In a little known village off Tahrir square two new born goats have been named Google and Twitter. The revolution simmering across Egypt has led to new hope in the power of social media to bring about real change. With the use of facebook, twitter and blogs millions of mobilised crowds converged onto the streets of Egypt to overthrow a dictator backed by the world’s only super power.
The social media has taken the neo-liberal world by surprise. Its advantage lies in the fact that it is not an institutionalised form of interaction. That allows people from across lines to seamlessly interact, exchange and debate. It emerges as a space for different heterogeneous groups to transcend institutionalised boundaries that limit their scope to converge on a common platform. The Egyptian virtual space has become a site for divergent ideological leanings to forge a vision of a common cause. The religious Muslim Brotherhood and secular activists had begun attempting a co-operative space long before the revolution descended onto the streets. However, it was social media that enabled them to forge a partnership and mobilise millions to sloganeer “Horreya” (Freedom) across the streets of Egypt.
Anonymity is a shield that wields immense power against an oppressive regime like that of Mr.Hosini Mubarak. While thousands of journalists and activists had been abused and harassed at any attempt to speak out against the dictatorial regime the anonymity provided by facebook and twitter encouraged several to scream and paint “Down with Mubarak” across Egyptian streets. Questions may be raised about credibility where anonymity is involved. But this suspicion assumes a passive public that dances to the tune of a charming leadership. This discounts the potential the public has to make political decisions based on their everyday reality. The Egyptian people did not converge on the streets because of fiery messages on Facebook and twitter. They descended on Tahrir square to protest against an oppressive regime that curtailed their basic rights.
The social media carries with it an interactive potential that allows it to function in creative ways. Citizen journalists across Egypt have been uploading videos that capture the abusive Mubarak regime. This seamless interaction between the two forms of technology allows concerned citizens to expose brutalities independent of the structural limitations presented by mainstream media. The proliferation of technology such as mobile phones, digital cameras and the internet has placed a share of the public sphere that was so far limited to the control of the dominant classes in the hands of common citizens.
The ability of social media to penetrate homes compels mainstream media to take notice of it. The revolution in Egypt is talked about in Indian drawing rooms because of NDTV. But the fact remains that NDTV could no longer afford to ignore the uprising. Social media creates pressure; it demands attention and compels action. However, it works within larger structures.
However, social media comes with its own limitations. It requires infrastructure that not everyone can afford. A revolution like Egypt’s seems a distant possibility in the Indian context if it has to rely on the potential of social media to mobilise. Further, with regimes like China who possess strong infrastructural facilities suppressing ferment on virtual space is not a difficult task. China has time and again suppressed the voices of thousands who attempted to speak against its oppression. However, Social media depending on the context is difficult to contain. While Egyptian authorities managed to cut off the Arabic Al Jazeera, several bloggers managed to surpass the attempts of the establishment to control activities online.
Social media carries with it potential for radical change. However, this change needs to be grounded within the larger socio-political context. The structure within which it functions poses several limitations to it. It is a structure that thrives on maintaining status quo. Thus the potential social media possess is contained within these limitations. However, what social media has proved is that it can challenge hegemony. By destabilising the regime in Egypt which was backed by the largest super power it has proved that one can constantly negotiate and formulate new mechanisms of surpassing limitations imposed by larger structures.
Social media has changed the dynamics of media economics. The audience is no longer dependent on mainstream media for information. People themselves are documenting and relaying their realities to the world. This threatens the hegemony of the dominant classes perpetuated by the mainstream media. One will only have to wait and watch how much social media can negotiate and surpass boundaries imposed on it by larger socio-political structures.