Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Affordances of New Media for Social Change: A Critical Look at the Role of New Media in the Revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt

I will begin with the spark that set the Middle East alight. Mohamed Bouazizi was a man who lived in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. His crime was that he sold groceries without a permit in order to support both himself and his family. But when his produce and scales were confiscated by local police officers, he decided that he could no longer stand the injustice of his circumstance. In an act of desperation, he became the symbol of a revolution, some would say a martyr, who set himself on fire to protest his mistreatment by the Tunisian government. His last words echo on Facebook:

“I will be traveling my mom, forgive me, Reproach is not helpful, i am lost in my way it is not in my hand, forgive me if disobeyed words of my mom, blame our times and do not blame me, i am going and not coming back, look i did not cry and tears did not fall from my eyes, Reproach is not helpful in time of Treachery in the land of people, i am sick and not in my mind all what happened, i am traveling and i am asking who leads the travel to forget.” (arabcrunch.com)

Image provided by arabcrunch.com
Bouazizi's sacrifice is credited with starting the Tunisian revolution. The image to the left, which is difficult to verify, was allegedly taken with a mobile phone and sent across Facebook. His sacrifice triggered a string of events that has changed two nations with perhaps more to follow. Not far away in Egypt, Mr Abdel-Monaim also sets himself on fire in an apparent effort to raise awareness about injustice in Egypt, much as Bouazizi had in Tunisia. Though he was likely a contributing factor, others claim that it was the mysterious death of Khaled Said that created the climate for the Egyptian protests. His death was likely caused by Egyptian police officers wishing to silence his political dissonance.

The Middle East is changing—Tunisia and Egypt in particular. And it is exciting. The world bore witness to two movements of relatively non-violent resistance and each were successful in ousting leaders who had held power for decades. News media has largely credited the success of these movements to new media: an “internet revolution” or, as Egyptian revolution leader and Google CEO Wael Ghonim would call it, “revolution 2.0.” But others are not so convinced, and this is where I feel rhetoric and composition can play a key role. We know that that invention of new technology is correlated with social change (Manovich 41). Composition studies is looking at the affordances of new media and we are asking questions about what new media can do, who has access, and how we can incorporate new media in the classroom with student agency in mind. I agree with Anne Wyosocki when she says that we need to help our students compose for the future, instead of becoming uncritical consumers of technology (Wysocki 1-23). I feel that in order to really test these ideas, we must look at how they are used in the physical world. Thus I ask the question, what can the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt teach us about the affordances of new media?

First, I wanted to ascertain how social movements are able to organize in general and evaluate how these revolutions could have came to be. For this I turn to communication studies. According to Maheo, Vissers, Stolle and Hooghe, researchers often apply the civic voluntarism model when identifying successful social movements. This model is useful because it categorizes qualitatively measured factors that foster and maintain success for social movements (Maheo 407). This concept was first defined in Klandeermans and Oegama’s article “Potentials, Networks, Motivations, and Barriers” and I will focus on two aspects of this model: mobilization potential and recruitment networks.

Reservoir in Minnesota from MPRNews.org
First is Mobilization potential, which identifies that for a social movement to be successful, it must first have a group of people with common identity and common goals. Klandermans and Oegama liken this concept to a reservoir, stating that social movements assess a kind of resource pool that they can draw from. This pool is described by Klandermans and Oegama as “people united in the view that certain states or affairs are unacceptable and that they can be changed
with collective action that will also be effective in enforcing these changes (Klandermans and Oegama 519). Simply put, social movements must be able to identify people within a contentious zeitgeist, and offer real solutions to maintain support.

1960 Flier from JFK's Campaign
Second is “recruitment networks and mobilization attempts,” this aspect of the civic voluntarism model is largely dependent on mobilization potential, but focuses specifically on how people both are recruited and retained within the movement. As of when the model was first posed in 1987 recruitment could be achieved through mass media, mailing of print media such as campaign fliers, and by networking through friendships or partnerships. In addition there is a cascade effect, where the movements ability to overcome obstacles is proportional to how many people become involved in the movement through networking. (Klandermans and Oegema 520). The researchers prepared this schema by looking at social movements in America in 1986, which is before the majority of the Americans had public had access to the internet. There is must speculation that the internet works in much the same way. However, Maheo and her colleagues identified that there is disagreement within communication studies as to whether access to digital communication actually helps social movements (Maheo, Vissers, Stolle and Hooghe 406). In response to this, they analyzed empirically whether digital communication worked either as well or better than conventional forms of mobilization and recruitment. They admit that their sample was largely composed of young university students, and thus not representative of the larger population. But they did conclude that internet networking was at least as affective as conventional mobilization efforts such as print fliers like the one to the right from John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign (Maheo, Vissers, Stolle and Hooghe 424). These findings are interesting because it casts doubt on those who claim that internet possesses some inherent properties that discourage people from being socially engaged. However, it does not help those who claim that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are “internet revolutions,” since the internet may not be any more effective than traditional forms of mobilization. However, I think that the schemes and understandings within our own discipline of composition studies may help us to better understand this popular perception.

In rhetoric and composition studies we look at new media in terms of the affordances of different modalities. That is to say that when we use a blog or a wiki, or when we compose with sound or with image or text, we are asking questions about what these different medias and modalities allow students to do (Ed. Selfe). Under the guidance of Dr. Rouzie at Ohio University, my colleagues and I are exploring how we can create a sustainable pedagogy that integrates technology in the composition classes we teach. We do this not only so that we can understand the rhetorical power of multiple modes of composition, but also because this process helps students to better understand written language (Takyoshi and Selfe 7-9), a necessary skill for achieving a voice within the academy. So why am I looking at the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt? And what does this have to do with teaching composition? I think it comes down to the affordances of new media. When we look at affordances, not only are we looking at what new media can do, but we want to collectively and critically engage this power with our students. I hope to show you that new media did play a role in these revolutions, and that composition played a role as well.

Twitpic shared amongst Tunisian protesters
Let me better define the kinds of new media I am looking at—the first being the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. Facebook allows people to create profiles where they construct an identity based on their interests and their history. People can tell you what languages they speak, where they live, where they were born, or where they work and/or study. People can hare their nationality, gender identification (though selections are limited), or whether they are gay or straight or any variation in between. They can also share daily thoughts about their lives and join causes and organizations where they network with people who share their views or identities. I thought of counting all of the groups that can be found on Facebook, just to understand the magnitude of this force, but after careful consideration I decided I would leave that work to a more patient scholar. Perhaps more importantly to us, however, is that people can communicate and compose with these new media sites. They share photos and videos, often with alphabetically expressed thoughts on their relevance. We can know nearly instantly about each others problems in our politics and often with people freely discussing its impacts (though I have reason to question how many people in this country actually do--but the prospect is there). Twitter is similar, with a profile and up-to-the-minute statements combined with hypertext links to various media forms, people can express and share their interests. With Twitter people can also post images and video with "Twitpic." But unlike Facebook, the amount of text you can post is limited to 140 characters of texts and/or links, limiting how much can be communicated in a single post. I should note that only limited composition happens in the realm of these sites and that Facebook and Twitter seem better apt to share composition than to create it, but composition is happening every time a picture or video is combined with the text of the participant. It is a social world and writing is an inherently social act (Pandely 78), thus these social networking cites help people to compose for the purpose of communicating both their values and identities to each other.

Picture taken from an Egyptian Facebook page
The second is news media; these are the digital arms of conventional news sources. Much of what can be found in print can be found online, and with the advent of “Google Reader” and other such RSS feeds, we can be connected to numerous avenues of information at once. Many news organizations have also started blogs where text and image are combined to frame issues and raise awareness about the public sphere. These blogs can be updated quickly, providing the public near instant coverage of circumstances as they develop. Much like the picture you see to the left, these different types of new media seemed to be working hand in hand. The common thread between these two types of new media is that both are able to network people together and spread information, and often with rhetorical considerations in mind.

But they are also fast. New media has tremendous velocity when spreading information. Jim Ridolfo and D├ánielle Nicole DeVoss capture this idea in their article “Compositon for Recomposition”: “As a set of practices rhetorical velocity is a term that describes an understanding of how the speed at which information composed to be recomposed travels—that is, it refers to the understanding and rapidity at which information is crafted, delivered, distributed, recomposed, redelivered, redistributed, etc., across physical and virtual networks and spaces” (technorhetoric). To ground this point in an example we can look again to Mahammed Bouzizi. We remember he declared his intentions to die on his Facebook page, an image of his body was taken with a camera phone and both uploaded and disseminated
using Facebook and Twitter sparking public outrage within Tunisia. Within a day, the news organization Al Jeezera publishes this information in cyberspace, thereby drawing attention to his suicide amongst an international audience. With the new media and its affordances of velocity and networking, everyone in the world could know what started the Tunisian revolution in nearly 24-hours.

And this happens over and over in the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. The affordances of Facebook and Twitter allow the spread of information at an accelerated rate. These medians were then used by the protesters to coordinate their efforts on the ground. Twitter especially was used to tell people where to meet or where to protest, and this was likely the fastest and cheapest way for people to be informed about the movement. In Tunisia internet access by mobile phone is cheaper than a land line phone, and many younger citizens are able to access the internet through cybercafes which can also bypass many of the countries restrictions on internet access (voanews). By comparison, Egypt has the greatest internet infrastructure in North Africa and has a still growing number of internet subscribers. This kind of environment encourages cell phone use, and Facebook and Twitter are common applications on all mobile phones, making it extremely likely that protesters could use these technologies for the reasons claimed by journalists. For protesters in the field, new media allows the rapid share on information. For example, this video shows a man in Egypt who approaches Egyptian Police officers while unarmed. A fair warning, this video shows a defenseless man being shot to death:

This is the video as it appears on Facebook
He drops his jacket to show that he is unarmed, but police respond by moving in close--and they gun him down. This video is posted on Facebook and shared with multiple users, making it visible to every one involved in the movement. In the comments section below the video, Facebook users post their outrage at the atrocities of the Egyptian police while people on Twitter send a each other links to the video. If we apply the civic voluntarism model with affordances of new media in mind, we see that people were able to address that they are unsatisfied with the political climate of their countries, as the atrocities against people are made public and spread quickly and effectively across these networks. And there is also some composition involved. Members of Facebook, many of whom live in Egypt, viewed the video and posted comments that asked for mercy, expressed anger at the Egyptian police, and some even wrote prayers for the man who lost his life. Ergo, like minded people were able to find consensus within the tempestuous zeitgeist of their affairs and channel that message in concert with one another--a unity achieved and maintained for the cause of justice and through new media affordances.

A photoblog on MSNBC.com (modified)
And the audience for these compositions are not limited to the people of Tunisia and Egypt. Natalie Fenton in her article “Mediating Hope” articulates how with the advent of new media, non-governmental organizations are able to reach across the boarders of nations with access to only limited resources (Fenton 233). I think her assertion is validated in the materiality of these revolutions. Not only do the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter allow people to reach each other anywhere in the world that has internet access, but the information shared reaches news media like Al Jeezera and MSNBC, who then use blogs and news articles to bring international attention to the killing of unarmed protesters. Many of the protesters practiced non-violent resistance in response. The affordances of these medias allowed them to combat force with increased visibility and velocity as the protesters spread the narrative of unarmed protesters facing armed opposition in Tunisia and Egypt between themselves and across the world. This put these governments under extreme pressure quickly, prompting world leaders like US president Barack Obama to encourage Ben Ali of Tunisia to cease any violence against political dissidents, and asking Mumbarack of Egypt to hold new elections so that the people of Egypt can participate in how they are governed.

So was new media the catalyst for these revolutions? Some are not so sure. Eugueny Morozov in his article “The Dark Side of Internment” describes how the differences between these revolutions and similar efforts in more authoritarian states, like Iran, is that the governments there were unwilling to use military force against the protests, unlike Iran, who is more willing to use social networking to find political dissidents and engineer their disappearance (though Tunisia and Egypt were accused of the same). Morozov provides us with a strong caution “In the hands of an authoritarian regime, [social networks] can be a tool of oppression” (Morozov 1). In light of this, it is important to note that the military of Tunisia and Egypt were unwilling to use violence against the protesters.

And when it comes to the internet, there is always the question of who has access. The amount of internet users in both Tunisia and Egypt nearly doubled between 2008 and 2009. According the the CIA World Factbook, Egypt ranks 21st in the world in terms of the number of internet users; Tunisia, by contrast, ranks 60th. Though internet access may not be as strong as, say, in the United states, in these countries it is comparatively cheaper and it is safe to say that a great many people in these countries have internet access of some kind. Not unlike our own Generation "M," it tends to be the younger generation who uses the internet. If we know that it is the youth of these nations that are more likely to use the internet, and that they are more likely to use Facebook and Twitter, then it is possible that many of the people coordinating the protests were the younger generations who both had internet access and used it to spread their message of democracy to other like-minded individuals. We cannot say, however, that a majority of the population has internet access. As Cindy Selfe reminds us, technology can create a growing divide amongst people of different ages and socioeconomic stratas (Selfe 1499-1531). However, consider the images the below:
Graffiti on a wall in Egypt

An Egyptian man in Tahrir square
 In the picture above you see various kinds of graffiti advertising both Facebook and Twitter. The intention seems to be to raise awareness about the social networking site. To the left, you see an older gentlemen holding a piece of cardboard stating “Facebook.” The message here seems clear, that these social media sites were seen as a wealth of information about the movement and that protesters in the region are doing all that they can to get that message out. Individuals on Facebook and Twitter were the ones organizing and supporting the movement. But as Wael Ghonim, who is largely credited as one of the leaders of the Egyptian revolution, acknowledges, many of the people in Egypt were on the ground. So there is a symbiotic relationship here between digital and ground efforts. For those who may not have had internet access, they still found interesting ways to get the message out and were still participating even when once removed form the social networks themselves. These images show us also that participation of non-youths was also essential to the movement. So what are the affordances of a piece of cardboard or a spray can? Think again of the civic voluntarism model: Mobilization potential was capitalized by using Facebook and Twitter to coordinated the movements of these resistances. Those who did not have access found any means necessary to encourage those who could. I also think that recruitment may have also been the message. Anyone who could access these sites could both see the images and messages that are being shared and use the technology to share their own experiences and to encourage involvement in the movement.

Facebook image, unknown author
We remember that one of the important factors for mobilization potential is a unifying identity, and we remember that social media is able to communicate a unifying identity for the purpose of social movements. This is where composition may have played a key role. For example, consider the image you see to the right, the imagery here affords a framing of the message that the older regime is being shed for a new Egyptian identity. Here we see an Egyptian man with the face of Hosni Mumbarak. The image portrays a shedding of Mumbarack’s face in exchange for a more youthful look, which possibly symbolizes the youth of the internet protesters. This youth is also adorned in the colors of the Egyptian flag while Mumbarak’s face is not. This reinforces the idea that Mumbarak is not representative of this new national identity that the Facebook community, and the movement as a whole, is creating.

Facebook image from a Tunisian protest page
Similar messages can also be found amongst Tunisian protesters on Facebook. The image on the left shows many fists raised in the air in a sign of protest raised above the Tunisian flag. Lana Oweidet of Ohio University was kind enough to translate the Arabic in this image, which roughly translates as: "You like cooperation, don't sabotage your country (schools, community colleges, public property)." The message here seems to be both clear and poignant, the author is encouraging that protesters abstain from damaging the infrastructure of the country. The activities of the protesters is encouraged, but with the caveat against the destruction of public property. The message is also that of unity signified by the Tunisian flag. To me there is little question that the identity of Tunisian nationalism is at the heart of this image. It encourages a respect for the land of Tunisia signified by the flag being below the fists and in combination with the alphabetic message to respect the infrastructure of the nation, but the fists above maintain that the movement is paramount. 

In addition to the identity of collective nationality, there is also the martyrdom imagery that is disseminated through social networking. Both Tunisia and Egypt are predominantly Muslim countries where the power of the martyr is a well-documented source of influence, for good or evil depending on whom you ask. But in the case of Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi became the image of government oppression. The pain that was afflicted upon him was thus equated to all Tunisians. The same is true for Kahaled Said. His image became the symbol of government violence, murdered by the very police force who would earn international recognition for their acts of violence against protesters through the activism of social networking, news media, and the composition of both, with a captive audience on the ground gaining fuel from the recognition.

One final criticism of the efficacy of social media is whether it is tied to the same forces as conventional media. Natalie Fenton warns at how capitalist market forces influence the spread of information. By Drawing on works by Stuart Hall, J. Habermas and others, Fenton draws attention to how journalism, through conventional outlets such as television, radio and etc., is geared more towards consumer consumption as entertainment rather than informing the public, an attitude that inhibits critical engagement and facilitates dramatization and oversimplification of complex matters--with an emphasis on a vivid polarization that alienates people from political communication (Fenton 230-232). There was certainly plenty of information censorship in both Tunisia and Egypt, both in the digital sphere and on the ground. But in Egypt’s case specifically, capitalist forces actually worked against the internet crackdown. As one communications analyst notes: “The government seems to have put itself in a tough position, as the Egyptian working week begins tomorrow, and with it, incredible disruptions to Egypt's economy and debt rating from the loss of Internet and mobile communications.” Egypt could not maintain its internet silence without damaging its economy and affecting the other economies that surrounded it. And even with Egypt's censorship measures in place, protesters were still able to use Twitter to coordinate their movements by using standard dial-up connections. Similar controls also failed in Tunisia, a country that also has strong censorship measures in place. People were able to create their own private URL in order to bypass Tunisia’s internet server. These realities at the very least cast doubt on the assertion that the internet can be easily controlled, even in times of crisis. We could also ask the question of whether it could be controlled at all.  

Tunisian Facebook Image, Unknown Author

Let me make clear what I think this means for the study of composition. The revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt provided a keen example of how new media can be used to afford agency to people. Though not uncomplicated, the movement did seem to overcome some of the barriers that scholars warn may be keeping new media from achieving any true liberatory potential. Market forces were not able to stop the movement. Internet controls were transcended by the ingenuity of the people. Identity was reinforced by compositions of text, image and video. The affordances of social networking were used to coordinate efforts and recruit individuals, and even individuals without direct access to the internet were willing to participate and raise awareness of how information was being transferred. News media worked in an almost symbiotic relationship with people composing on the ground, raising awareness of the violent actions of the ruling governments against their people, and with larger news sources who responded in kind by raising international awareness for their cause--and with amazing velocity. All these factors seemed to help these movements really capitalize on the mobilization potential within these countries. If multimodal composing is akin to writing and writing is a social act, then all three seemed to be at play and with the liberatory effects that Paulo Freire dreamed of in "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." These events were people on the ground working together to build knowledge, and that knowledge afforded them agency to make change.

1.) NPR reported that revolt leaders in Egypt took notes from Gene Sharp’s book 'Clausewitz Of Nonviolent Warfare.” It would be interesting to juxtapose their tactics with the book to see how they compare and whether or not the internet may have helped fulfill the tactics expressed by Sharp.
2.) The credibility of internet usage states in Egypt and Tunisia are hard to verify from here in the states (with perhaps the exception of the CIA report). I relied heavy on corroborating internet news media to ascertain what happened in Tunisia and Egypt.
3.) It would fruitful to know more about each country’s cultural history and political climate. I wonder if the degree of civil disobedience correlates with increased internet access?
4.) Foucault’s concept of Panopticism is definitely at play. Countries like Iran, China, Thailand and Afghanistan have all used internet monitoring to find political dissidents and arrest them, or make them disappear entirely. It should also be noted that the FBI has done the same thing here, “Democracy Now!” did a fabulous report on it.
5.) Some of the most crucial information about the movement was spread by less public means. In Egypt, a manual for engaging the Egyptian police force was distributed through private emails rather than social networking. In contrast, a Tunisian revolt page on Facebook explicitly states precise instructions for people to employ non-violent resistance.
6.) Tunisia created a website called "Tunileaks" which mirrors the format of Jullian Assange's "Wikileaks," the goal of this project is aimed at keeping the Tunisian government transparent.
7.)The utilization of the internet is largely credited as a determining factor in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Many Republicans took this lesson to heart after the last election.
8.) Some of the provided hyperlinks take the reader directly to the Facebook pages that contain the cited material, thus a Facebook account is needed to view these. Some of the images here come directly from Facebook pages, but the authors of these compositions are unverifiable since they were contained on multiple sites.  

Print Works Cited
Fenton, Natalie. "Mediating hope: New media, politics and resistance." International Journal of Cultural Studies 11.2 (2008): 230-248. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web.12 February. 2011.

Klandermans, Bert, and Dirk Oeoema. "POTENTIALS, NETWORKS, MOTIVATIONS, AND BARRIERS: STEPS TOWARDS PARTICIPATION IN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS." American Sociological Review 52.4 (1987): 519-531.Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 5 February. 2011.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Pandey, Iswari. "Saving, Sharing, Citing, and Publishing Multimodal Texts." Ed. Cynthia L. Selfe. Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. (pp. 65-82) Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2007. Print.

Selfe, Cynthia; Hawisher, Gail; with Lashore, Oladipupo; and Song, Pengfei. "Literacies and the complexities of the global digital divide." Ed. Susan Miller The Norton book of composition studies (pp. 1499-1531). New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Print. 2006.

Takayoshi, Pamela; Selfe, Cynthia."Thinking about Multimodality." Ed. Cynthia L. Selfe. Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. (pp. 1-12) Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2007. Print.

Wysocki, Anne, et al. Writing New Media. (pp. 1-37) Logan, Utah: Utah University Press, 2004. Print.

Valerie-Anne Maheo, et al. "The Potential of Internet Mobilization: An Experimental Study on the Effect of Internet and Face-to-Face Mobilization Efforts." Political Communication 27.4 (2010): 406-431. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 5 February. 2011.