— To watch a short video extract of Dounia Mahlouly’s presentation at the Citizen Media Workshop that inspired this blog post, click here. —
Truly valuable analyses of the socio-political implications of new media technologies –including search engines – ought to be rooted in the local context of the country or countries under scrutiny, with particular attention to pre-existing media systems and the relationship that citizens have with them. While some of us have focused elsewhere on the need for the Internet not to be analysed in isolation from systemic and circumstantial contextual elements, we were reminded again of the importance of this approach when we gave a presentation at a workshop on citizen media hosted by the University of Manchester a few weeks ago. This was a great opportunity to meet other researchers exploring emerging forms of political expression and engagement in Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, China, East Asia and the Arab world. Discussions at the event led us to consider some of the specific traits of the Egyptian case within the country case studies selected for the VoterEcology project, as well as on the usefulness of the comparative approach. Expanding our perspective on the use of citizen media helped us to reflect on the inadvertent assumptions and potential ‘ethnocentricity’ that often characterise comparative work on non-Western countries by Western – or more simply West-based – scholars.
Recent literature about the Arab Spring uprisings has veered increasingly towards a critique of Eurocentric and ‘Orientalist’ interpretations of the 2011 protests. Researchers such as Rabab El-Mahdi (2011) and activists such as the members of the ‘Mosireen’ collective have warned about Western analyses according to which social media and cyber-activism would constitute major forces for the democratisation of the Middle East. In their work, these alternative voices have criticised Western scholars for their deterministic approach to new communication technologies and for not paying sufficient attention to the context(s) in which the 2011 revolutions took place. In particular, they pointed out a tendency for Western accounts of the Arab Spring to promote a unilateral perception of democratisation and modernity based on the supposedly Western features of the ‘liberal’ youth in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. This approach – critics claimed – supported the rise of an ‘Arab awakening’ narrative that has influenced not only the ways in which traditional mass media reported the event, but also the discourse of Western governments, as exemplified by the speech that US secretary of State John Kerry gave in Cairo at the beginning of November 2013.
In our work so far, we found that a useful strategy to operate outside such constraints and account instead for fundamental cultural or ideological differences is to focus on how new media technologies are employed rather than asking which tools or devices galvanised the revolutions. While pretty straightforward, this approach has enabled us to avoid addressing the historical evolution of the Arab world by means of unsuited benchmarks and ‘foreign’ concepts. In other words, it is best to focus on the local particularities in order to avoid inappropriate assumptions when examining democratisation in the Middle East. Arguably, the notion of democracy that is prevalent in Western societies stems from a specific ideological framework and therefore fails to reflect the hopes and aspirations that motivate the Egyptian people in the quest for their own democratic development. Considering specific parameters in the study of search engine use helped us circumventing what Edward Said (1979) described as a distorted vision of the East as a ‘projection’ of the West.
Crucially, our study of key search trends in the Egyptian Internet during the presidential elections of 2012 and the coup of summer 2013, was consistent with the idea that democratisation involves the use of new communication technologies to raise issues that traditional mass media fail to express. Even more so, our findings suggested that – unlike in established democracies such as the UK and the U.S. – Egyptian citizens were especially likely to search for an alternative and emerging political discourse. This called for a reflection on the correlation between democracy and political awareness, as well as on the changing configuration of the public sphere in countries that have undergone dramatic regime changes and whose citizens used to be entirely reliant on state-controlled news outlets until recently. In other words, our comparative approach revealed that in Egypt Internet search fulfilled a profoundly democratic function by enabling informational practices aimed at overcoming the structural limitations of the local mass media context. In turn, such a context-oriented use of technology provided a new perspective from which to examine the question of citizenship in Western democracies.
Our observations add to a growing body of evidence that has shown how the main contribution of social media and cyber-activism in the 2011 protests was to facilitate logistics, circumvent censorship and draw the attention of the international community to citizen-powered change in the MENA region (Breuer, 2012). In addition, authors such as Gerbaudo (2012) argued that the online activist campaigns that brought down authoritarian leaders in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia were highly interdependent with street activism and constituted but one of the channels through which citizens recovered their freedom of expression. Another useful example is that of the role of Twitter in the Tunisian revolution. Whereas Western news media narratives enthusiastically portrayed the Tunisian revolts as a ‘Twitter revolution,’ Salem and Mourtada (2011) demonstrated that in fact the number of Twitter users in the country was lower than other social networking platforms. Since then, however, Howard and Hussain (2013) have noted that social media use has been on a steep rise following the revolution. Overall, this is testimony to the fact that, far from operating on a blank canvas, new media always grafts itself onto specific elements of the existing cultural, political and historical context.
Exciting cross-media transformations have occurred since the Arab Spring protests, with dissident bloggers such as Slim Amamou being appointed as a junior minister in the Tunisian interim government of 2011 and YouTube satirist Bassem Youssef offered a programme on a mainstream TV channel in Egypt. Having said that, in order to fully understand the pace and significance of this change, researchers ought to be wary of their own perspective, alert to the assumptions that come with it and capable of breaking free from the dominant narrative if necessary.
Breuer, A. (2012). The role of Social Media in Mobilizing Political Protests, Evidence from the Tunisian Revolution, Bonn: German Development Institute.
El-Mahdi, R. (2011). Orientalising the Egyptian Uprising. Jadaliyya. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1214/orientalising-the-egyptian-uprising [10.02.2014]
Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press.
Howard, P. N. and Hussain, M. M. (2013). Democracy’s Fourth wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. London: Vintage Books.
Salem, F. and Mourtada, R. (2011) The Role of Social Media in Arab Women’s Empowerment. Arab Social Media Report. 1(3). 1-26.
Viswanathan, G. (2004). Power, Politics and Culture, Interviews with Edward W. Said. London: Bloomsbury.