TOP: Egypt, Twitter, and Activism.
Activism and social network platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are mentioned together more often than ever. The 2009 Iranian election protest was nicknamed the ‘Twitter Revolution,’ and the more recent protests in Egypt are depicted similarly. The platforms are said to enable and generate activism, but at the same time this assumed importance for activism is disputed.
The use of social network platforms for (online) activism clearly asks how we should understand and characterise recent forms of protest. During the transformation of politics class (TOP) 2010 we briefly looked into these questions. Here I will mainly focus on the characteristics of the Egyptian protests, linking them to Twitter when possible. W. Lance Bennet (2004) in ‘Communicating global activism: Strength and vulnerabilities of networked politics’ provided the TOP class with four guidelines to understanding changes in activism in the light of globalization and “networked complexity”.
1. From a common ideology to ‘ideologically thin’:
Multiple groups with their own ideologies, but with the same goal.
The concept of ideologically thin is clearly visible in Egypt’s revolution. The protesters come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds and religions, but all demand the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The anti-government protesters come from different ideological backgrounds but all strive for the same goal.
2. From activism centred on prominent leaders to
decentralized activist groups without central leaders.
In contrast to the presence of leaders it seems that platform activism is characterised by the rise of symbols. For instance, in relation to the Iranian “twitter revolution”, Neda became an important symbol in the media and on Twitter: “Neda, the face of a revolution.” Research by the Digital Methods Initiative showed that many tweets during the Iran election crisis concerned her, in addition to many re-tweeted censorship and Internet topics. The importance of technology and social network platforms is also a widely discussed and disputed topic in the media. You could thus argue that these technologies and platforms themselves become disputed symbols of activism.
3. From temporary to permanent campaigns. If a certain goal is met by one group,
other groups with their own goals take over the campaign.
The permanent characteristic of activist campaigns does not seem very relevant for platform activism or the activism in Egypt. A description that seems more suitable is viral, in line with Galloway and Thackers concept of exploit, or explosive. The activism seems to spread like a virus, an epidemic outbreak infecting other countries, with mutated versions. On Twitter the activism is characterised by an explosion of Twitter-usage and an overload of messages that quickly deflate and disappear.
4. From activism against national politics to global activism
against transnational organisations, multinationals, etc.
To understand the protest as transnational as opposed to national is more problematic in relation to Egypt’s protests. The protests are highly localised around governmental issues, but could be considered transnational through global interests or even the use of social network platforms that are American based. Thus, on the one hand it is no longer just a question of local or global, but glocal, being local and global at the same time. On the other hand this local, global or glocal is dependant on the perspectives and the ideologies of the specific group.
In relation to recent activism it thus becomes important to make a distinction between who has what goals and to keep in mind that there is not just one issue but multiple issues, people and ideologies at stake. In relation to Twitter, this complex relationship becomes apparent when looking at who is actually tweeting. Research pointed out that only a small amount of the population of Iran had a Twitter account at the time of the elections and that the re-tweets were mostly American or International. Rather than asking how important Twitter is for activism, you could ask ‘who is speaking for who on Twitter’.
Bennett, Lance. “Communicating Global Activism. Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Networked Politics.” Cyberprotest: New Media, Citizens and Social Movements. Eds. Wim van de Donk et al., New York: Routledge, 2004. 123-146.