Do the social media savvy speak for the masses?

Opinion Zone,Tina Korbe

Even as experts attempt to pinpoint the precise role social media played in the Egyptian protests, Egyptian activists themselves say they have Facebook and Twitter to thank for whatever freedom ultimately results from the revolution.

“Twitter is a very important tool for protesters, as evidenced by the fact it and Facebook were repeatedly blocked in Egypt as the protests flared up,” Egyptian tweeter @alya1989262 recently told the authors of Twitter’s Hope 140 blog. “It allows us to share on-the-ground info like police brutality, things to watch out for, activists getting arrested, etc.”

The 21-year-old should know: She was the first to use the hashtag #Jan25.

Her comments in praise of Twitter should come as no surprise. Those protesters who effectively utilized online tools would of course be apt to say social media works -- and we should take them at their word. But that doesn’t necessarily mean theirs should be the only word. Foreign policy experts have something to add to the debate about the revolutionary role of social networking as well.

It is one thing to say, as @alya1989262 did, that social media amplified the voices of the protesters and ensured ongoing media attention. Facebook and Twitter did do that -- and that matters. But it’s another to say, as activist Wael Ghonim did last week in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, that he speaks for “all of Egypt” when he praises Facebook’s role in the revolution.

The number of Egyptians on Facebook surged when, after more than a week of protests and political upheaval, authorities restored access to the Internet -- but that boost only brought the total to about 5 million users. Egypt has a population of more than 80 million, which means that only 6 percent of Egyptians are Facebook users.

Internet usage, of course, is not limited to Facebook -- and, worldwide, Egypt stacks up tolerably well in terms of Internet access, with 187,197 hosts and more than 20 million users. But, overall, it’s a bit of a projection to say Egyptian social media messengers speak for the entire nation.

“It’s a mistake to think we’re empowering people just because countries have access to the Internet,” said the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano at a Thursday event, “The Facebook Revolution: The Role of New Media in Egypt and the Middle East.”

Carafano noted that a massive digital divide still exists in most Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt. “We can’t presume that the people who have Internet speak for everybody in the country. All the voices we heard on Twitter represented just a fraction of the country.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean social media activism lacks strong ties, as journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell has argued, but it might mean that social media interaction is merely reinforcing ties and organizing action among a particular set of tech-savvy people -- and not reaching as many people as it’s sometimes given credit for.

Tina Korbe is a staff writer in the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism outlet at The Heritage Foundation.
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