David Faris est professeur adjoint de science politique à la Roosevelt University. Son ouvrage Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (Londres, I. B. Tauris) paraîtra en septembre 2012. Il publiera un article (en français) sur les médias sociaux et le « printemps arabe » dans le n°1/2012 de Politique étrangère. En attendant la parution de cet article, il répond à trois questions (en anglais), en exclusivité pour politique-etrangere.com.
What role did social networks play in the 2011 Egyptian revolution?
Online social networks were critical in building opposition to the Mubarak regime from 2003 until 2011. These networks first operated through blogs, and subsequently through more sophisticated social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Through these social networks, social dissidents helped forge and refine a repertoire of contention, including symbols, protest tactics and organizations, and were able to help Egyptian activists coalesce around a small number of human rights and democracy issues that mostly transcended existing political divisions in the country. It was around these issues that revolutionaries united in 2011. Again, this was all happening years before the uprising, and served as the foundation for the kinds of organizing and planning that took place prior to the revolution. We know that the date of the uprising was chosen by digital activists from the April 6th and We Are All Khaled Said movements, both of which were digital in origin, and many of the key strategists of the day’s events were longstanding digital activists and journalists. Without the key contributions of those activists and networks, there would have been many thousands fewer Egyptians committed to protesting on January 25th, and it is quite uncertain whether the day’s events, and thus the uprising, would have unfolded the same way. This is not, of course, to say that online social networks were the only key causal contributor to the Egyptian uprising, or that they were even the most important factor once the protests took on a life of their own. On the contrary, grassroots organizing, a labor uprising, and key defections inside the regime itself may have been more important in bringing the crisis to conclusion than anything the activists did after January 25th. But this should not lead us to obscure the leading role of digital activists. So this is the first model – a long-term digital activist movement that builds a small but tight-knit community of dissidents, an uprising deliberately plotted by those same digital activists, and a street mobilization that ultimately eclipses the capabilities and hopes of the smaller community of organizers.
What role did social networks play in the 2011 Tunisian revolution?
The Tunisian case is a fascinating contrast, because unlike the Egyptian regime, the Tunisian government heavily censored and controlled the Internet. When I spoke with activists last summer, they described it as a more or less total blackout one day, and then complete freedom after Ben Ali’s departure. The point is that in Egypt the government’s (mostly) hands-off attitude allowed a culture of online dissent and protest to evolve at the same time as an offline protest movement developed to challenge the regime. This would have made us, prior to the revolution, much more likely to expect an uprising in Egypt than Tunisia, but it was in Tunisia where the Arab Spring started. In Tunisia, the most important blog, Nawaat, was largely hosted and administered from abroad, due to the danger of openly using the Internet for dissent. People could get around the government’s censorship, but many ordinary people did not bother, and thus Tunisia’s anti-regime movement was much more inchoate when the uprising struck. Nevertheless, Ben Ali’s regime had allowed citizens to use Facebook, and it was the major social media platforms which played an important role in the uprising. Unlike Egypt, the uprising was not plotted openly online by digital activists, but of course instigated by the immolation of a street vendor. Once Mohammed Bouazzizi’s death brought Tunisians into the streets, however, online social networks played an important role in distributing information from one part of the country to the next, in connecting activists to one another, and in garnering support and sympathy from international actors and NGOs. And I think it became clear after the uprising that more people had been reading Nawaat and surreptitiously using the Internet for dissent than anyone realized. So this is a second model – a country smothered by digital censorship and a revolution that is sparked by something in the street and then assisted by digital tools and online social networks. I think what should be clear is that both models — the Egyptian and Tunisian — are possible depending on the censorship and filtering strategies adopted by particular authoritarian regimes.
Are future revolutions necessarily going to be “networked revolts”?
Future revolutions can hardly avoid the necessity of wisely deploying and using the new tools and strategies of networked digital activism. This is hard for us to see or properly understand, because digital tools have gone from being a novelty or a curiosity to being completely embedded in the routines and lives of ordinary people even in some of the world’s poorest countries. And this has all happened in the space of about twenty years. For most young people in most parts of the world, the curiosity now would be to make a decision not to use Twitter and Facebook to organize a protest. It would be unthinkable. Particularly in large, polyglot societies whose popular cultures are increasingly characterized by narrowcasting — the funneling of information, news and entertainment to smaller audiences based on taste or preference — our broad online social networks are really the only way for information, ideas and calls to action to circulate efficiently and beyond the immediate scope of authoritarian control. Even countries with rigid architectures of online control, like China and Iran, have seen these technologies used against them. This is not to say that activists will always gain the upper hand, but rather that across the world, online social networks have become the default tool of dissent against authoritarian regimes, and those regimes have yet to find a reliable way to fight back and win.
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