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Beyond Streetbook

On-the-ground reporting of the Arab Spring revolutions will foster a more nuanced discussion of how digital tools matter, and how they don’t.
September 8, 2011

Half a year out, we’re still learning how revolutionaries took hold of Facebook and Twitter to assist in overthrowing not one but two regimes.

The subject continues to be debated, largely across a false dichotomy of Gladwell (“the revolution will not be tweeted”) versus cyberutopianism (“it’s a Facebook revolution!”). Amongst close followers, including many revolutionaries themselves, however, the reality is more subtle: The revolution will be tweeted, and Facebooked, but it will also be fought, sometimes bloodily, on the streets.

In “Streetbook,” John Pollock deftly illustrates the impact of social media tools in Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries in which, thus far, we have seen the true Arab Spring. Pollock’s conclusion—that digital tools contribute greatly to the offline organizing necessary to topple a regime—fits the narrative put forth by the various activists he interviews (as well as the many I’ve seen speak at various fora this year), while his narrative offers an insider’s view into just how those tools have been used.

Indeed, in Tunis and Kasserine, Mahalla and Cairo, digerati took hold of social media, combining online with offline organizing to great effect. Elsewhere in the region, however, such as on the streets of Hama and Manama, such tools have been widely used yet have enabled little change, the power of each regime stronger than that of the opposition.

Last week, I attended a workshop at the University of Kentucky, Louisville’s Center for Asian Democracy, in which a clutch of academics debated the connections between new media and democratization, and the parallels of such between Asia and the Arab world. Central to the discussion was the distinction between “democracy” and “democratization,” two words that have been used largely interchangeably in mainstream reporting of the Arab Spring.

While democracy—though not quite yet achieved—is hopefully the outcome of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, there has been little credit given to the democratizing prospects of social media tools elsewhere: the strengthening of the public sphere, the development of protest movements, and—as Samir Garbaya is quoted as saying in “Streetbook”—“the transfer of the interaction from social networks to manifestation in the real world, on the street.”

Through his interviews and in detailing the tactics of previous uprisings, Pollock sets forth plausible courses of action for would-be revolutionaries, while at the same time working toward an understanding of how digital tools were part of the process in working toward overthrowing Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak. That process may be what matters most if democracy is the end goal; and if so, then we ought not discount the in-between process of democratization. In other words, even if it takes months more to bring down Syria’s Assad, or to change the face of Bahraini governance, digital tools have already helped set the groundwork needed for civil society to move forward in those goals.

At the same time, what “Streetbook” touches on only briefly is regime control of the Internet, which as we have seen varies wildly from country to country. Observers take note: While in Tunisia, the regime had a firm grasp on social media, censoring and surveilling for the better part of a decade, and in Egypt, the regime resorted to a complete shutdown of networks to quell dissent, regimes are quickly learning from each other’s mistakes and beefing up their arsenals. Both Syria and Bahrain appear to have a stronger grasp on the Internet than their predecessors, which will most certainly hamper the ability of activists to use digital tools to much effect.

Therefore, the experiences of Pollock’s subjects should not necessarily be seen as a lesson for understanding digital activism writ large, but rather as a study of methods.

With his piece, Pollock accomplishes what more well-known columnists have failed to: provide a sober view into the lives of modern revolutionaries without resorting to common tropes about what this all means. I am hopeful that reporting like his will set the stage for a more nuanced discussion of why digital tools matter … and where they don’t.

Jillian C. York is the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She writes regularly about free expression, politics, and the Internet, with particular focus on the Arab world. She is on the board of directors of Global Voices Online, and writes for Al Jazeera English, and the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

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