Image credit: @carloslatuff
Picking up where I left off...
As previously noted, it is surely naive to assume that all of those who blogged, tweeted and facebooked about the protests were on the street in any/all of those protests. The opposite also holds true. A cursory look at Egyptian demographic data on education and internet penetration neither makes this a surprising observation nor vindicates the arguments of “cyber-skeptics”. In fact, it makes the whole “slacktivism vs activism” argument weaker from a cause-effect standpoint.
When the Egyptian government pulled the plug on Internet access in a foolish assumption that those unruly kids on the streets will go home if you take away their virtual toys, the regime erroneously thought that the use of social media is merely one of planning, organizing and mobilizing protests, entirely oblivious to the build-up of a revitalized collective conscience over the course of the past several years, in which social media played a key role. The effect of this error in judgment on the regime’s part was akin to trying to slow down a speeding 18-wheeler but accidentally stepping on the gas instead of the brakes. When Egypt went offline, many “slacktivists” turned into “activists”, and joined the protests on the streets. Traditional media, even if non-state controlled, could no longer fill the void of the distributed truth engine (I just made that term up!) made possible by online social networks. Without access to the relative trustworthiness of virtual space, you had to go see for yourself. What the government thought of as move to defuse the masses was, in fact, an incendiary act that started the countdown for Mubarak’s ousting.
As a supporting anecdote, here is a quote by one of my friends (Egyptian, female, 20something, graduate degree) reflecting on the events in the early days of the protests:
Jan. 25. I listened to the shouting crowds from my balcony yesterday, as groups of protesters were heading to Tahrir square. I wished I could join but fear held me back. Fear of being harassed or harmed by the forces of the National Security, fear that going through pain and humiliation would make me more and more hateful of our circumstances, and thus lose my stamina towards carrying on my efforts in making things better on the long term without any political confrontation.
Media manipulation and Twitter blocking changed my stance; it got on my nerves so much that I could not stay in. A minute long phone call from a friend got me out of the house, together we went to Tahrir square.
Yesterday was a firm answer putting an end to all the allegations and brainwashing that claimed that the current system is better than all other options in front of us; it was also a good revision to all that I have learned through my Political Science courses. And because I believe in what I’ve learned, I see a ray of light. If change doesn’t happen now, it’s coming nonetheless. We have changed, and we have proven that we want and deserve to change.
This brings to mind the error many pundits are making when debating this issue: they focus a little too much on the “digital” in “digital activism”, generally demoting the use of social networks in inciting real change to the face value of online interactions (blog posts, tweets, e-vites, etc…), and creating a false dichotomy between social interactions in virtual space and popular confrontational action in real space.