Egypt is a land of mystery many long for the chance to discover. Filled with rich historical treasures and pristine beaches, it is a place of heroic accomplishments. For 18 days, the world watched spellbound as young technology-inspired heroes, awoke a nation causing it to rise up and topple a brutal dictator. Converting Cairo’s Tahrir Square to ‘ground zero,’ these unlikely heroes slew the powerful dragon Mubarak and led a people’s revolution.
Using social media as their ‘Tip of the Sword,’ demonstrators took a country with limited Internet usage and changed the face of journalism forever. Through sheer will, they kept this story alive, leading every newspaper and TV broadcast for nearly three weeks.
Democracy is messy. It can take years, even decades, from winning independence to forming a working government. Egypt has had six months.
As a journalist and writer, one does not get many better stories to cover with so many epochal good vs. evil moments. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Shelby Foote, the US Civil War historian who managed to make history come alive through novelising. In homage to those who put their lives on the line for freedom, I wanted to capture their story from the live, moment to moment Tweets they broadcast. I then used my journalistic skills to weave a newsworthy narrative around THEIR great story.
For any serious journalist, conflicts across the Mideast remain the top story of this young decade, not just because what is happening is so important – but because of how those involved acquire the information they are reporting. Communications technology has made us “instantly” aware of what is happening in remote corners of the globe. Traditional filters and time delays that governed how a story was reported have disappeared. Now, keeping track of information, let alone digesting it, consumes those who need to stay on top of this digital tsunami, and challenge those who want to keep abreast of important events happening in the world. What it means to be a reporter is changing, and how journalists do their job is also changing.
For about 20 years the Mubarak regime controlled information broadcast inside their country. Nile (or State) Television allowed them to control what was news and how it should be consumed by Egyptians. This is also why when revolutions start in the developing world, rebels first take over state television and radio HQs. He who controlled broadcasting controlled the hearts and minds of the country.
The explosion of satellite television across Egypt challenged monolithic control. State television now competed with uncensored views from CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC and others. In parallel with the weakening of state broadcast control was the growth of the Internet and a multitude of viewpoints could be exposed to viewers. Because a computer is expensive, it is beyond the reach of many Egyptians.
It was not the computer that became the broadcast vehicle of choice for opposition activists in Egypt, but the smart phone – one capable of accessing and utilizing the Internet. Cell phones are a necessity. Ubiquitous, readily available and tailor-made for the developing world, their growth is explosive because it’s far easier to erect mobile signal towers than string land-lines.
Thus it was that Twitter, the 140 character micro-blogging website, became a central character in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Created in 2006 as a shorthand real-time tool for ‘techies,’ it was quickly adopted across the middle east in particular as a “one-to-many” and, via re-tweets, a “many-to-many” covert communications tool. It was particularly effective in countries like Egypt where free assembly was illegal.
Combined with Facebook pages, Twitter encouraged communications between activists. They met online and formed groups, went out into the streets at pre-set times and demonstrated. Using the identity and location hiding tools freely available on the Web, it became nearly impossible to trace and/or control the activists. Even when the regime shut down the internet, they were back up wit patches and other ‘hacks.’
Twitter’s potential power was demonstrated early on, as the following anecdote illustrates: In 2006, James Buck, a then photojournalism student at the University of California-Berkeley (now a photojournalist for The Washington Post), specialised in taking crowd photos. He went on his own to Egypt to film youth protests. James was frustrated that he always seemed to arrive at the site of student demonstrations too late to take good photos. He asked his Egyptian friends, “how come you always know where the demonstrations are.”
They replied, “we use Twitter.” Buck, from the San Francisco Bay area where Twitter is headquartered, was surprised he’d never heard of it. He found the site and registered, then used it to learn of demonstrations. From then on was able to take great photos.
The demonstrators knew the Egyptian secret police wear moustaches and at one protest while taking photos, Buck grew very nervous at the growing moustache quotient in the crowd. He had every reason to be: he was grabbed and thrown into the back of a police car. The police though did not take away his cell phone and he Tweeted one word: Arrested.
His friends, monitoring his Tweets in California, sprang into action. They knew it was serious. They called the UC-Berkeley Dean. The Dean called a lawyer, the lawyer called the US consulate and three hours later Buck Tweeted one word, “Freed.”
Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, said on U.S., National Public Radio’s ‘Fresh Air’ programme, that incident made them realise, “this was not just something in the Bay area for technical geeks to fool around with and find out what each other is up to, but a global communications system that could be used everywhere.”
In 18-days in early 2011, Twitter went from a tool used primarily by and for the self-indulgent (“just had a mocha, half caff, decaff latte, soo cool!”), to a powerful counter block to a repressive regime’s attempts to shut down all opposition. Nobody had ever seen Tweets used this way and it represented a sea change in the way news is made, gathered and history recorded.
Because Egypt’s well-equipped modern army refused to step in and repress the peacefully protesting Egyptian people, Twitter and the cell phone helped bring to its knees a repressive military regime, in power for almost 60-years. The Egyptian government’s increasingly thuggish response then exposed them for what they really were.
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