Wednesday, February 16. 2011
Media Value chain during Epyptian Revolution
There has been quite a lot of hoo-ha about the role of the Intenet / Social Media in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, with Pro-Apostles calling them "Twitter" or "Facebook" or "Internet" Revolutions, and Pro-Agnostics taking strong issue. The nuanced truth, as always, is in the middle but never generates the same copy and linkbait. To try and get some of the nuance into the open, therefore, I looked at the media production and delivery supply chain, and how it worked, as we would for any market analysis. To really understand it we also have to look at events leading up to, and during the actual on-the-streets activity. A caveat - this was done over an hour or so over a cup of coffee, so is very much a first cut, but even so I think it gives some insights.
Before the Revolution:
The above value chain was all fully connected, (we can assume some filtering of sites was done by the Governments) so the messeges and mediums were in full flow, and undoubtedly were being used to organise revolution. Looking at where the New Media had an impact, its worth looking at the areas:
(i) Content production
As we noted, people have been able to create seditious content for centuries, thus it is unlikely that the Net per se helped here, its more likely that user owned devices - PCs, Videocameras, phones, cameras etc were the more imortant element in content creation. What the Internet probably did help with was rapid transmission of the text/graphic form ideas (rather than the lower bandwidth of voice), both within Egypt and with outsiders. Fahmy puts it well:
This is probably where the 'Net was most productive, creating fora for idease and planning to be aggregated and co-ordinated. Modern social media is more atttractive (graphics, multiple functions etc) is no more efficient than the old, but by dint of attracting very large user groups was arguably very effective. Fahmy again:
If anyone wants to challenge a status quo, energize and mobilize their network towards a cause…
Wael Ghonim notes a similar story (quoted on CNN):
I’m talking on behalf of Egypt. This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet…. The reason why is the Internet will help you fight a media war, which is something the Egyptian government regime played very well in 1970, 1980, 1990, and when the Internet came along they couldn’t play it. I plan to write a book called Revolution 2.0… that will highlight the role of social media.
Its worth pointing out that the the "intelligentsia" is historically at its most effective during this phase of a revolution, so the low % of 'Net connected population is not a major disadvantage
As can be seen, the Internet has a fairly low penetration within Egypt compared to Mobile or TV, so we would hypothesize that more people were touched by the latter. However, it is perfectly believble that there was a 2-phase supply chain, with the 'Net being used by organisers/intellectuals to generate the initial revolutionary content and co-ordinate on a macro-scale, and the other media used to co-ordinate at a local scale.
(iv) Customer Equipment
Distribution channels are all very well, but if no-one can receive it it is irrelevant. Satellite TV distribution is lower than Aerial TV, but people do tend to group around satellite TV to watch Al-Jazeera. Penetration of PCs is higher than Internet itself (though PC's, with the ability to desktop-publish, probably had an impact on non-elecronic distribution too). Radio and good old printing presses are probably unsung media in this revolution
During the Revolution
I would argue that during the actual on-street activity, most of the "why" content was already produced (ie the ideas were largely known), the issue was more around "how/who/where" ie tactical aggregation (especially co-ordination) and distribution of data about the ongoing situation - Twiter user @alta1989261 on the Twitter 140 blog:
As most customer equipment was stand-alone (like the smartphones used for the above example) and owned by the users, it was fully functioning (imagine if all the devices were "dumb" and run via a cloud and/or or could have all their data locked like a Kindle can do). The main change during the revolution was that the Egyptian government shut off large tranches of the Comm Distribution system (so I'm not clear on how long/how the twittering went on for) - as the New York Times notes:
As in many authoritarian countries, Egypt’s Internet must connect to the outside world through a tiny number of international portals that are tightly in the grip of the government. In a lightning strike, technicians first cut off nearly all international traffic through those portals.
In fact the ability of a Government to turn off the internet has got a lot of people around the world, who thought the 'Net was very robust, quite worried. It still worked here and there, but it was clearly largely crippled.
Also, the foreign owned mobile operators in Egypt proved to be effectively state controlled and rapidly closed themselves down (as we saw with various Cloud services in the Wikileaks affaire)
If you look at the loss of the distribution system vs say the 1980's Russian revolution (where comms was via carefully hidden Samizdata methods), or the !980s/1990s South African and Velvet revolutions (mainly pre internet) then clearly the big difference here was the Net, and (in 2011) Social media. However, in Egypt the 'Net was fairly effectively shut down, but the Egyptians still had their revolution, so its hard to argue it had any real impact. Looking back it is also clear that even with the huge restrictions of Samizdata, the Russians were perfectly able to run a revolution - as were the Czechs, Poles, South Africans etc with mobile phones and old fashioned fly-printing and word of mouth. Going back in history to the first Russian revolution (1917) and beyond to the various nationalist movements in the 1800's and the French Revolution of the 1790's, it is clear that if people want to have a revolution, they will have one!.
Thus if you compare Egypt and what has gone before, it seems fairly clear that closing of the 'Net during the actual on-street activity was probably fairly ineffective. There was data coming out (the most effective being YouTube video) from the small amount of systems still up, but the heavy lifting in Egypt at the critical time was via distribution systems that were harder to shut off (as it was since the 1980's), ie other foreign people's broadcasting systems - specifically Satellite TV (Al Jazeera, take a bow) and (probably, but much less glamorously) radio. This was also true in Russia, South Africa etc. and of course if you go pre-internet, the number of revolutions that got on quite happily without any electronic mediation of any sort is vast.
Another impact of the events spreading to the West via the various media was that it made it harder for Western governments to behave with Realpolitik and prop up their old friends, as it was clear that their own citizens by and large supported the Egyptian revolutionaries (I noted this in my notes on the silence from Davos and thereafter when the events in Egypt broke out). However this was not purely a Social Media thing - TV and Newsprint were as much a part of this phase, though getting videos and liveblogs out via Internet helped create content for these stories. But I would argue in this case the heavy lifting was by Satellite TV, especially in the English language.
After the Revolution
I was interested in the excoriation of Malcolm Gladwell when he pointed out the Weak Links of Social Media don't make revolutions. To my mind he is merely repeating (in another way) what many observers through the centuries have noted, ie that regime change without significant high risk commitment (ie bloodshed) is fairly unusual. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but at some point you need the sword..... (Eastern Europe being an interesting exception, but the governments there had largely given up already). To my mind what is provable is that Social Media is a more efficient way of building up the latent will of a group will to move from a "weak link" to a "strong link" mode by making them realise there are vast numbers of like minded people (by dint of reaching more people, much faster). But it not the spark to action, that is elsewhere and is usually an heroic act (setting yourself on fire), the creation of a martyr via state violence, or committed organisers getting people on the streets - ie strong links.
Some argue that state violence is less possible today as modern media makes it clearer what atrocities are being committed. I would argue that Tiananmen Square and lately Iran showed the opposite - a modern regime is quite capable of behaving brutally, no matter how many distressing videos on YouTube or green avatars on Twitter. History tells you that Regimes change by and large when the army fails to shoot its own citizens, at that point the Regime no longer has a sword. (History also tells you that the replacement is very often people with swords that the army promotes, at least for a while, but that is for a future post). I strongly suspect Egypt's reluctance is also more because of realpolitik (ie US subsidies, trade links) - which China and Iran do not need as much - or it could be that the Egyptian state is just far more subtle, or divided, or just a more ethical society (looking at their behaviour during the revolution I can believe the latter, most of the high value looting seems to have been state sponsored robbing of the coffers and Egyptian Museum).
Of course, strictly speaking the Egyptian revolution is not complete, in effect there is a military coup with promise of future democratic options. If the intentions are benign I would expect to see no more censorship of people expressing themselves via media, if it were not I would expect to see censorship and increased filtering.
I also suspect that the reason that Western "Pro Social Media in Revolution" pundits see the 'Net as such a large factor (apart from self interest) is that they were largely interacting with the 'Net enabled Egyptian educated class, rather than all the locals interacting at a local level on local (non english speaking) media. The medium may be the message, but make sure you are looking at all the media. This was probably even more so in the US, as I understand they could not easily get Al-Jazeera TV so were largely watching it unfold on Social Media. In fact I note with interest that Wael Ghonim, who has been channeled as the voice of the Internet Revolution, has been at great pains to point out that a lot of factors were driving the revolution. There are dissenting voices in Egypt about media usage, but they are not getting amplified, especially in the US:
I will go into more detail in a subseqent post about the real causes and modes of a revolution, using the same research techniques we do for market analysis (I believe the new word for this approach is cliodynamics), but what I think we would conclude as an initial hypothesis is that the Internet, and moer specifically Social Media is:
- a good way to create and aggregate "Seditous Content" before the actual "Street Phase" of a revolution, however, the reasons for dissatisfaction have to exist already
In other words, I would argue from this analysis that the 'Net is just another layer of the comms systems, and is a tool of, rather than a cause of, any revolutionary movement. It is more efficient and effective than what has gone before to connect and aggregate, but less useful once the people hit the streets, so ultimately it is definiely not the "killer app" that allows a revolution to occur.
What I think it has done is shifted the balance of media power to citizen, from State. I would however argue that its gone back to a level of c 70 years ago, before (largely state controlled) broadcast mass media emerged. In say the 1920's politics was a far more local issue, carried in town halls and on the stumps - you saw your opponenst up close and personal - and I would argue that modern 'Net media is a return to that era. But that era was unable to stop the march of Stalinism and Fascism, because - as I will argue subsequently - far larger forces are at play than the means of communication.
Update on that last comment about shifting the balance - it appears even in Egypt, the state was starting to use social media - TechCrunch:
Alyouka also notes how the Egyptian authorities themselves were trying to use Twitter to spread propaganda and misinformation in a “painfully awkward” manner (the fake accounts are always easy to spot, aren’t they?). The tell-tale signs: always repeating the same Tweets, word-for-word, over different accounts about how bad the protests were for the country or praising Mubarak with few followers and very few tweets per account.
So there will be an arms race, clearly....
< Will Nokia be the first "Internet Corporate Revolution" | Influence vs Obeisance at the Independent >
Tracked: Feb 26, 02:36
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