During the Arab Spring last year, citizen journalists, using Facebook, Twitter, email and iPhones, undermined state censorship and contributed to the success of massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo and Tunis. Yet in Iran, many of the activists were arrested while in the case of the Iranian ally, Syria, the government simply attacked with tanks.
Mark Corcoran is an Australian foreign correspondent who covered the Middle East for more than a decade. He was in Tahir Square in Cairo last year, covering the mass demonstrations.
In Iran, they were much quicker to respond. They were able to co-opt young people who understood the technology…Over a period, the hardliners prevailed. By 2004, the reformers had been driven underground, calling themselves cyber-dissidents. The above ground opposition had been effectively crushed.
Social media made it easier for the authorities to identify its critics.
The technology is much more advanced now. Social media is a terrific tool when you need to move fast to get information out there and rally people. The problem is that its an indelible link. You can’t erase those links in most cases. If you don’t move swiftly and you don’t achieve that political objective of overthrowing the regime and it prevails, they can then slowly and methodically track the links back. A lot of the first wave of cyber-dissidents in Iran were effectively rounded up and imprisoned.
In Egypt, the regime was “not on top of the technology”. Expatriate dissidents had used international networks to help organise demonstrations in Cairo itself. Within Egypt, much of the information was literally a result of crowd sourcing; with reports, images and videos filed from smart phones.
I was on Tahir square with a Foreign Correspondent team for close to a fortnight. I was with one of the young activist leaders. It was a spontaneous uprising which the regime had difficulty countermanding. If there had been a formal or rigid structure, it would have been that much more easy to decapitate it.
Citizen journalists credibility was helped by false reports by a heavily censored Egyptian media. “No-one believed anything the read or saw or heard from the state media” “They appeared to be obsessed with blaming the international media, inciting people come out and target us for allegedly creating this crisis in Egypt” Corcoran said. By the time the government learned how to effectively intervene, it was too late to stop the momentum for change.
Towards the end, the regime started using smarter tactics. The group we were with, started getting text messages from the regime. They attempted to divide and rule. The young woman we profiled, she started getting messages and we filmed this, getting messages saying ” We know you are a reasonable person. We know you don’t really believe what these radicals are saying. Come and have a coffee and talk about this. We are reasonable people”. She laughed at this.
Social media played a big part in getting people on the streets. But it was the military who decided not to attack with tanks.
Its all well and good to run around texting each other. At the end of the day you had to get out on the street and you had to stare down the tanks and stare down the secret police and the vigilantes. You can take virtual activism so far, but you reach a point where it has to become real. You have to put yourself out there. You had to put your arse on the line.
[ Mark Corcoran was beaten up by Egyptian vigilantes while reporting on the pro-democracy demonstrations for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.]