By Sree Sreenivasan
DNAinfo Contributing Columnist
As I write this, the people of Libya are fighting - and dying - for their freedom from four decades of despotic rule. No one can predict what will happen with the uprising there or in other nearby countries, but here's what I've learned since parts of the Middle East erupted.
1. THIS IS NOT A SOCIAL-MEDIA REVOLUTION: Just like other revolutions before it, this set depended on brave people making a stand. People willing to stand up to bullets and tanks and dictators. People willing to die for what they believe in.
This has been true from the American Revolution, the French and the Indian struggles for independence, and the Civil Rights movement. To call this a social-media revolution or a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolution is incorrect. Those tools helped, but this is fundamentally about human beings standing up for freedom.
2. MALCOLM GLADWELL WAS WRONG: Point No. 1 above doesn't mean that New Yorker writer — and explainer of the world — Malcolm Gladwell was right either. He wrote a piece in his signature style (am a big fan) in October 2010 that said, in effect, that social media cannot cause social change. The article, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted," is still worth reading, but shows how wrong Gladwell was about the power of social media.
We are just getting started with how social media can be used (for good and bad) and for pundits like him to declare it useless is ridiculous. By the way, I notice that some of the biggest skeptics of social media are folks like Gladwell, who are not on Twitter themselves. Sure, you don't have to be a filmmaker to critque films, but surely, you have to at least watch a few of them.
One of my favorite tweets from the Egypt crisis was by @Kleinmatic (that's Scott Klein of ProPublica), who declared "#Egypt cut off the Internet to prevent Malcolm Gladwell from being wrong." Take a look at the above graphic to understand that even if Gladwell and others don't understand what the Internet can do, the Egyptian despots did.
I urge everyone who wants to understand this issue to watch the recent CBS News "60 Minutes" interview with Wael Ghonim. He's the young Google executive who helped start the Egyptian revolution by creating a Facebook group inspired by the Tunisian protests and criticizing the death of an activist in Egypt. It was his disappearance and arrest and re-appearance that brought new life to the protests just when they seemed to be dying down. In the interview, correspondent Harry Smith asks a simple question:
Smith: If there's no social network, does this revolution happen?
Ghonim: If there was no social networks, it would have never been sparked. Because the whole thing before the revolution was the most critical thing. Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without YouTube, this would have never happened.
He goes on to explain that blocking Facebook had an unintended consequence:
Smith: If you want to have a free country, if you want democracy, then the Internet is great, and all this information can be shared. But isn't just the opposite then true? If I want to continue to suppress people, the last thing I'm gonna give them is access to the Internet.
Ghonim: Block the whole Internet, you're gonna really frustrate people. One of the strategic mistakes of this regime was blocking Facebook. One of the reasons why they are no longer in power now is that they blocked Facebook. Why? Because they have told 4 million people that they are scared like hell from the revolution by blocking Facebook. They forced everyone who's just, you know, waiting to read the news on Facebook, they forced them to go to the street to be part of this. So really, like, if I want to thank one, thank anyone for all of this, I would thank our stupid regime.
After he was freed by the authorities, Ghonim said he wanted to thank Mark Zuckerberg for creating Facebook. I wonder what he thinks of Gladwell.
3. THIS IS AL JAZEERA'S MOMENT: If the collective people of Egypt have emerged covered in glory, so have the journalists of Al Jazeera. The two networks of this company headquartered in Qatar (yes, another autocratic state, but with one of the highest GDPs in the world) have really shined in their coverage. Al Jazeera Arabic, the flagship station, has owned the story since it started, but more eye-opening outside the Arab world has been the work of Al Jazeera English.
Staffed with former BBC, CNN and other international broadcasters, AJE has been the go-to place for the story. Of course, in the U.S. going to it meant hitting the live stream at http://english.aljazeera.net since almost no cable company was willing to carry the network in the months after 9/11. Imagine if a network with low-viewership, like Current TV, had just simulcast AJE what that would have done for the ratings and Americans' understanding of the conflict. AJE also showed the power of the web by using that live stream and promoting it and also in creating excellent iPhone/iPad and Android apps for it.
Despite all the Internet talk and attention, I also want to point out that the work done by AJE, CNN and others — including newspapers — has shown the importance of the mainstream media. Their coverage was and is absolutely crucial in regimes paying attention to this.
4. E-MAIL STILL COUNTS: Yes, social media is important, but let's not forget an older technology which some folks have written off for dead. I'm talking about e-mail, which activists in and out of the Middle East have been using to organize, get attention and more. If you have any doubts, see the messages that came into my inbox, from the pro- and anti-Bahrain government sides last week: http://twitpic.com/40ov5n.
5. YOU CAN DO A LOT FROM AFAR: The most glamorous job of journalism has always been the foreign correspondent, jetting into dangerous areas armed with a notebook (and maybe a camera crew), a beige photographer's vest and all the gumption in the world. And while that has been an important part of the Mid East coverage this time around, I wanted to take a moment to praise those far from the field who are able to provide an important service, too.
And that's taking all the noise generated in places such as Egypt and Libya and then amplifying, strategically, the most accurate and most useful tweets, Facebook postings, webcasts, etc. The master of this is Andy Carvin, NPR's online communities manager, who has turned his Twitter feed (@acarvin) into a one-stop shop of news coverage of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, et al. Read how he's been doing it - and an unintended consequence for NPR funding in pieces in the New York Times by Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) and in The Atlantic by Phoebe Connelly (@phoebedoris).
Another example of someone sitting in NYC and helping cover the conflict through social media is filmmaker Parvez Sharma and his Twitter feed, @parvezsharma.
See my collection of Egypt-related social-media coverage at http://bit.ly/egyptsoc.
What have you learned? Post your comments below or on Twitter @sree.
Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.