On Friday morning, the television in the CJR office was tuned to CNN—and our laptops were tuned to Al Jazeera English—and we watched the jubilant crowds in Cairo following President Mubarak’s announcement that he would step down. President Obama gave a statement comparing the day’s events to the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, Gandhi’s nonviolent protests for Indian independence, and the Indonesian revolution. He said that, in the past few weeks in Egypt, “the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace.”
That same afternoon, one flight up in Columbia’s Journalism building, an all-star panel convened to address how changes in the flow of information helped bring it all about. The panel—entitled “Information Wars”—featured Emily Bell, director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism; Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein fame; Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman; Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom; and Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Al Jazeera English host Marwan Bishara moderated the program, which will appear on AJE’s show Empire this week.* (CJR also prodigiously tweeted the event’s most quotable moments.)
It was a lively discussion, with a standing-room-only crowd in the packed lecture hall, as cameras swooped over the audience members’ heads. The first segment focused on WikiLeaks and its impact on governments, on the public, and on the press. But the group seemed eager to talk about the revolution in Egypt, which they turned to in the second half of the program.
Bishara posed several questions to the panel concerning the role of social media in political revolution, a topic that has sparked particularly contentious online debate in recent months. (To see where the Web’s prominent writers on this topic stand in relation to each other’s arguments, these charts by University of Washington graduate student Deen Freelon are a good place to start [via].)
To start, Bishara asked Morozov—whose writings have argued that the internet can just as easily be used to suppress as it can to liberate—whether he still remained a “cyber skeptic” about the power of social media after watching the revolutions unfold in Tunisia and Egypt. Morozov said he still thought that the role of social media in the latest revolutions has been overblown, and that revolutionaries will always use whatever technology is available to them at the time—so this is nothing new.
For instance, Morozov said, “The Bolsheviks made great use of the postal service and the telegraph. The revolution in Iran made great use of tape recorders to smuggle in the sermons by the Ayatollah from Paris.” He later noted that 1848 saw an impressive series of revolutions in Europe, which was, of course, before television and Twitter. He also pointed out that history—and mainstream media—tends to remember the successes rather than the failures. There was a major campaign on Facebook among Egyptians to organize against the Mubarak regime back in 2008, but it didn’t take hold like the protests we saw in the past few weeks. The social media tools were the same, but the political and cultural environment was different this time around, the situation on the ground was different, and the allegiance and actions of the army were different.
“Ultimately, it is people who make these revolutions and rebellions, using any tool that they can,” agreed Goodman. One of the most influential bloggers in Egypt, for instance, wrote on his blog about finding inspiration in the brave Germans who wrote and distributed pamphlets to try to alert the world to Nazi atrocities during World War II, a crime for which they were ultimately executed. Each moment in history has had its own tools and methods of communication that helped to facilitate it.
But Goodman spoke, too, about the particularly powerful media of Twitter and Facebook, which keep communication accessible, immediate, and highly visual. The audience broke out into applause when she declared, “If Twitter.com ends up selling for millions and millions and millions of dollars, they better put most of that into a people’s fund in Egypt, because that’s how their stock went up, and maybe they can abolish poverty in Egypt.”