Friday, 4 February 2011
From Chaos to Calm (or Communications in Egypt)
In this age of communication and social media, how would you cope if you mobile and landlines stopped working? Could you really keep you business going or make arrangements with your friends and family?
This is just what happened to people in Egypt this week and I found the development of the situation fascinating for many reasons. Through the terrible scenes and the remarkable peaceful start demonstrate a whole mass of communications theory in act.
Social media is very much seen as an online revolution but it really describes the creation of communities. In such, social media tools help to create communities in a virtual world but are inferior to the real communities where people come together.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered peacefully in the Tahrir Square, brought out by the word of mouth and not by technology. When the government switched off Twitter, and then the web, it was clearly an attempt to stifle the ability of individuals to co-ordinate a demonstration.
This failed because the real way people co-ordinated was by talking and sharing in a genuine community. This was spontaneous and the rabble rousing of the past. Mosques, churches and community halls were the social media on the ground.
We’re so used to the power of flash mobbing and the co-ordination of protests like the tuition fees protests, that we forget that protests used to have a spontaneous nature to them. In some ways this may be why it started so peacefully. It was people coming together for a common cause rather than a strategic and lead revolution.
The start of the violence was also telling. Within a few hours of the internet being “switched back on”, the Pro Mabarak faction took hold two facts I personally feel are linked. There was a coordinated violence element to their reactionary protest.
The weaker of the two communities would benefit from the use of mobile and internet technology without a clear community to draw its support from or coordinate protests. Ignoring the claims of corruption, the protest worked. It brought Pro Mabarak supporters out and not all were hell bent on violence. There were some peacemakers but they never had a chance.
The disturbing scenes of violence created chaos for a while, but the chaos theory suggests order would return. What I found surprising was the speed with which a crowd organised itself. From a disparate group, a hierarchy developed and a strategy to deal with the violence being forced upon them. Within an hour there seemed to be roman style tortoise formations of protestors, using any sheet metal they could find as shields and barricades. At the same time, foreign journalists were targeted to minimise coverage of the violence, often by the police, absent from their peacekeeping duties.
Another disturbing thing happened later that day. Rumours started flying that the anti Mabarak protests were being run by foreigners and other misinformation. The problem is, though, that in a tight knit community you know the difference between your kin and an alien influence. Protestors claim dozens if not hundreds of undercover policemen had been challenged for making these claims.
Several days in the Egyptian Government started to speak again. They echoed the misinformation heard in Tahrir Square with an unnerving similarity. It seemed very much like a classic divide and conquer approach to their propaganda.
The spin didn’t wash with the western journalists and large holes were present. The president was definitely in Ciaro but no one had seen him, yet it is not unusual in a crisis for a president to see his cabinet. This seemed to be the nonsensical argument.
And despite the Egyptian Government’s claims, Friday’s big putsch started with the biggest protest yet and a peaceful protest. Just think of most G20 protests and the student protests, add in the strength of feeling in Egypt and the provocation and this is remarkable. The level of communication and community needed to draw out the crowds and maintain the peace shows how coordinated yet spontaneous these demonstrations are.
So what are the learning points:
Online communities and communications are important but are never as strong as genuine real life communities
There is nothing stronger than spontaneous and unconnected action
Movements can be created organically and quickly. Here’s a lighter example
Propaganda is only effective if it’s believable and based on fact. Once it’s been shown as a sham, it actually harms your cause.
It’s amazing to see the power of humanity which can bring a riot back to peace.