had a 10% rise in the number of new accounts in the last month.
  • Tunisia has: 2 201 780 users and has had an 8% rise in the number of new accounts in the last month.
  • Libya has: 305 420 users and has had a 16% rise in the number of new accounts in the last month.

As we can see all three countries have had a notable rise in the number of people signing up to Facebook but if we look at the numbers as a percentage of their overall population the picture is a little different.

Only 4% of Libyans have Facebook accounts, 7% of Egyptians and 21% of Tunisians.

Looking at these figures, do the social networks have enough reach in these countries to move an entire nation to revolt? Perhaps in Tunisia but as for Egypt and Libya I’m not so convinced.

Facebook Revolution

Revolutions have been happening throughout the ages and while social networks are a relatively new phenomenon, revolutions are not.

To quote Peter Preston on his recent article in The Guardian, Twitter is no substitute for proper war reporting – just look at Libya;

“Lenin, Fidel Castro and Ayatollah Khomeini all managed to stage revolutions in the age before Twitter. The Soviet Union collapsed while Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was still in short pants. So, just possibly, some of the credit for freedom’s wave as it washes around the Middle East belongs more to ordinary human beings standing together than to a tide of tweets.”

Would these revolutions have happened without social networks? Yes, of course they would. Would the world have gotten a similar insight, perhaps not.

social networks: demographics and democracy

27 Feb

by Georgina Leggate

 @GeorginaLeggate

Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya…social media has been the driving force behind most of, if not all of, the 2011 protests that have taken place in the Middle East. Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook not only played a huge role in the pro-democracy surge but they have provided a platform of communication, which is accessible to all areas of society. These networks have acted as a starting point for all of the protests and have given eclectic groups of repressed citizens, a taste of freedom.

The rich, the poor, the educated, the non-educated, thousands of individuals have been part of what we now call ‘the revolution’. Social media enabled both the protesters and their followers the world over, to support mass movements against autocratic governments.

Social networking also has the amazing ability to crush and flatten hierarchy. Let’s take the Egyptians for example. It is easy to think that the poor or the unemployed triggered the demonstrations, when in-fact there was a growing culture of frustration amongst all socio-economic classes across Egypt. Due to Mubarak’s repressive regime, class distinctions have become more and more blurred. Low pay, low moral combined with high levels of intellect and motivation created a spark that was going to fire up in to something much more.

The reality was that the individuals behind the progressive movement were young, educated and often, privileged men who had access to the Internet and had the ability to use it. The ever-increasing world of social networks that protesters used, gave them a voice.

The use of these social networks enabled technologically savvy protestors to make extraordinary use of the Internet and mobilise the masses. Despite an authoritarian government, social media gave the Egyptians back the power to the people as they usurped the incumbent Egyptian leadership.

Social media was used as a platform to reach citizens in their own country, neighbouring states and crucial, global, expat communities as well.

Unbeknown to the Egyptians, they were to start something quite spectacular as they gained national and international support. This ‘something’ was the ‘revolution’ which arguably stemmed from a large dollop of dictatorship, a sprinkle of civil unrest, a pinch of the people served with a large spoonful of social networks .