Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

February 8, 2011 · by David Campbell · media economy, photography, politics, Thinking Images

Thinking Images – an occasional series on some of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Egypt Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet

Hundreds of thousands of protestors have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrating that the demand for change in Egypt is as strong as ever. Today the scene has been peaceful, but two weeks of extensive coverage from a corps of international photojournalists has laid bare the violence that led to more than 300 deaths across the country (for overviews of the pictures see the New York Times gallery or the summary on Photojournalism Links).

Whilst many of these images are powerful records of the events they portray, their subject matter is necessarily limited by the focus on a few sites of protests. In circumstances like these, no matter the photographic skills on display, we often end up with a collection of imagery that either doesn’t provide an overall narrative, or a collection that can sustain a range of competing narratives. Being on the ground and close has its advantages, but it frequently fails to capture the context.

In his excellent analysis of the complexity of the political situation in Egypt, Paul Amar shows how much academic and media commentary has employed binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses to view this uprising. Amar describes three prominent perspectives:

(1) People versus Dictatorship, a perspective that leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising; (2) Seculars versus Islamists, a model that leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street”; or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth, a lens which imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

Of the photographs we might ask: do they affirm or challenge a sense of “good guys versus bad guys”? Regardless of the intention of an individual photographer, if they can be read as affirming this framing, how do they intersect with notions of the “People versus Dictatorship”, “Seculars versus Islamists” or “Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth”? I don’t know the answer to these questions. But just by asking them I think we can begin to see how photographs need to be understood as more than documents of a moment; they are objects that constitute an event for those of us not present at the scene.

The resurgence of protest, two weeks on from the 25 January, was fuelled by the release of Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for Google and prominent internet activist who had been held in secret detention. Ghonim gave an emotional television interview, that can be seen here. The remarkable 6 minute introduction to this interview touches on the significance of the internet and the web in enabling at least part of the uprising.

Outside of Egypt, and after Tunisia, we have witnessed a frustrating debate about the role of social media in political transformations, with many insisting (in the words of Malcolm Gladwell) “the revolution will not be tweeted.” The ‘debate’ is frustrating because the framing of the argument does not often involve evidence. Deen Freelon has performed the important task of revealing both the framing and the range of competing claims on how the internet impacts revolutions. Few if any of these claims match the zealous “cyber-utopianism” so often ascribed to them. Indeed, as Dave Parry has argued, cyber-utopianism isn’t something associated with a particular individual but a circulating theme in national discourse. Once we dispense with the neatly organized but misleading theme we end up with Mathew Ingram’s conclusion:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Egypt has certainly reinforced important points about the power of social media and the structure of the Internet. The Mubarak regime feared the organizing capacity of social media sufficiently to shut the Internet off. That reminded us that the Internet is a physical network and it matters who controls the nodes.

In authoritarian states, the government might be able to flick a “kill switch” to shut off the web. Although there is a proposal for the US to have this capacity too, the most common threats to the open web in our societies comes from corporate control. As John Naughton, Jay Rosen and Dave Winer have argued, the way in which Amazon, PayPal and other companies barred Wikileaks from their online services made clear how far we are from having a truly open Internet. Tim Berners-Lee argues that the way in which social networking sites are walling off their data thereby preventing links is also a threat to the original egalitarian principles of the world wide web.

At the same time, the Wikileaks controversy late last year also demonstrated that the web remains structurally more open than many systems – the closure of wikileaks.org was soon overcome by a multitude of mirror sites that cannot be easily or permanently disabled. Learning from these recent events to resist all the forces of closure and keep the Internet open so that, in Tim Berners-Lee’s words, “any person could share information with anyone else, anywhere” has to be a founding principle for the new media economy.

Featured photo: A girl waves the national flag of Egypt in the crowd as thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protests, 8 February 2011. Felipe Trueba/EPA.

13 Responses to “Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet”

  1. As usual, Clay Shirky offers an interesting perspective on the role of social media in tumultuous political environments. Here’s a short interview with Clay talking about his recent essay about this in Foreign Affairs magazine:
    http://www.theworld.org/2011/01/21/the-political-power-of-social-media/
    My take-away is “Don’t underestimate the power of cute cats…” (a line that Clay credits to Ethan Zuckerman)

    • Yes, I agree with that Stephen. Although Shirkey is sometimes tagged a ‘cyber-utopian’, if people actually read his arguments then such a simple label is flawed. In the Foreign Affairs article he provides a nuanced overview.

  2. Social media, citizen journalism and the freedom of the Internet in the context of these world changing events are for sure interesting to discuss (thanks for that!).
    In my eyes something else could be seen as well -and I do not want to derail from the topic here, so I will keep it short-, the rebirth, after all it has been declared dead, of the photojournalism. The Magnum’s of the world reported, the story telling visual skills of the professional photographers shaped the perception of the events. Not the blurry pictures from some handphones nor the twitterpics of a local witness. It would be worthwhile to analyze this as well – c’mon David ;)
    Best,
    Thomas

    • Thomas; I’ve never subscribed to the common theme about ‘the death’ of photojournalism. Most things referenced by this repetitive claim are about the business of news images rather than the creative practice of making images. The latter has flourished despite the many economic and technological challenges. Egypt, like Haiti last year, is interesting for the way an event draws large numbers of well-known photographers. So having questioned claims of ‘death’ it wouldn’t make much sense to proclaim the ‘rebirth’ of something that, as a practice, I think has had, and will have, a long life.

  3. Social media played a significant part in the revolution not just before the revolution, but also during the revolution. Online videos of protesters and violence against protesters pushed many people to get out and support them, even if just to increase the number and the pressure on the president. Closing the internet and the mobile phones for 5 days from Friday 28 Jan. pushed people to the streets and intensified the anger and determination on getting the former regime down. Then, the Tahrir Square massacre of Feb.2 supported with satellite TV coverage further intensified the determination bec. it turned into a blood issue, since that the parents of the martyrs said they won’t bury them and accept condolences until he leaves.

    Today the challenge is cut out all the roots of corruption and build a new Egypt. Please support tourism in Egypt by encouraging your friends and colleagues to come. It is safe and sound and the military is perfectly securing the country. Please spread this video in solidarity with freedom:

  4. It is a shame that other African countries such as Kenya will never be able to do what Egypt and Tunisia have done. Ethnic divisions are still a reality in Kenya. most Kenyans are still living under a fallacy in which they believe that if a fellow tribesman has power the benefits which accrue will somehow trickle down to them. consequently leading to the 2007 Post election violence. It is only when the people of the lower class unite irrespective of their ethnic affiliations and form an ”artificial ethnic group” based on their economic situation will we see a revolt.

  5. This site comprehensively documents our revolution..
    http://www.iamjan25.com/

    Looking at the photos, I was remembering when you asked me why the demonstrations in Egypt against the attack on Iraq are so violent.. and I told you this is because the police is suppressing them..and people are already angry at soo many things..

    Thank God. In the language of 2.0 Revolution: we are now downloading “freedom” and soon the program will be perfectly installed !!

  6. This is Wael Ghoneim who started it all on Facebook !!

    Have a look:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/wael_ghonim_inside_the_egyptian_revolution.html?awesm=on.ted.com_8xvN

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Charlie Beckett, David Campbell. David Campbell said: Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet http://is.gd/8PaxGw […]

  2. […] Thinking Images v.9: Egypt, revolution and the internet […]

  3. […] uprising had long since taken off by the time the government managed to close the web down (Campbell 2011). Though there is certainly a top-down hierarchy controlling aspects of the Internet, the Internet […]

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