Social media didn’t lead to the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, but this new system of communication certainly played a role in the process of the revolt.
Dr. David Parry, assistant professor of Emerging Media and Communication at The University of Texas at Dallas, argues that an Internet-equipped public is substantially different from a non-Internet-enabled one, and that while we haven’t been deluded by the Internet’s possibilities, we ought to be careful not to overestimate them.
“What happened in Egypt and Tunisia would have looked much different, played out differently if the ‘how’ of the revolution had been different, if social media had not been one of the tools used as a means of communication,” Parry stated.
Parry homed in specifically on the Egyptian government’s decision to shut down citizen access to the Internet. The government also cut mobile phone service, forcing protesters to rely on more traditional means of communication.
“While other countries have ‘pulled the plug’ on the Internet, namely Burma in 2007 and Nepal in 2005, this is the first time that a country with such a large Internet penetration had entirely shut off access. But while the Egyptian government could shut down the hardware of the Internet, it could not shut down the social effects of the digital network.
“In the same way a public is fundamentally changed by the existence of print technology, a public is fundamentally altered by access to the digital network,” Parry said. “This is what makes the situation in Egypt different from Burma and Nepal – in the latter cases the government was shutting down access to information from the outside and controlling the flow of news; but Egypt was shutting down the way that a substantial portion of their populace was communicating.”
Parry also cites China as an example of an authoritarian government that can shut off access to the Internet at any time. Internet censorship in China is conducted under a wide variety of laws and administrative regulations, and is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any other country in the world, Parry said. The regime not only blocks website content but also monitors the Internet access of individuals.
However, Parry argues that the situation in China differs from that in Egypt because the Chinese people use Chinese-based Internet services, and remain largely unaffected when Western sites such as Facebook or even Google are shut down. The Egyptians were much more reliant on Western services, and therefore felt the effects and demanded change.
Parry takes issue with the belief that social media produces a revolution in and of itself, but also acknowledges that the tools we use alter our means of communication. Social media is able to give a voice to those who previously had none – dissidents, anarchists, and even the average everyman – and in the case of Egypt, that voice appears to have been heard and answered.
But Parry warns potential copycats hoping for a similar outcome: “A digitally networked public can just as easily be used for social ill as for social justice; nothing guarantees that civic engagement yields civic progress. But it does guarantee that a public with the Internet has a substantially different relation to its government than a public without the Internet.”