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Lessons from Egypt : Are We There Yet?

Lessons from Egypt

February 14, 2011 · Posted in culture, social networking 

The extraordinary events that have unfolded in Egypt over the past month have affected change throughout the mideast and have profound implications for the future of that region. We’re probably just beginning to become aware of what’s in store for the Egyptian people and for freedom and democracy in general in Egypt and the rest of the world. It has been an inspirational and awe-inspiring experience for me.

I watched Mubarak’s and Suleiman’s addresses, along with much of the Egyptian Revolution, in real time on my iPhone via a live feed from Al Jazeera–coverage currently not available to much of the US. As moved as I was by the events I was observing, I was also constantly aware of the role that social media was playing in the revolution–not just in the reporting of the events, but in the actual creation and facilitation of the protests. Given what I have read and observed, I’m not sure that the revolution could have occurred without Facebook and Twitter.

Even in a society in which the major media outlets are controlled by the government, Facebook and Twitter and other social media tools exposed Egyptian citizens to ideas and viewpoints other than those espoused by the Mubarak regime. Perhaps more importantly, these media tools allowed citizens to communicate with each other about these new perspectives and to coalesce around them informally and passionately, beyond the reach of government. The seeds of the Egyptian Revolution were sewn by free access to information. It became a leaderless revolution–not led by an individual or a group but by passionate adherence to the idea that the people could find their own voice and make that voice heard. It is significant that the Egyptian government shut off access to the Internet as a defense against the gathering uprising–a strategy that is happening in other regimes as well–and even more significant that people found ways around the lack of access by using modems and finding access in foreign countries to keep the information flowing. Ultimately, the Mubarak regime could no longer hide from free access to information and the exchange of ideas. The regime fell because it could no longer control the top-down message that was the government’s chief tool for controlling the people.

Political considerations aside, there are profound lessons that we can learn from the role of social media in the emerging change sweeping the mideast. The first, and most important, is that information can no longer be controlled by a news agency or a government. As long as people can freely communicate, it will not be possible to surpress an idea supported by passion and conviction. Information will find a way to be heard as long as the message is shared between people and not filtered by an entity with an interest in controlling the message. Media outlets in the US–from Fox to CNBC–shape messages for their audiences. Al Jazerra, at least in my recent experience with the English broadcasts, is far less guilty of this than are our major networks.

The second lesson is that access to information is no longer in the hands of a select few. Over 73% of the people in the world–that’s more than 5 billion souls–have access to a mobile information device. (http://bit.ly/eneE4J) Had that not been the case, the Egyptian Revolution would never have happened. Tools like Twitter–critical to the uprising in the mideast–work over the simplest cell phones via text message. Smart phones make the process even more accessible. Controlling Internet access is one thing, but controlling cell phone access is something else entirely.

The third lesson is simple–the genie is out of the bottle. As much as governments and news agencies might try, they will not be able to manage the message in the face of a connected populace who can see through their efforts and who can communicate with each other.

Educators at every level need to be aware of the lessons from Egypt. We should examine our attitudes toward social media and to information dissemination in general. There are so many questions to be researched and answered. How will the breaking down of information barriers affect the use of propaganda to control political messages or advertising? What are the implications for media literacy? How can we use social media to involve our students in engaging pursuits? And what are you personally doing with social media? Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem?

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