Last October, we presented some preliminary findings from our Egyptian case study at the Political Studies Association’s (PSA) “Challenges to Campaigning” conference at Edinburgh University. A key theme that dominated much of the event was that of low election turnout and decreasing interest in politics among young voters worldwide, especially in “established” democracies such as the UK and the U.S. In turn, this highlighted the uniqueness of the Egyptian case, suggesting that successful youth mobilisation in Egypt could outline the conditions for future manifestations of political engagement elsewhere in the Middle East and, possibly, further afield too.
In particular, our study of search trends during the 2012 Egyptian presidential election revealed that Google use at such a key political juncture was hardly correlated to the content of traditional mass media (i.e. established print and broadcast news providers). Instead, search engine users showed greater interest in alternative political agents such as famous activists, youth organisations and young martyrs of the revolution during the entire period of the Egyptian political crisis, from the 2011 revolt against Mubarak’s authoritarian regime to the army coup that ousted Mohammad Morsi earlier this year. Without being involved in a traditional political structure, these new opinion leaders tried to reach a significant audience by using blogs, digital footage and social media platforms. Crucially, this case study showed the potential outcome of a proactive application of social media and digital technologies by opposition movements when national mass media outlets and traditional political institutions are no longer regarded as reliable.
Internet use in Egypt as well as elsewhere in the Middle East increased exponentially over the past decade, connecting a new mass of radicalised youth. Indeed, online communication flows have not only provided opposition movements with the ability to share ideas and ideologies, but also enabled young users to circumvent social taboos (Wheeler, 2006) and experience unconstrained relationships. In light of this, one could reasonably argue that the Egyptian youth has become the most prolific and proactive contributor to the nation’s newly formed “online public sphere,” relaying street protests and promoting opposition movements when traditional mass media outlets were restricted by the government as well as the military.
These trends resonate with broad strands in communication and media theory. In particular, one of the common assumptions shared in contemporary media studies lies in the fact that participative digital technologies confirm Lazarsfeld’s theory of the two-step flow of communication (1955), which states that every individual acts as a potential opinion leader within their social circle. As they rediscover the significance of interpersonal relationships (Lazarsfeld: 1940), social scientists examine whether participative and connective interactions enable new forms of political engagement by increasing the influence of alternative opinion leaders. Such a hypothesis appears to be particularly relevant in the Egyptian context, as social media and digital technologies succeeded in leading the opposition against Mubarak’s former government and achieved efficient political action. Given that the Internet is applied as an alternative source of information and a tool for resistance, the use of search engines in Egypt is consonant with citizens’ interest for a new range of political stakeholders that clash with traditional representative structures. More broadly, this reveals the opening of a new type of political space that is extremely fluid and at the moment seems unlikely to become stabilised any time soon.
Check for updates here as we develop our Google Trends data analysis and further compare the role of search engines in shaping emergent versus established democracies. If you wish to read more about our initial considerations on Internet search in the new Egyptian media ecology, click here <Mahlouly_Google and Egyptian Elections> to download Dounia Mahlouly’s paper for the “Challenges to Campaigning” PSA conference.
- Berelson, B., Gaudet,H and Lazarsfeld, P.F. 1944. The people’s choice: how the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Kats, E. and Lazarsfeld, P. F. 1955. Personal Influence. New York: Free Press.
- Wheeler, D. 2006. ‘Empowering publics: Information Technology and democratization in the Arab World-Lessons from Internet cafés and beyond.’ Oxford Internet Institute (11), pp. 1-18.