Why WikiLeaks And Facebook Are The Future Of Global Politics
On July 25, 2011, 4:03 PM by Karl Moats
How social media and information transparency are shaping the Middle East and the future of global politics.
He had the cops buying drugs on camera. Two plainclothes officers yanked Khaled Said from an Internet café in broad daylight. They dragged him into a dingy apartment lobby and smashed his head against an iron door, the stairs, and the wall. They left him there to die and thought that was that.
Khaled Said’s fate was sadly nothing new. His was simply the most recent and graphic in a long line of Egyptian police atrocities. But then something unusual happened: the grief went viral.
Five days after the murder, a Human Rights worker set up a We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page. He posted pictures of Said’s butchered corpse juxtaposed with YouTube videos of Said’s joyous life. Friends and neighbors trickled in. They extended their sympathies, groused about Egypt’s crooked police. Then their friends chimed in. Then their friends.
And then the grief mobilized. Users posted meeting places, security weak-points. Tunisians relayed the news from their own front-line. It became a war-room of sorts. 130,000 users liked the page within weeks. “We would post a video on Facebook and it would be shared by 50,000 people on their walls in hours,” Google-marketing-executive-turned-Egyptian-revolutionary Wael Ghonim recalled.
Cartoonists used Khaled Said’s likeness to rally the uprising. In memoriam, he morphed into a clarion call for young Egyptians fed up with the same old. He became the emblematic fallen soldier for a younger, tech-savvier army, with
bloggers and students the foot-soldiers of this revolution. The troops did not shoot. They tweeted. They stormed Tahrir Square but went no further. Five days into the uprising, Mubarak countered with shock and awe: he pulled the plug on Egypt’s Internet. But reinforcements arrived, courtesy of Google. The company’s engineers improvised with Twitter coders to construct Speak To Tweet, an Internet-less walkie-talkie of sorts. When Egyptians dialed +16504194196, they could leave voicemails that were automatically transcribed to Twitter with the hashtag #egypt for all to see. In a technological development that should chill governments from Algiers to Tehran to Beijing, protesters can now coordinate massive rallies without even the Internet. Mubarak capitulated, flipping the Internet back on the next day. He resigned on Day 18.
We have been warned not to be mesmerized by social media’s role in the revolution. “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented,” author Malcolm Gladwell sneered. “They did it before the Internet came along.” Columnist Frank Rich chided Americans for comforting themselves in believing their Silicon Valley gizmos liberated the Middle East.
True. Social media meant nothing without the audacity of regular, every day Tunisians and Egyptians to stand up. But once they did, the courage rattled around in cyberspace. It was a digital perfect storm. Mark Zuckerberg proved the enabler. Julian Assange, the instigator. Zuckerberg built Facebook, the pixilated forum for Arabs to finally talk back to their autocratic leaders. Assange kindled the flames with WikiLeaks, leaking more cables about the corrupt ways of the besieged leader of the moment. And Al Jazeera played the sympathizer, streaming the riots into stunned TV rooms across the Middle East.
Governments have never had to reckon with a force like this before. Zuckerberg brings the people together. Assange brings governments down to the people. They accidentally formed a virtual good cop-bad cop duo that lets the people police their leaders. And even if Facebook and WikiLeaks are shuttered, they have already won. Because Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange will not be the end. The next wave of younger, prodigy coders will simply take their place.
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