Egypt and Tunisia have made us believe “the revolution will be televised”, and that this is the era of “social media revolution” where demonstrators are organised by Twitter and Facebook, but Libya might yet prove that even when state TV is controlled, and the internet is largely shut down people can still bring down governments.
Egypt and Tunisia have made us believe “the revolution will be televised” after all, and that this is the era of “social media revolution” where demonstrators are organised by Twitter and Facebook, but Libya might yet prove that – even when state TV is controlled, and the internet is largely shut down – people can still bring down governments.
The impact of mass media on the uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Gulf is undeniable – and certainly huge in making the outside world take notice – but has it been the vital factor or just a fascinating aspect? I think it is very hard to judge so far.
The images of people on the streets, the Tunisian President’s plane, Mubarak’s TV addresses stick clearly in the mind. They must have been inspirational for those claiming new freedoms.
The way political debate has been stirred online and the impact of using shocking images and testimony on Facebook about human rights violations has seen the kind of open mass discussion we have not seen before. But of course the reality was more complex than the TV pictures suggested.
On the day before Mubarak finally went, when the rumours started flying and Egyptian politicians started saying the President was about to step down, the final act of the revolution seemed to happen off camera. The “people power” may have been the underlying force of change, but the actual sequence of events remains mysterious. Mubarak didn’t look out of the window and think “Oh well, that’s that then”. But we didn’t see what the Egyptian army, Vice President Suleiman, the US government and others were brewing behind the scenes. Ultimately it seems they were the ones who forced Mubarak out, albeit pointing to the crowds in Tahrir Square.
In Libya the revolution is not really being televised. Amateur video and mobile phone footage is providing much of the illustration, the information comes mostly from the protesters, human rights groups and individuals on the telephone telling campaigners, friends and journalists outside what is going on.
My suspicion is that we under-reported the scale of protest and violence initially, preferring to concentrate on Bahrain, where the TV cameras had easier access. With the internet largely restricted or shut down, Twitter and Facebook have been useful, but have not delivered a real picture of what’s happening on the ground in the way they have before.
We can only imagine that the message in Libya is largely being spread the old fashioned way – by word of mouth in person and by telephone. Something unstoppable feels as though it has been unleashed, and because of what happened in Egypt and Tunisia we imagine a similar conclusion in Tripoli. But the truth is we’re all guessing.
The internet has meant however a different shape to these revolutions and what follows them. They have not been led by charismatic figures making speeches to crowds. It has been a feeling : the force of the idea of change, the desire for democratic freedoms and widely held anger at the old regimes that leads these movements, sometimes and unpredictably mushrooming around particular Facebook pages or websites.
The impact of that while the revolution was underway in Egypt was all too obvious for those of us trying to find “leaders” to interview. Nobody on the streets could really agree on who the leaders were, or who should enter talks. They seemed to change from day to day. What that will mean for democracy going forward is hard to predict.
Old style politics, where people throng around party leaders, seems strangely inappropriate to how the revolution bubbled up. You have to hope that old fashioned stitch-ups will not win in the end – or we could all end up back here in another thirty or forty years.
For now I am also rather pleased we no longer have to debate whether this was TV or internet revolution. It is clearly when mass media, internet and one to one communication all come together around a popular feeling that amazing movements are created.