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Making sense of the internet and Egypt

John D. Sutter
Is the internet the modern megaphone and is it essential for a protest movement? Bloggers disagree.
Is the internet the modern megaphone and is it essential for a protest movement? Bloggers disagree.
  • Protests in the Middle East raise questions about the internet's role in democracy
  • Some say the internet is a human right; others that it's not necessary for protest
  • Egypt has cut access to internet and mobile phones; protests continue

(CNN) -- Are we in the age of internet revolutions -- where Facebook, Twitter and text messages are essential ingredients in democratic change?

Or, as the ongoing protests in Egypt perhaps show, is the internet only one tool in this process -- nothing more than the modern version of the telephone?

As violent demonstrations continue on the streets of Egypt -- where many are upset with the results of Hosni Mubarak's 30 years in power -- tech pundits and bloggers are trying to sort out the internet's role in the situation.

Some say Egypt is violating modern human rights by cutting access to the internet and to mobile phone networks. Others say the fact that protests have continued despite these digital barricades reveals a massive hole in the argument that social media spawns modern revolutions.

"Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools," Malcolm Gladwell writes in The New Yorker.

To help make sense of these complicated arguments, here's a wrap-up of what people are saying about the internet's role in Egypt, where unrest continues, and in Tunisia, where protests earlier this month toppled the government and set off a wave of unrest in other Middle Eastern countries:

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told Al-Jazeera that internet access is a modern human right:

"We want to make sure that Egypt is not interfering with the use of social media. That's a fundamental right as clear as walking into a town square. We're making these points clear to Egypt, publicly and privately."

Dave Pell, writing on the blog Tweetage Wasteland, says the internet isn't essential for revolution -- but it sure helps:

"Yes, folks. The Civil Rights movement took place at a time before Twitter. For those scoring at home, the same is true for every notable historical movement from the Big Bang through the release of Destiny Child's Bootlylicious video. The realtime, social web is clearly not a required element to organize and execute a high impact revolution. Neither is a megaphone, but it sure makes it easier for the folks in the back to hear you."

CNET's Caroline McCarthy says "there's no such thing as a 'social media revolution'":

"A dictator toppled by Twitter or ousted through the efforts of a Facebook group? It's an enticing idea, particularly for those who are in the business of social media and have a personal stake of sorts in tallying each instance of social media's global value making headlines. Twitter punditry this week has been peppered with speculation about whether upheaval in Tunisia or the subsequent anti-government protests in Egypt might amount to the 'first' true revolution spawned by social media. But this just isn't the right way to measure things: the occurrence of a 'social media revolution,' at this point, should be neither noteworthy nor remarkable. If a dictator is overthrown or a government ousted, it would be notable if Facebook or Twitter weren't used."

Wired's David Kravets reports that Egyptians are publicizing protests with good-old-fashioned leaflets, in the absence of the internet:

"... Don't confuse tools with root causes, or means with ends. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are against dictators who've held power -- and clamped down on their people -- for decades. That's the fuel for the engine of dissent. The dozen or more protesters that self-immolated in Egypt didn't do it for the tweets. 'It's about years of repression and dictatorship. Revolutions existed before Twitter and Facebook,' Issandr el-Amrani, a Cairo writer and activist, said in a telephone interview from Tunisia. 'It's really not much more complicated than this.' Only about a quarter of the Egyptian populace is online, el-Amrani estimated. So street protests have grown the old-fashioned way: by leaflets and spontaneous amalgamation."

At the blog TechCrunch, Alexia Tsotsis writes that Twitter is turning people into individual news networks:

"Humans are functioning as defacto news aggregators using the publication tools already available. This, while not a novel idea, really hit home in the past two weeks with the two subsequent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. What I and you probably noticed was that interested people we followed took it upon themselves to become individual nodes of information, using the tools they had to serve as their own news networks."

In The New Yorker,Nicholas Thompson, a social media expert, writes that the internet can benefit both sides of a conflict:

"Governments control the pipes through which all that information flows. This means they can block sites or, as Egypt has just apparently done, shut down the entire Internet and thus confuse everyone who has come to rely on it. In Iran, the government clearly had some success using the Internet to disrupt and slow the green revolution. In Tunisia, the government hacked the password of nearly every Facebook user in the country. Had Ben Ali not fallen so quickly, that information would have been extremely useful. Technological tools can be used quite effectively by the masses, or by the man."

On the Foreign Policy blog "The Net Effect," internet scholar Evgeny Morozov writes that the internet and mobile phones make it easier for authoritarian regimes to track protestors:

" ... technology -- not just the Internet but also mobile phones -- make (sic) it easier to trace protesters and dissidents. It would be very hard, for example, to trace the names of everyone who gathered on Minsk's central square to oppose the results of the recent elections in Belarus before mobile phones became ubiquitous."

Speaking on CNN, journalism professor Jeff Jarvis said the internet is a human right -- and that it enables people 'to take charge' of government Video:

"I think the right to connect now becomes a fundamental human right. And the problem here is we see that government is the single point of failure for the internet. Whether that's the kill switch, as Egypt has used it, or whether it's the fact that they control the structure for the internet. And so our future -- the means by which we're going to build the next society -- is vulnerable here, and that worries me. At the same time, I celebrate the fact that the people in a nation can use these tools to take charge."

Harvard's Jillian York writes the Tunisia protests would have happened with or without Twitter and Facebook -- but we might not have heard about it:

"Would the State Department have gotten involved early on (remember, their first public comment was in respect to Tunisian Net freedom)? Would Al Jazeera --without offices on the ground -- have been able to report on the unfolding story as they did? Most importantly, would any of that have mattered?"

Internet access is "fundamental" to the protests in Egypt, writes Khadija Sharife on the Huffington Post:

"More than ever, the internet remains a crucial vehicle of sustaining and transmitting resistance by allowing for Egyptians to 'network the world' about the machinery of Mubarak's brutal regime. While it is not technology that has given life to the revolution but Egyptians themselves, catalyzed in part by their Tunisian neighbors, access is fundamental."

In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell points out that protests -- and revolutions -- occurred long before the internet. Take the Civil Rights movement:

"Thousands were arrested and untold thousands more radicalized. These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade -- and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter."

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