In Libya, perfecting the art of revolution by Twitter

Every generation’s revolutionaries have harnessed the latest technology, from patriots pamphleting in 1775 to Egyptians texting in 2011. Thanks to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, today’s Libyan rebels are having a dialogue with the globe, not just each other.

Social media website via Reuters TV
A fire-fighter in Misurata, Libya, attempts to put out a blaze at fuel storage tanks, bombed the night before by government forces, in this frame taken from video uploaded to a social media website on May 6. Through text and video disseminated on social media, rebels are keeping the government from controlling the world's perception of events in war-torn Libya.

An Egyptian cab driver tells this joke to foreign reporters: President Hosni Mubarak dies and is greeted in the afterlife by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who asks him how he died. Mr. Mubarak answers, “Death by Twitter.”

Much has been written about the role of new media such as Twitter and Facebook in the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” that has swept the Middle East. But political rebels using the latest communication technology – from hand pamphlets to fax machines – is as old as tyranny.

What’s new is the speed and exponential power of today’s new media to jump over traditional boundaries of time and space, says Philip Howard, author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam.”

Non-violent protesters and armed rebels all over the region have begun marshaling this unprecedented power to their cause.

“The media war is as important as the battlefield … if not more important,” a Libyan businessman, known only as Mohammed, told NPR. He is spearheading a delegation from Misurata to Qatar in search of weapons and money.

Protesters’ social-media learning curve

There has been a learning curve even among the most sophisticated media users, says Professor Howard, who researches information and communication technologies in politics and social development at the University of Washington.

In Tunisia, where fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation to protest the government became a cause célèbre, the news spread slowly, from a small number “who were close to him, who took pictures of his burnt and bandaged body and sent the images over trusted networks to families and friends. They passed them on and passed on the story,” he says.

A similar organic process spread the story of Khalid Said, the Egyptian blogger bludgeoned to death outside an Internet cafe, Howard adds. “He had been beaten, and a few family friends took pictures in the morgue and sent them by mobile phone to friends. His bruised face became the image that played out over social networks.”

Libyan rebels learned from the successes in Tunisia and Egypt. One of the most important lessons: Get the message beyond your own borders.

“Before the Libyan protesters had even met for the first time with their shadow cabinet government,” Howard says, “they had come together to build a website and send out the URL asserting their statehood.”

“No longer is it enough to communicate locally or even nationally,” agrees Joan McLean, professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University.

“This reality is what makes social networking so critical to the Jasmine Revolution. The international community in all of its many forms must be reached. Governments, relief agencies, media outlets, nongovernmental organizations, and elites with resources all must be informed and mobilized into action,” she says via e-mail. Social media have transformed the range of voices that can be part of a nation’s dialogue, she adds.

Of course, there’s a difference between “knowing what you need to do – and then doing it,” adds Professor McLean.

The “next big wave of democratization”?

Nonetheless, a digital dialogue about national identity that jumps geographical boundaries is going to be increasingly hard to quell, says Leonard Shyles, a communications professor at Villanova University.

Global media are erasing the traditional constraints of time and space, he points out. Images of cultures where faith and reason coexist without government coercion can now move from one nation to another, bringing Western ideals not just to the educated elites but within range of anyone with a cellphone or access to an Internet cafe.

“It is no longer merely the elites in a society that will aspire to self-definition,” says Professor Shyles. Seeing what is possible – and watching revolutions in neighboring nations in real time – changes the shape of what people aspire to. “It may seem a platitude, but human beings want to be free.”

What the world is seeing in this “Egyptian Spring,” echoes Howard, are “the early signs of the next big wave of democratization. But this time, it will be wrestled into life in the digital living room of the global community.”

From now on, he adds, “you will not be able to tell the story of democratization without an appreciation of how social media works.”

Social media are not the causal factor in these movements, Shyles cautions. “Social media like Facebook and Twitter or texting are the accelerant for things that have been wanting to happen inside these countries,” he says.

Will it work?

It is not yet clear how many of the Middle Eastern countries currently in the throes of insurgent movements will evolve democratically, says John Foram, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“These movements represent some of our best possibilities for a better world,” says Professor Foram, but he notes that some of the countries, such as Syria and Iran, are among the world’s most repressive.

The continuing crackdown on civilian protesters in Syrian may illustrate some limitations of the power of social media to rally public opinion. Indeed, Syrian and Iranian governments are tracking their foes on Facebook, illustrating the technology's double-edged sword.

On the other hand, notes Foram, “If this movement is successful in Syria, then repressive countries around the world will have to consider what they need to do to be seen as legit in the eyes of their own people.”

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