Witnessing the Egyptian revolution, Julia Reed considers the impact of social media on global affairs
I’m pretty much of a dinosaur when it comes to social media. The only tweets I’ve ever read are Kanye West’s, only because they are so hilarious and, more importantly, because New York magazine did me the service of including them in a (printed) article. But while Kanye was busy bitching about Matt Lauer and talking about the new gold goblets from which he likes to drink his bottled water, some slightly more significant tweets were being sent around the world.
On December 17, a young Tunisian fruit seller with wounded pride sets himself on fire, and the news is spread throughout the country on Twitter and YouTube. Al Jazeera picks it up and spreads it through the Arab world, and less than a month later the president of 23 years flees. Meanwhile, most of us made it happily through the holidays without a thought of Tunisia — I would bet a lot of money that more of us know about the tiff between Kanye and Taylor Swift than where exactly the North African country is located, even now.
So if I’m a dinosaur, I’m clearly not alone, especially in this country, especially in my profession. As late as January 11, four days before Ben Ali split, a survey of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Miami Herald showed that there had been no front-page coverage of the events in Tunisia. All that changed, of course, when the same internet-driven revolutionary fervor spread into seemingly stable Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and one of the few “friends” Israel has.
Now the mainstream media has descended on Egypt but there’s no real way for anyone to get ahead of a story that seemingly changes by the minute — or indeed by the tweet. The sheer numbers of the protesters Tuesday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square show that the movement is not about to be worn down, and apparently there are lots of suitcases arriving at the Mubarak family estate in England. But the most astonishing thing is that Mubarak was as clueless as the rest of us. He too made it through the holidays thinking he was as entrenched in power as ever. The first demonstration in Cairo wasn’t organized until January 25, and within a lightning-fast two weeks, the protesters’ messages overpowered the government’s attempts to control the story and a passionate young Google executive emerges as the most influential among the faces of the opposition.
Because of the fact that social media is literally driving what’s happening, our government is having as much trouble as mainstream media in getting out in front of the events. I’m reminded of the time I was on a now-cancelled noon CNN show and the topic was whether then-president Clinton should bomb Iran. I can’t remember what pesky thing Iran had done on that particular day, but I do remember my response: “I have no idea, but I certainly hope the president is asking someone far more knowledgeable than I am.” In this case, who knows who the heck the president should ask? The story — the movement — is at once viral and empowering, fluid and exhilarating, and scary as hell.
So, could social media have the same impact here? Maybe it’s the dinosaur in me talking, but I don’t think so. In Tunisia, YouTube, Twitter, et al were the peoples’ sole outlets. In Egypt, they became weapons against state-run TV, from which they have now wrested the story. Despite the state of flux in our own media business models, Lord knows we still have plenty of media outlets. And as for the “power of the people,” we have plenty of that too. There is so much “freedom of the press” that anyone can suddenly be a “reporter,” supplying what is now known simply (and not just a little scarily) as “content” on endless blogs, tweets, whatever. But our citizen journalists are not fighting against anything. There’s no viral revolt or anything remotely similar at stake. They are simply fighting to make their voices heard in an increasingly crowded sea of voices so that a great deal of what we get is simply more noise. And though, certainly, social media will play a stronger role than ever in the next presidential election, I fear a lot of it won’t necessarily be productive. We are prone to jump on the misstep, the scandal. We endlessly broadcast videos of Elliott Spitzer’s call girls or comments taken out of context or the careless on-or-off-mike aside at the end of a long day. I foresee campaigns endlessly responding to the latter, which is no way to run a campaign or to get at the real issues in a race.
That said, I could be dead wrong, because what the events in the Middle East have proven is that social media is entirely unpredictable — and I’m the last to say I know how it might shape events. But I still think by far that the greatest impact on our lives here will come from the new “power of the people” elsewhere, in oppressive regimes like Tunisia and Egypt. Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world with a population of 300 million. Sixty percent of Egyptians are under 25 (that’s younger than Mark Zuckerberg), and a quarter of those are unemployed. Mubarak’s been in power for 29 years. The last time there was a revolt in an Arab country with a U.S.-installed dictator, things did not work out too well for us.
But the fall of Iran was a lifetime ago — especially in today’s speed-of-sound terms. I was a senior in a boarding school outside of Washington. My good friend Biba Tehrani was a relative of the Shah, and the charming Iranian ambassador Mr. Zahedi had agreed to host our senior class party at the Iranian Embassy. We’d all had visions of caviar dancing in our heads, but then of course, all our glam plans were, forgive me, radically changed by the Ayatollah. This time, what’s going on might have a tiny bit more bearing on my life. I guess it’s high time I subscribe to Twitter.