The latest events in Tunisia and then Egypt have sparked a raging debate on the net: are these protests being man-made or internet generated? Are we fighting with bats and stones or smartphones and apps? Are Twitter and Facebook replacing underground newspapers and illegal unions? Two camps have clearly emerged across the digital divide.
On the one part, Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian author of British descent and staff writer at the New Yorker, forcibly defended the theory that revolutions have been taking place for ages, long before electricity, let alone the computer or the net had existed: “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along…” he stated in his now infamous editorial, while confrontations between the police and the people raged in Tahrir Square. Needless to say, he made many enemies among the global bloggers’ community and fervent tweeters, who tweeted back at him with no less rage.
On the other hand, a digital community of bloggers, Facebook administrators and prolific tweeters emerged from the ashes of the battle, as the unsung heroes of the Egyptian protests, the movers and shakers who made it happen, calling it Revolution 2.0.
The interesting question was: Would the people of Egypt and Tunis have managed to plan and execute such vast public demonstrations without the help of the net? Or are we techies just fixated on our love for smart phones and apps?
Truth be told, that for such protests to take place, involving massive numbers of people, from all ages, religions and walks of life, no one channel could have done it alone. As BBC journalist Ann Alexander reports from the heart of the revolution: “Everywhere we looked there were mobile phones, hand-written placards, messages picked out in stones and plastic tea cups, graffiti, newspapers and leaflets, not to mention al-Jazeera’s TV cameras which broadcasted hours of live footage from the square everyday. When one channel of communication was blocked, people tried another.” She summarized by declaring that this movement built on a legacy of protest by many different activist networks, most of which were not primarily organized online.
But interestingly, the very fact that this debate exists, points to the fact that slowly but surely, social media, as generated by the people to the people may be upstaging the traditional power of media in one of its core functions: the coverage of revolutions and wars!