Egypt, Twitter, and the rise of the watchdog crowd

Social media's real role in today's ousting of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was the creation of a huge, leaderless international collective of support for activists on the ground.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
A screenshot from one of the many livestreams of victorious protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square after Egypt's president announced his resignation. Reuters TV

There were two critical masses that led to the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on Friday: One was the horde of protesters who flooded Tahrir Square in the country's capital of Cairo for two weeks. The second was the fusion of millions of observers, pundits, and supporters around the world into a sort of leaderless digital watchdog, an unwavering force that ensured the international eye would not stray from Egypt.

It's the latter where we can credit social media.

We shouldn't go so far as to call this a social media revolution, but it nevertheless is arguably the first time in history that we've seen Facebook and Twitter, a crucial part of the way we now communicate, speedily and successfully conveying the ideas and beliefs that do lead to a revolution. More importantly, social media makes this all happen in a public forum with the rest of the world watching, something that made it possible for Egypt to be in the middle of a massive international spotlight, emotionally empowering those on the ground and strengthening the pressure on Mubarak's regime with a force that came not from world leaders but from the sheer size of the crowd.

"Social media didn't cause this revolution. It amplified it; it accelerated it," said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a producer for news network Al-Jazeera English, in a panel about Egypt and social media that was held Friday afternoon at Google's New York office as part of the Social Media Week conference series. "It's important to notice that in a very short period of time there have been two revolutions, so to speak."

Egypt was the second of those two. The first one, an uprising in nearby Tunisia that saw its government ousted, was crucial to Egypt's for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it permitted the world to watch what was unfolding in Egypt from its beginnings. That early attention was what let the "global watchdog" get as powerful as it was.

"I think it's been incredibly condescending to diminish, if you will, what was an incredibly popular revolution the likes of which the Arab world has not seen, perhaps the whole world has not seen, and just to say that it was a Facebook event or a Twitter event."
--Parvez Sharma, filmmaker and writer

Here's why: All too often, political turmoil is only highlighted in the mainstream when it's well under way rather than in its infancy, and to use an analogy that's slightly inappropriate in its levity, the level of popular interest outside the region is often akin to that of an audience member who walks into a movie theater halfway through the film. No real emotional connection is made to the subject matter, interest peters out quickly, and the political situation disappears from the mainstream media.

But in Egypt, which was in the spotlight from the start because news outlets had already begun covering the situation in Tunisia, the audience outside Egypt was treated to the full story from the revolution's earliest hours. The Twittering masses were captivated and would not be satisfied until there was some kind of conclusion to the story. This is a story with a beginning, a plot, a cast of characters (witness the rise in prominence of then-detained Google executive Wael Ghonim over the past two weeks), and the global desire to produce a satisfying end.

That amplified audience would not have been able to grow so powerful without social media's unprecedented reach and ability to fuel a more or less infinite amount (server power willing) of real-time news.

This is particularly important to note because it was among those outside Egypt that social media may have had the most profound impact. In the same panel discussion today, filmmaker and writer Parvez Sharma emphasized that while millions of people were tuning into Twitter for Egypt updates, few of them were actually on location even before the Mubarak regime began cracking down on Internet access.

"There's 80 million people in Egypt, and almost 40 percent are below the poverty line," Sharma said. "Cell phone penetration is incredibly high, but the majority of the cell phones are not smartphones. A lot of the information that was getting out was from a very small critical mass of people that were able to tweet out of Egypt. Friends of mine in Cairo estimate that it's less than 200 people who were tweeting from Cairo."

Sharma continued: "I think it's been incredibly condescending to diminish, if you will, what was an incredibly popular revolution the likes of which the Arab world has not seen, perhaps the whole world has not seen, and just to say that it was a Facebook event or a Twitter event."

Social media did not make the revolution in Egypt happen. But, with every step chronicled in real time and broadcast to anyone with an Internet connection, it hastened its pace and transferred the voice of international scrutiny from sovereign leaders to a community of millions. When it comes to pressuring an authoritarian leader to step down, the heat has never been turned up so quickly.

As entrepreneur Habib Haddad tweeted about the whole thing, "Social media has lowered the cost of revolution."