Social media revolution means the world bears witness

21 Feb 2011

In his look back on the week, editor John Kennedy studies the role social media is playing in the uprisings in the Arab world as Gaddafi’s regime blocks the internet in Libya and protesters in Bahrain are gunned down.

I remember two years ago street protests happening in Iran and videos appearing via camera phone on YouTube showing a wall of Iranian secret police menacingly revving motorcycle engines in front of a crowd of protesters. It was around that time that social media as a tool for beating censorship began to be understood.

As the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have shown, people won’t be silenced by those who think they know what’s good for them. Despite an internet blackout, it was amazing to see Google, for example, come up with an ingenious system for allowing people in Egypt to talk into their phones and convert the message into a tweet on Twitter – speak to tweet.

But it was last night that I suppose the shock of what’s happening hit me when I least expected. It was the shock of getting to grips with what people in these countries are up against. I had read earlier of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya blocking internet access just like Muberak’s neighbouring regime had. We had the fire lit and were waiting for a DVD to queue up and I just logged into my Facebook account on my phone.

A video recorded on a smartphone appeared in my social stream of protests happening in the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. A crowd of protesters moved up a highway chanting, waving flags. Suddenly a crackling noise that sounded not unlike the sparking from my fireplace. Then the camera shook, the crowd disappeared and on the ground lay figures. I’m not sure what hit me most, the speed at which a highly mobile crowd dissipated to be left with a handful of prone figures on the ground or the deadly stillness of the inert figures.

A quick play of an accompanying video from within the crowd revealed the same crackling gunfire noise and to the right of the screen a figure dropped, and you knew with certainty which one of the earlier prone figures had fallen in an instant.

A newer, more intimate world

We are witnessing things with an intimacy that before was undreamed of that through technology was hitherto impossible.

When you think of places like Egypt or Libya or Tunisia, you don’t often think of them as being at the nexus of technology revolutions – instead you think of places like Seattle or Silicon Valley. But right there before our eyes the world as we know it is being turned on its head. And it is through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and other platforms that we are witnessing them with gritty realism.

As I write, a tweet pops up on my screen about non-stop gunfire being heard in Libya, another on how police are defecting to the side of the protesters to set up neighbourhood watches. Another tells me the Prime Minister’s offices are on fire.

I think a wholly different fire has also been started that no corrupt regime or political clique will ever be able to quench. A whole system that bears witness to the harsh treatment of others and that could ultimately result in justice and freedom around the world has begun. But it is young, and it is fragile.

In Egypt, a father this morning named his baby girl ‘Facebook’. Tiny and fragile, she must be protected.

Twitter revolution

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years