The most recent tweets from Egypt are chronicling the Tahrir Square protest (“People now in #Tahrir are about 1.5 million #Jan25”), and taking jabs at the government (“A government that is scared from #Facebook and #Twitter should govern a city in Farmville but not a country like #Egypt #Jan25”). Elsewhere, millions in virtual solidarity are tweeting, Tumbling, Facebooking and blogging in tandem. This seems like a victory for social change: people are working together, across the globe, to both protest and support the right to protest. But if you’re updating your social media from the comfort of your college, know that there’s a difference between spreading awareness and doing something.
The two are the same for Egyptians. For those who use social media inside the country, the use-value of social media is clear. Tweets and status updates are used to share information, quickly, on the state of affairs. Before the Egyptian government shut down the Internet, people were updating each other on the progress and location of protests happening around the country. In these instances, tweets and status updates help protests build critical mass by bringing observers out onto the streets.
Less clear is the use-value of social media for people outside the country in question. If you’re in the Davis, your Egypt-related updates probably aren’t bringing people into the streets to champion their right to a representative government. As most people tweeting or changing their profile pictures to support the protest are aware of the inefficacy of their solidarity, there are two reasons why someone might stand in virtual support. First, the gesture of support can amount to posturing. If you’re tweeting in Davis about Egypt, you’re signaling to others in your network that you’re the kind of person that would support peoples’ movements oceans away. This is, after all, social media. You want people to know that you care.
Second, you might be virtually documenting your support in order to spread awareness. With every tweet, Tumblr post, blog and status update, you’re telling people (who otherwise might not know) that something important worth their attention is happening across the globe. The logic of spreading awareness then assumes a kind of multiplier effect. More and more people grow “aware,” and they begin to pressure power brokers into action. The endgame here is that President Obama, Hosni Mubarak or someone with clout, is so pressured from the virtual support of the physical protests that they are forced to acquiesce. In this way, spreading awareness becomes a powerful force for change.
The Egyptian protests have been markedly successful, as a new government is (slowly) on its way. But this is a success of the Egyptian people, not the followers of social media sites. Take, for example, the deja virtual of Iran’s 2009 protests. Dubbed the “Twitter Revolution,” a similar outpouring of support you see for Egypt today held true for Iran two years ago. Ultimately though, the government cut off the Internet. The government suppressed opposition party protesters. Where the government wasn’t, supporters of the government outnumbered protesters. No power broker was moved to meaningful action in support of the people. The protests failed, despite millions of online updates from users like you and I. “Spreading awareness” hardly made a mark.
Some may respond that this misses the point of social media’s role. Egypt is far away; the best we can do with our agency is tweet about the protests, spreading awareness to those who have more power. Except that’s not the best we can do. Net solidarity has this way of oversimplifying the global connections it makes, by which I mean it convinces the average social media user that she is just one human being tweeting in support of another. If you’re American, you are anything but just one human tweeting in support of another. It means something to be American when the tear gas containers fired at Egyptian protesters bear the label “Made in U.S.A.”
There’s nothing wrong with spreading awareness if you seek only to expand the borders of your moral concern. But don’t make the mistake of conflating your tweet with solidarity. To stand with someone in protest means to take whatever action you can to support the cause. If you’re here, you have in some ways more power to help Egyptians than some Egyptians.
Our elected officials have provided $28 billion in aid to the Egyptian government since 1975. Should your solidarity be so strong, do something about it. Your votes matter more than your tweets. Put your mouth where your keyboard is.
You can reach RAJIV NARAYAN at email@example.com.