Mystery of the Sphinx: Egypt and Tactical Media

Protester attacked by camel at recent demonstration.

Egypt is Demonstrating Tactical Media and the power of Social Networking

The key to ignition.
Facebook, Twitter, SMS and blogs were crucial organizing tools that ignited the social movements in Cairo.  Inspiration came from the recent uprising in Tunisia. News of that rebellion reached many Egyptians very quickly with the help of the Internet. Egypt remixed the Tunisian experience by appropriating the Jasmine Revolution and applying it to their January 25th, Police Day.  Someone made the protest an event on Facebook and 80,000 people signed up.  These media flows of dissent have been speculated to go viral and create rebellion throughout the Muslim world.
These events highlight the ideas behind Tactical Media as defined by Alessandra Renzi in her chapter on Democracy and Media.  Tactical Media is temporal, polymorphic, and collective.  It is not predefined, but continuously reshaped by different actors and contexts.  NGOs and other social justice organizations have clearly articulated objectives to alter preexisting conditions; whether they are alleviating poverty, calling for corporate accountability, or racial equality. Tactical Media is more immediate in the constant reconfigurations of its work and objectives.  It is not a homogeneous entity within a network, but rather a “networked space” that is constantly produced until it becomes redundant (p. 76).  Space in the world of Tactical Media is a social construction.  Imagination is the site of contest.
Assendra stresses the importance of linking the social activism of the virtual world with face-to-face contact.  Events organized on the Internet use the many-to-many platform to build support amongst the masses, but meeting in person builds more cooperation and trust.  Malcom Gladwell has noted this in his New Yorker articles on social media and high-risk activism.  Bonds between Facebook friends, he argues, are just not as strong as real life friends.
Awareness of subordinate status.

Why do people engage in Tactical Media in the first place?  There is always a political element involved.  Renzi cites Warner’s research into counterpublics as an example.  If the public is an ongoing space of encounter and discourse, then counterpublics are publics that maintain an awareness of their subordinate status. Unlike NGOs and other institutions of resistance, publics unite because of participation rather than just a common identity.  There is also immediacy to their involvement.  Tactical Media actions are publicly displayed and have the potential to automatically address a global audience.  However, because of the heterogeneous nature of Tactical Media, there is a question of how strong the bonds of solidarity are in the public movement (pp. 86-88).

The methods behind Tactical Media remind me of guerilla warfare tactics or Bruce Lee’s belief that victory comes from “Being like Water.”  As we have seen from the Egyptian protests, Tactical Media was initially a success. The Egyptians digested and reconceptualized the Tunisian rebellion into their own form of dissent in much the same way that Renzi describes the Brazilian practice of Digitofagia.  Organizers capitalized on Facebook’s and SMS’s many-to-many platform and got global support.  Thousands of protesters took to the streets and overwhelmed the government.

Yet, Tactical Media’s limitations are also illustrated by the Egyptian crisis.  When Renzi speaks of culture-jamming she describes it as only a temporary reversal of power.  Egyptians exposed the possibilities the communications network and then jammed it with their rebellious discourse.  The state responded with a telecommunications blackout revealing the temporal nature of Tactical Media.  Even though the riots played out over YouTube before a global audience, the bonds have not been strong enough between Egyptian protesters and Facebook friends in other countries to provide the support needed to topple the government or even end the riots.  The decentralized nature of the movement was a strength in its emergence, but now a centrally organized group is needed to restore order.

Grassroots movement.

The Egyptian turmoil is populace driven and this brings into question the effectiveness of a grassroots movement.  Can it be done?  Shania Anand, an Indian filmmaker, is skeptical.  Anand goes into impoverished communities like Rustle Market in Bangalore and tries to transform the residents from passive consumers of media into active participants by allowing them to broadcast themselves. Anand points out that she is dependent on larger NGOs for the funding of her projects.  She scrutinizes her relationship with her benefactors because when she accepts money, her autonomy is lost.  What are the power dynamics at play in the transaction?  Anand says that NGOs are “giving you things, but [they] are also telling you what’s good for yourself.”  (p. 327) The result is that as funding increases, practitioners have to increasingly pacify their politics.  Anand believes that public culture is in abject poverty.  The goal of her projects is to provide empowerment through media literacy.  Her objectives are political and, by her rationale, the more funding she accepts the less she will be able to get done.

Ticket to Tahrir Square.

Anand calls her projects interventions.  Her crew of academics and filmmakers enter into squalid conditions and inject their services and expertise into the community.  They employ cheap Do It Yourself technology to give the community a voice, expose the under use of the existing communications infrastructure, while promoting alternative means of networking.  Anand echoes Renzi’s thoughts on Tactical Media.  Media alone can’t bring a permanent shift in power.  Permanence is dependent on commerce and social capital.  This makes the systems that produce Tactical Media more autocratic than autonomous (p. 339).

Countless examples of Tactical Media’s dependency can be seen in the Egyptian uprising.  Protesters used Facebook and Vodaphone, both large corporate platforms, to engage in social change. Speak To Tweet technology has been widely celebrated by those supporting free speech and the social movement in Egypt.  Protesters have managed to call in their tweets over landlines and Google and Twitter have come together to translate their voice messages into digital ones.  It’s remarkable how such an impressive technological innovation has emerged in the midst of a crisis.  However, it also suggests that in order for protesters to communicate with the outside world an entity like Google has to intervene.  Can a grassroots movement grow organically or does a larger power have to step in?

VoiceMsg may not exceed 140 char.

What’s so bad about Google offering this free service anyway?  Anand’s critique on YouTube, another major media outlet in the Egyptian struggle, is relevant here.  “Eyeballs mean money.”    Speak To Tweet may allow protesters to voice their experience, but how does the information they produce feedback to them in a valuable way?  Communication was blocked from entering Cairo.  An eyewitness may alert netizens that men are pouring gasoline downtown, but no one in the city has the means to read that message.  This leaves only countries outside the sphere of struggle to intercept the information, but how do they respond?  Awareness is the first step in bringing social change, but as media and communications have become censored, a fishbowl effect has developed.

In Where the Activism Is, Trebor Scholz writes that the social networking aspects that have come to characterize Web 2.0 are defined by creativity, collaboration, and courage, but also commoditization, control and consumption.  Owners of social networking sites create their wealth on the backs of producers who upload content to their profile pages (p. 336).

People who live on a dollar a day say that “access to voice” would make the most difference in their lives according to Scholz.  To some extent, Egypt got its wish.  The world is listening, but are the protesters getting shortchanged?  YouTube broadcasts uploaded content, the audience watches in shocked dismay, and advertisers benefit from the large number of page views. Money is made, but how does it aid those who uploaded footage in the first place?  There is no direct feedback circuit.

Eye of the storm: #egypt is everywhere but.

Censorship has technologically marooned the protesters, but Internet solidarity movements continue online despite the reduced Egyptian participation.  Scholz points out that it’s easier than ever to get involved in social movements.  People can fit them into their busy schedules between commuting, work, and family.  It doesn’t take much to hit the “like” button on Facebook’s We are all Khaled Said solidarity page and its cathartic.  For that very reason, online protest becomes less effective.  When everyone on Facebook changed his or her profile pictures to their favorite cartoon character a few months ago did child abuse stop?  Scholz uses the example of the Save Darfur movements in Second Life as a way that online activism has detracted from real world social change (p. 361).  “Who listens to flag waving rhetoric?”   Scholz asks.  Observation must be turned into a critique that is inclusive of deep-rooted social causes for what went wrong Scholz concludes.

“Activism is not about hardware and software, but networking humans through technology,” says Scholz.  This happened in the initial stages of the Egyptian movement, but as the government cracked down with censorship. The protesters lost the feedback that made the online revolution so great.  Since then, the online movements have taken a different turn.  Content leaks through from Egypt, gets posted on the Internet, and then commoditized and consumed by a foreign audience.  Some of the more recent uploads on YouTube are inspirational music videos that romanticize police barricade standoffs with little context to why there is civil unrest in the first place.  The editors of these videos aren’t shedding blood for the cause; they’re just turning violence into an aesthetic.

Why did the protests start in the first place?  Mubarak has been in power for 30 years. During that time he has privatized Egypt, transforming it from state-run socialism to a free market economy. Like many other emerging nations, Neoliberalism has created a divide that has empowered the upper classes and alienated the poor.  Now consider that before the uprising only 15% of Egyptians had access to the Internet. Forty percent of population, on the other hand live on less than $2 a day according to the World Bank.  The Egyptian online movements have been used as examples of the democratic power of social media, but in reality it was just a small fraction of elites informing each other. Their efforts still amplified the voice of protest, galvanized support, and created a ripple effect, but I don’t believe that social media was truly representative of the Egyptian population.

Once you pop you can’t stop.

Gambiarras are probably playing a far more important role in this crisis than Facebook or Twitter, but because of their humble stature they aren’t as visible.  Gambiarra, as defined by Ricardo Rosas, is a Portugese word akin to “makeshift” used to describe the recombinatory technological improvisation of an expedient substitute when other means are unavailable (p. 344).  They also act as a kind of political statement.  Rosas claims that the Gambiarra is endemic to Brazil, but I hardly believe this is the case.  Gambiarras exist everywhere that people do not have the capital to buy essential goods and services.  The majority of Egyptians couldn’t access Mubarak’s free market economy and, as a result, the country has one of the largest black markets in the world. Gambiarras come in all shapes and forms. Rosas gives the examples of illegal electrical and cable hookups, as well as bicycles outfitted with loudspeakers and television sets.  Egyptians have been relying on these same types of tactics and inventions for a long time.  As the government has moved from upholding citizen welfare to downright opposing it, Gambiarras are playing an increasingly important role in the average Egyptian’s survival.

I got the Hook Up.

While we may not see many Gambiarras because they are serving populations on the other side of the digital divide, their online forms are more visible.  These include digital piracy, cracking, and open source coding. Egyptians are finding ways around the Internet ban, by employing Tor bridges to make contact with the outside world. Despite the fact that the Internet is outlawed and that only a minority had the means to access it before the uprising, communication still gets through.  The Tor bridges and similar technologies have become the front lines in Tactical Media’s spaces of contestation.

The social movements in Egypt are not only revolutionary because of their urge to topple government, but also in the sense that communication innovations have been used as tools by either sides while the rest of the world bares witness.  This brings up questions of how Tactical Media plays a role in the unfurling sequence of events.  Social media was able to start the protest movement with the speed of wildfire, but when countered by the government and telecoms, was unable to sustain itself.  Can Tactical Media play more of a role than just initiating a movement?  More importantly, how can social media be used to resolve a crisis?  The Egyptian protests are unique because of the decentralized, grassroots nature of their organization.  Did a powerful entity like Google have to intervene to keep the rebellion going or would other corporate and state institutions stomp it out?  Even after Egypt’s government censored its citizens the protest continues online.  How can all of the page views, “likes”, and other global discourse support the absent primary actors especially when social networking platforms continue to make a profit?  Finally, what do social media protests tell us about the desire to communicate outrage even when there’s no possibility of reply?  Egyptians are improvising technologies and risking their safety just to post a status update.  Social media is not just about communication, but self-expression.
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