The Phone Is Mightier Than the Sword

Two years ago, Egyptians took to the streets en masse – and helped to usher in a new age of citizen journalism. Old media is still trying to catch up.

In August 2012, I stood in front of thousands of international media professionals in Sweden to deliver my closing keynote in the annual media evolution conference. The event was held in an old slaughterhouse, which I thought was a perfect setting to expose the lies and manipulation of Egypt’s local media. Not only for their systematic misinformation since TV was invented, but also for their outrageous lies since the start of the Egyptian uprising in January 2011.
The mass awareness that was born with the revolution owes its very existence to the instant exchange of information on the Internet. Everyone everywhere could be in the middle of the action as they read updates and watched videos directly from activists on the ground, without needing a talking head on TV to explain it for them. Average people finally opened their eyes to the huge gap between what was actually happening and what the local media said was happening.

In just two historic weeks, citizen journalists managed to expose the archaic propaganda of state-owned media and to encourage more people to join their ranks consistently. Online, there was an avalanche of new writing and photography talents, some of whom are full-fledged stars by now. But the impact exceeded local boundaries.

The shockwaves of the Arab Spring impacted people in over 82 countries and 950 cities on every inhabited continent, who echoed the demands of Tahrir Square for social justice and freedom. News of the global Occupy movement was transmitted exactly the same way as news of the liberation squares in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia: using smart phones, laptops, and digital cameras constantly uploading updates to personal accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

When I look at my own Facebook timeline from December 2010, I see myself sharing links from news sites and commenting on them. Just a few weeks later, the process was reversed: the media was quoting my Facebook statuses and sharing my photos and videos from Tahrir Square. A couple of months later, I was invited to speak at Harvard and at the Swedish Royal Palace, where high-profile UN diplomats thought I should run for president. As a veiled Muslim woman, all that was unimaginable a few months before.

The same was happening to hundreds of activists around the Arab world who were using social media to report, analyze, raise awareness, and learn politics as they marched forward. Whole books are now devoted to our Facebook and Twitter conversations, as we overthrew the dictators and reclaimed our freedom.

In Egypt, the average age of the 92 million citizens is 24 years. Almost 70 percent of Arab youth are now online ¬– talking to each other directly, changing the world and reporting as they move along. Who needs the “old” media?

Social media in Egypt is no longer for sharing pictures of parties, pets and babies, it is now an ‘alternative’ media, to shape and discuss articles of the constitution, build mass awareness campaigns, and have entire Facebook-based news agencies with millions of worldwide subscribers. Among these subscribers are the once influential newspapers and TV stations, who are simply trying to catch up.

Actually, amateurs and citizen journalists have managed to train media professionals and their audience to accept rough footage and blurry mobile phone photos as more credible and authentic than carefully crafted, glossy news reports with powerful music and animated graphs.

I haven’t written for a print publication in years. Online, I can see my work in “print” in a few hours and then enjoy the interaction with worldwide readers, who could also be my lecture audience and subscribers on social media. The line is blurring rapidly.

The closing slide in my speech about media misinformation shows an average guy with a smart phone facing a soldier armed to the teeth. The guy on the street has more power. Just last week, I saw that dynamic in action once more. When the official Twitter account of the Israeli Defense Force announced the start of the Gaza offensive, Hamas responded in kind – which opened the door for a parallel online offensive between the two armies of ‘tweeps’ supporting each side. Was was being waged on Twitter as well as offline. Journalists and activists tracked which hashtags were more popular and concluded that Palestine won the Twitter war (since #GazaUnderAttack and #PrayForGaza were tens of times more popular than their Israeli counterparts).

And this was also a battle between well-funded state propaganda machines and citizen journalism. Young Palestinian activists influenced the global perception of the conflict through their reporting of the situation in graphic photos and videos.

In a “New York Times” piece called Watching Elephants Fly, Thomas Friedman summed up the position of traditional media engulfed by the powerful changes of the Arab Spring: “The smartest thing now is to just shut up and take notes.”

Read more in this debate: Lyse Doucet.

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