Social media as the new leadership in social movements: The Egyptian Revolution
by Hana Sebane Tesema
The current developments made in technology have not only transformed our daily lives but also revolutions such as the explosive Egyptian revolution. Manuel Castells discusses the Egyptian revolution in terms of a social movement, part of the ‘Network Movements of the Internet Age’. One chapter in Castells’ book Networks of Outrage and Hope details how the Egyptian revolution came to be and the importance of technology in these waves of revolutions or movements. Yet, Castells fails to discuss the cons of the social movements such as the Egyptian revolution in comparison to revolution from decades before. Which is what this blog will examine, to determine if this technology-supported social movement is, in fact, successful in achieving its goals.
It could be argued that the Egyptian revolution would not have happened if it wasn’t for the immediate mobilisation through the internet and wireless communication. Social media was the initial catalyst however it did not lead to the formation of a political party nor organisation with clear leadership and ideology. Castells notes that social media united the Egyptian people in communicating their frustrations over the period of only 18 days which is astounding compared to previous social movements, that took months and years to mobilise people. However, the Egyptian revolution suffered from the lack of direction which can be attributed to a lack of leadership, loose structure, lack of ideology etc. The Egyptian people went to the streets demanding Hosni Mubarak to step down. Furthermore, they protested for democracy and the end of poverty but they failed to have a specific plan or strategy on how to accomplish the goals mentioned above. This was especially evident when Mubarak stepped down early in the revolution, people thought the fight was over however it escalated further with the military taking over, the Muslim brotherhood and the current dictatorship in place now. All this can be attributed to the lack of direction, leadership, and planning before the mobilisation of the people since demonstration was a method part of a bigger tactic in previous revolutions and social movement.
Revolutions throughout history are often associated with specific leadership, ideologies, groups, and tactics. A good example is the non-violence tactics of Gandhi’s such as Tapasya´´ that has inspired different social justice movements in India, Burma and the United states. These nonviolence movements such as in Burma with the National league of democracy had different actions such as civil disobedience, boycott, sanction, strike and much more. However, the National League of democracy was a well-established political opposition party; with its fierce leader Aung san Suu Kyi, it has been able to continue its resistance from September 27, 1988, until the present time, while the Egyptian revolution dissolved due to the factors mentioned above. There are undeniably some tactics that are similar such as civil disobedience but again there is a lack of collective identity with a clear ideological identity.
Another issue related to leadership is decision-making, which becomes extremely difficult to do with hundreds of thousands of people with different agendas, which is what happened in the occupy movement. It is easier when a control is placed on a specific group to lead the revolution. However, one could argue that it is the people’s movement led by the people for the people without few individuals taking all the power. The self-organizing element is essential with these new movements which an element that is positive as every individual can easily organise a demonstration easily in the comfort of their home without undergoing a process of raising awareness since it is the information age. There is not a significant political change in the post-revolution Egypt when it comes to the executive, legislative and judicial institutions. I mean organisation in terms of the movement itself, not the actual mobilisation and organising protests since that is what these social movements have capitalised in when compared to other revolutions or movements a few decades back. Social movements have been able to reach across the globe with small effort, which is much credited to the internet, important to movements such as occupy. However, the internet can be shut down easily, such as when Mubarak switched off the internet during the revolution. Furthermore, these new social movements seem to be limited to occupying a territory (Tahrir square) and protesting.
Another element to consider is that the social media platforms are run by corporations who sell the data off to other parties, which could have real life implications. However, one cannot deny the independent, unbiased platform that the social media offer since one can directly post unedited documents and videos without gatekeepers which the television and radio networks have done for years. It has been able to break down some of the power structure existing across different sectors of the society. When it comes to social movements the mainstream media tend to depict the opposition as the villain in most revolutions by being selective in its reporting because it’s mostly run by the establishment. However, these social movements have given people the right to narrate their own story without the involvement of a third party. However, it is not to minimise the impact of the media on our thinking. In social movements such as the Egyptian revolution, the social media activities somewhat forced the mainstream media to be involved such in the case of Al-Jazeera early in the Egyptian revolution. It was due to the growing attention in the social media that led to the acknowledgement of the international scene such as when Mubarak switched off the internet.
Castells, Manuel. Networks Of Outrage And Hope. 1st ed. Cambridge (GB): Polity Press, 2012. Print