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New Texts Out Now: Linda Herrera, Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet

[Cover of Linda Herrera, [Cover of Linda Herrera, "Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet"]

Linda Herrera, Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet. London and New York: Verso, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Linda Herrera (LH): In the months prior to the Arab uprisings, I had been conducing research on Egypt’s “wired generation”—their social media habits, ways of doing politics, and networks. When it became known that Egypt’s popular mobilization on 25 January 2011 was launched from a Facebook page, I literally found myself pulled by the astonishing force of events, as if lifted by a political tornado. I did not know where this force would take me—indeed I could not have imagined—but I knew I had to research and write about it. If I possessed the skills of a novelist I would have written a political thriller. This story contains a cast of characters that includes virtual freedom fighters, infiltrators, internet trolls, shrewd and brilliant graphic artists, video game enthusiasts, as well as figures from the US State Department, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, Google, and more. But alas, I have written the book from the voice of a political anthropologist, educator, and global citizen.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LH: This book puts a spotlight on the politics of social media during a time of intense youth discontent, free-market globalization, and breathtaking technological change where questions about the liberatory versus the repressive effects of technology have become paramount. It explores whether youth movements that are oriented towards greater democracy and social justice, movements that aim to expose and alter repressive political and economic structures, are at an advantage in the digital age. Are the new information and communication tools, which citizens use for creating, expressing, organizing, and deliberating, shifting the balance of power? Or are powerful entities finding more effective and efficient ways to contain, monitor, coopt, and disenfranchise people, and especially youth, through these very tools and technologies? The book connects to a cross-section of literature from political theory, international relations, critical media studies, marketing, and the study of youth and popular culture.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

LH: My previous research deals with questions about globalization and the contested nature of education, battles over the “control” of youth bodies and minds, and Middle East cultures and politics in the post-Cold War era. These core issues are all present in this work. I also rely on a set of research tools and methodological approaches that have guided my work in the past. The research for this book involved applying techniques of critical ethnography to social media spaces, conducting a number of face-to face-interviews, and undertaking policy analysis of US State Department documents for “Democracy Promotion” and “Internet Freedom” in the post-9/11 era.

I also tread into decidedly new territory. I needed to learn about techniques of online marketing and advertising, venture capitalism, become acquainted with the literature from media and communications studies, and to think about high tech companies such as Google and Facebook as entities comparable in some aspects to the State. The scholarly research dealing with high tech companies lags far behind their impact and power, something that we as a research community need to redress.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LH: Initially, I envisioned an audience interested in not only the Arab Uprisings, but the range of networked social movements as exemplified by Occupy, Indignados, Taksim Square, the student movement in Chile, and anti-austerity uprisings in Iceland, Southern and Eastern Europe, to name a few. Much of the literature about contemporary networked movements often exaggerates their emancipatory and transformative potentials. On the other side, the blogosphere has been rife with conspiracy theories about the disguised and sinister nature of many of these movements, particularly the Egyptian uprising. I wanted to unpack these conspiracies to the extent I was able to do so. This book does not set these multifaceted issues to rest, but hopefully advances an understanding of political mobilization and crowd-sourced education in this era of social media and uprisings.

This book raises pressing issues that will remain important far into the future about surveillance, (internet) freedom, privacy, protected speech, human rights, inequality, and civil disobedience in our digital age. The very future of democracy depends on our vigilance and advocacy around these issues. My greatest hope is that this work will serve as a form of critical media literacy, inform practice, and inhabit a place in wider conversations about power, counter power, and democracy in the digital age.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LH: As readers of Jadaliyya may be aware, my own university, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, is currently embroiled in its own social media-inspired insurrection with the “Salaita Affair.” After being offered a tenured position in the American Indian Studies Program at the University, this Palestinian-American’s  job offer was revoked, ostensibly due to a handful of “uncivil” and “incendiary” tweets he wrote during the recent Israeli incursion on Gaza. The case involves more than a few tweets to be sure. It involves historical patterns of discrimination against under-represented groups and opinions. The university is a microcosm, albeit a privileged one, of how special interest and corporate governance are increasingly encroaching into democratic spaces, protections, and cultures. Academics and citizens are extremely concerned about the fragility of academic freedom in the internet age. Along these lines, I am working with graduate students from Global Studies in Education  on a project about global politics, democracy, and academic freedom in the age of social media in light of the Salaita affair. Additionally, I am in the early stages of a research project that looks at the interplay between social media activism, celebrity culture, international development, and girls’ education.

J: How does your book contribute to or diverge from previous scholarship on social media and revolutionary movements?

LH: This book joins a growing body of work that seeks to document and theorize networked movements in the age of the internet and mobile communications. Most authors present a case or argument from within a defined position and situate themselves somewhere on the spectrum that ranges from internet utopian to cyber-doomsayer. My book differs insofar as it does not start with a position, but rather a set of open-ended questions. I learned first hand, and in very humbling ways, how social media is a tricky place to maneuver. The memes, messages, and entities circulating on social media are often not what they appear. They require a high degree of “virtual intelligence,” painstaking research, analytical skills, and ability to work across all kinds of disciplinary and professional boundaries to decipher them.

The second way I believe this book differs from others is the manner in which it was researched and the types of collaborations on which it drew. In addition to using the tools of critical ethnography, participant observation, and policy discourse analysis as mentioned above, I also co-researched parts of the book with talented non-academics with different skill sets and experiences. For instance, in the early stages of the research, I worked closely with a former student who works in Silicon Valley in the high tech industry and specializes in marketing and the Arabic web. I also collaborated with an Egyptian filmmaker and producer steeped in video game culture, who navigates and creates content deep inside the arteries of Arab social media.  By combining the life worlds of political activists, video game enthusiasts, creative artists, hackers, and “ordinary” social media users, with the marketing strategies of the Big powers on social media, this book takes a wide point of view. It tells a blended story about the inspirational and oftentimes astounding ways people use new communication tools for freedom, to deliberate, create, organize, and confront oppression and injustice. It also tells a cautionary tale about ways virtual spaces are coopted by vested interests, and how they are susceptible to anti-democratic and even tyrannical regimes that put the lives and liberties of users at risk.

Excerpts from Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet

In his memoir, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater than the People in Power, Wael Ghonim makes a startling revelation about his interrogation at the hands of Egyptian State Security during the January 25 Revolution. Ghonim was an anonymous administrator (admin) of the Arabic “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page that issued the call for revolution. He figured it was only a matter of time before he would be discovered. When two State Security agents captured him on 27 January 2011, outside a trendy Cairo restaurant, Ghonim assumed it was because of his work on the page. To his surprise, the interrogators had no idea he was working as an admin. They were solely interested in his ties to his American dinner companions. Ghonim, Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East, had been in a meeting with Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas and formerly of the United States Department of State, and Matthew Stepka, Google’s VP for Strategy. These were the last people Ghonim saw before disappearing for eleven days. He writes, “Little did I know that this brief meeting would lead me to the most difficult experience of my life.” On that same evening, Jared Cohen tweeted—rather indiscreetly given the risks faced by activists on the ground at the time—“For reliable on the ground resources in #Egypt (#jan25) follow @Ghonim @EgyptUpdates @alshaheeed.” Alshaheeed, “The Martyr,” was the Twitter handle for the “We Are All Khaled Said” page.

Ghonim recounts being blindfolded and taken away to an undisclosed location. During the interrogation, he was horrified to realize his questioners were trying to link him to the CIA. They were especially concerned about his relationship to Jared Cohen. Ghonim tries to downplay the State Security interest in Cohen by writing, “I didn’t find it strange that they specifically asked about Jared. His Jewish-sounding name could raise eyebrows in Egyptian State Security, given the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict.” Ghonim’s attempt to brush off questions about Cohen as mere sensitivity to a name is disingenuous at best. Cohen had held key positions in the State Department’s internal think tank, Policy Planning, under both the Bush and Obama administrations. He had been pursuing a policy that can be called cyberdissident diplomacy (CDD) by reaching out to tech-savvy youth … with the aim of training them in particular forms of cyberdissidence and online campaigning. Cohen’s forte was building networks among young Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In 2010 he left the State Department to direct Google Ideas, where he specializes in finding technological approaches to “counterterrorism” and “counterradicalism.”

The compelling story behind [Egypt’s January 25] youth-led revolt of 2011 is not quite the romantic tale of liberation through the emancipatory power of communications technologies that many initially supposed it to be. Nor can Egypt’s internet politics be reduced to widely circulating conspiracies about hidden hands from the United States and elsewhere orchestrating people and events from behind the scenes. But let us be clear: there are some hidden hands that need to be brought to light and understood. The uprising that began on 25 January 2011, and that continues in different forms to the present day, has been expressed in virtual spaces and on the streets. It is part of an ongoing youth-driven social upheaval born out of a technological revolution, a period of enhanced economic liberalization, the spread of international civil society initiatives, an escalation of military aggression in the region, and a tightening of the security state.

Prior to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the under thirty-fives who make up to seventy-five percent of the population in countries in the MENA region, were mainly portrayed in policy, government, and academic circles as a “passive generation,” or a generation “on hold.” Yet it is this very generation that has been at the forefront of a cultural, intellectual, and political revolution that has been chipping away at the inevitability of the Old Order. Youth contain all the social, political, and economic diversity that exists in society. Yet at the same time, members of this generation, particularly the wired among them, exhibit distinguishing features common to growing up in the virtual age. For instance, they display more fluid notions about privacy, and a value for horizontal learning and sharing. They seem to consider it normal and acceptable to speak back to power, to interact across lines of difference, and to cultivate fictitious and anonymous public personas. As a collectivity, this generation has also shown itself to be un-submissive and ungovernable, something that has happened exponentially as larger proportions of them have participated in the growing opposition culture in both online and offline spaces.

[…]

When the world learned that Egypt’s revolution was supposedly triggered by a Facebook page, a clamor erupted between the internet utopians and internet skeptics, between the proponents of the “new” politics of globalized networked multitudes as theorized by the likes of Manuel Castells, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri, and the “old” politics of traditional movement building. Figures from the left of the political spectrum balked at the suggestion that “Facebook youth” should be taken seriously, or that US tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which embody the capitalist ideals of free market America, could be factors in an actual revolution, or in any movement that challenges the dominant global system. In his book The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, French philosopher Alain Badiou cuttingly writes: “Some commentators have regarded the role of ‘youth’ in the riots in the Arab world as a sociological novelty, and have linked it to the use of Facebook or other vacuities of alleged technical innovation in the postmodern age. But who has ever seen a riot whose front ranks were made up of the elderly?” In his cavalier dismissal of youth and social media, Badiou exhibits a deep misunderstanding of the radical transformation that has been occurring in Arab societies—a transformation that extends far beyond the traditional political sphere and that has featured wired youth at the forefront.

This generation has experienced exponential rates of connectivity while suffering from systematic disenfranchisement, especially when it comes to institutions of the state and the economy. Young people have had to contend with the dismantling of social safety nets, record high rates of youth unemployment, and spiking rates of inequality. If older cohorts who came of age between the 1950s and 1980s viewed the state as a repressive yet benevolent behemoth—since it provided affordable housing, education, government jobs, and food subsidies—the current generation experiences the state as purely rapacious, authoritarian, and indifferent. A twenty-five-year-old Egyptian university graduate illustrates this difference when he says, “I mainly associate the state with the horrible experience of having to go the police station to get my [national] ID.” To better understand how this wired generation started to coalesce into a counter-power requires going back to the era of technological opening. The high-tech revolution arrived in Egypt with a combination of excitement, moral panic, and desire. No one could predict how technology would change people and society, or how people would alter the technology.

[Excerpted from Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet, by Linda Herrera, by permission of the author. © 2014 Linda Herrera. For more information, or to purchase a copy of this book, click here.]

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