Protest art in Tahrir Square, February 6. The Arabic on the ground reads “We are the Men of Facebook.”

Digital Activism is Dead, Long Live Digital Activism

On April 6, 2008, another Penn doctoral candidate was in Egypt on what proved to be a seminal day. David Faris Gr’10, a student of political science known around campus for his hard-driving efforts to unionize graduate students, had befriended a group of young Egyptians who shared his soft spot for organized labor. They had launched a Web campaign and Facebook page to show solidarity for a group of striking textile workers in the Nile Delta town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, and Faris was along for the ride.

The young men and women—eight or 10 of them, mostly around college age—had a deceptively simple goal: to persuade people to wear black or stay at home on April 6, the day of the El-Mahalla strike. They set up what Faris calls a “nerve center” at the Cilantro Internet café in Mohandessin, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Giza, on the left bank of the Nile.

“They were fielding phone calls and updating the site and coordinating the demonstrations,” Faris recalls. “We actually moved around three or four times, from café to café, because the tech people were convinced that they were being monitored. We moved to one café and they didn’t feel safe there—they thought the owner was either hostile to them, or onto what they were doing. So we kept jumping around. It was quite tense. People were not sure what was happening. Some folks were getting news that their friends were being arrested. The people were really tense.”

Some of them piled into a white Hyundai, with Faris in the back, to go to a demonstration outside the Lawyers’ Syndicate in Cairo, a site where the regime typically tolerated protests—at least those contained by police. Police presence was heavy that day, and as more news came of arrests, the activists had a lively argument about whether Faris’s presence in the car would protect or endanger them.

As it played out, the April 6 sympathy protest was as successful as any of its organizers could have hoped—or feared. Their gambit had attracted enough support that both the regime and the international press paid a lot of attention. “One of the things that took everyone down a bit,” Faris observes, “is that they arrested one of the administrators of the Facebook group. And from there it became clear that the regime was probably going to come after them. Because they were famous, in a way.”

Faris, who wrote his dissertation about the use of digital media by Egyptian opposition activists and is now a history professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, says that the April 6 Youth Movement’s initial success all but doomed their subsequent attempts to replicate it. The regime acted fast. “They made it harder to get Internet—they made you register with a national ID card. In Internet cafés, owners were forced to register you,” he says.

The regime didn’t try to censor the Web or ban Facebook, says Faris; it just targeted the digital dissenters. “That’s the difference between a place like Egypt and a place like Saudi Arabia,” he explains. “They didn’t try to shut down the sites; they just went after the people who were using them.”

A follow-up action on May 4, 2008 fizzled. As Eric Trager tells it, by this time Mubarak had figured out how to turn the public nature of the Web against the activists: “May 4 is Hosni Mubarak’s birthday. And they were going to protest wages and prices, or something like that. And so on May 1, Hosni Mubarak announced that they were going to raise wages. So this just totally took the momentum out of this protest. Then on May 6 he announced that he was also raising prices. So it was a one-two.”

Another attempt, on April 6, 2009, also fared poorly. In a sort of postmortem report on that failure, Faris observed that by this time, in addition to monitoring the Web more closely, the Mubarak regime had implemented a “sophisticated registration-and-tracing system” for mobile phones. “The Egyptian government successfully blocked the routes of activists’ text messages during the 2009 strike,” Faris wrote, noting that an activist had told him that his colleagues had sent “2 million bulk mails and about 50,000 SMS messages” in the successful 2008 protest. Another further complicating factor, Faris added, is that “Egyptian telecommunications companies don’t offer unlimited texting services like those available in other countries … According to one April 6th leader, the movement tried to get around this obstacle by purchasing text-messages in bulk from India at a rate of $.01 per message, but the regime successfully blocked these messages as well.”

Thus Trager’s pessimism about the prospects of digital activism in January 2011. “I think you saw this also in the Iranian protest of 2009,” he says. “The regime learned how to use Facebook. It learned how to use Twitter. It learned how to figure out who was blogging anonymously, from where, and prevent those kinds of practices. So this is why there was a lot of skepticism about Internet activism, because regimes can use Facebook, too.’”

For all the enthusiasm among American commentators about the prospects of “Facebook activism,” Faris and Trager were by no means the only ones who questioned its ability to unseat digitally savvy autocrats. In an October 2010 essay in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argued that because social-networking sites are built on “weak ties” between ever looser acquaintances, they are best suited to campaigns that demand very little of the participants they solicit—sometimes no more than clicking a mouse button in an abstract show of support. The sort of activism that requires actual action, Gladwell contended—especially collective action entailing significant risk—depends on a level of “strong tie” solidarity that friending someone on Facebook simply doesn’t generate.

Marwan Kraidy, an associate professor of communication and an expert on Arab media and politics, echoes that point in his analysis of the uprisings across the Middle East.

“Technologies don’t do anything if people don’t want them to,” says Kraidy, who is from Lebanon. “It’s the people who go down and demonstrate at the risk of their life. It’s the people whose anger allows them to stand up to thugs and goons wielding batons, sometimes shooting at them with live ammunition. It’s the people who feel it’s worth it to breathe in a canister of tear gas because, ‘I believe in this,’” he says. “Technology doesn’t make you believe. Technology doesn’t make you stand up to a tank.”

That’s hard to argue. It’s possible that the original April 6, 2008 protest was so effective partly because participation was as straightforward as staying in for the day. “After all,” Faris wrote, “as strong as the Egyptian state might be, it cannot go around arresting 70,000 people, many of them wealthy and connected elites, particularly if all they’ve done is stay at home.”

Yet from where Trager sat the Saturday before the planned January 25 demonstration, something was changing—even if it would only become clear in hindsight.

“All of a sudden, these opposition movements started sending out tons of text messages to even random Egyptians. Facebook messages, YouTube videos: telling people where to go, how to behave at the protest, what they should wear, what they should not do—specifically, they should not attack the police,” he recalled in February. “It was on the Saturday night before these protests that I actually heard a number of Egyptian friends who never in a million years would do anything political—because they were elite, or because they’re scared, or because they have friends who’ve been imprisoned—say, ‘Actually, January 25, I’m going to the streets.’ That sudden change in the mood I can only trace to the sudden efforts of these opposition leaders.”

David Faris traces it back a little further to explain what gave those efforts traction this time, after the previous failures. For one thing, the regime had “completely over-rigged” the parliamentary elections in November. “There’s been this sort of dance between the regime and opponents over the years, where the opposition would be allowed to win a number of seats in the Parliament, and they’d be included in the system somehow,” Faris says. “For whatever reason, the regime decided to exclude everyone else from the system [in November]. So the number of opposition seats in the Parliament fell from almost 100 to less than 10. And we’re talking about 500 seats total. So the ruling party held something like 97 percent of seats. And people just thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’”

Another Facebook group had come onto the scene, as well. The “We are all Khaled Said” group, moderated (as it later turned out) by Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, arose in response to the killing of a young business owner in Alexandria by police. “This group,” says Faris, “had been actually putting people on the streets all summer. They were actually running protests, some of which were quite large.”

And part of what tipped the scales back in the activists’ direction, he adds, was the fact that “between April 2009 and today, there’s simply more people on the Internet” in Egypt.

“Gladwell’s right about a lot of things,” Faris says. “He’s right that the commitment levels to these groups are low. He’s right that they emphasize weak ties. But I think he misunderstands the significance of the fact that weak ties are being used ... So instead of knowing a lot about five or 10 people, you know a more moderate amount about six or seven or eight hundred people—or 400,000 people, with Khaled Said. That’s important, because we do think that our willingness to participate in collective action, particularly risky collective action, is very dependent on our perceptions of what other people will do. And seeing thousands of other people committing themselves to go out to a protest might change your own personal calculus.”

In retrospect, it seems clear that digital activists played an important supporting role in the uprising, partly because they’d adopted a parallel focus on street-level demonstrations. But at the time, at least from Trager’s perspective, it seemed even more likely that the Facebook groups would undercut each other.

“I was covering this, again, for The Atlantic,” he says, “And I was pretty sure that my article was going to say that January 25th was another tease: There were a couple movements, but they were scattered and only had, like, 50 people, and they looked clownish next to the riot police. And this was all because of deep internal divisions and ego problems within these organizations. And those are real, by the way.

“I actually told my April 6 [Facebook group] friend: By the way, this is the article I think I’m going to write. And he was like, ‘Whatever you do, do not write that article. Please do not write that article. Wait.’ And I said, fine, okay. And he said that he was going to various villages in the Nile Delta region and holding late-night meetings. And he was really just all over the place, doing this kind of organizing, picking points. And I guess, like I said, they got their act together.”



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COVER STORY: Anatomy of an Uprising By Trey Popp
Photography by Tara Todras-Whitehill C'00 EAS'00

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SIDEBAR: Far Away, So Close:
Penn Students with Middle East Ties
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