It’s impossible to watch this now-famous interview with Wael Ghonim — the Google executive who was imprisoned for 12 days for helping organize the Egyptian protests via Facebook — without being powerfully moved by his courage, his convictions, his love of country, his anger and his grief. Here’s the conclusion to the interview:
Ghonim is entirely admirable, and I think his efforts deserve our full praise and support. But he’s also right when he says this:
The heroes are the ones who were in the streets, the heroes are those who got beaten up, the heroes are those who got arrested and put their lives in danger. I was not a hero. […] I was only using the keyboard, on the Internet, I never put my life in danger, the real heroes are the ones on the ground.
Those who claim that Twitter and Facebook have enabled the recent mass uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere are, I think, overstating the case. (And it’s ironic that Ghonim, the Google exec and Facebook organizer,has galvanized thousands and re-energized the protest movement — by appearing on that hoary old medium, television.) As Frank Rich points out:
Perhaps the most revealing window into America’s media-fed isolation from this crisis — small an example as it may seem — is the default assumption that the Egyptian uprising, like every other paroxysm in the region since the Green Revolution in Iran 18 months ago, must be powered by the twin American-born phenomena of Twitter and Facebook. Television news — at once threatened by the power of the Internet and fearful of appearing unhip — can’t get enough of this cliché. […]
The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.” […]
The talking-head invocations of Twitter and Facebook instead take the form of implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism. How fabulous that two great American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses. That is indeed impressive if no one points out that, even in the case of the young and relatively wired populace of Egypt, only some 20 percent of those masses have Internet access.
Malcolm Gladwell also criticizes the tendency of the chattering classes to focus on the notion that “the medium is the message.” The message is the message! And people will use whatever communication tools are at hand to spread it, to organize, and to rise up against oppression:
People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone — and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years — and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.
It’s worth checking out Gladwell’s lengthy article in the New Yorker questioning the impact of social networking on social activism — though it’s also worth noting that some critics are pushing back (here, for instance, with some interesting back-and-forth in comments).
For myself, I’m inclined to say that crediting social media with the Egyptians’ political awakening is like crediting the light bulb — by which, presumably, Dr. King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — with the civil rights movement. People Power revolutions predate the Internet; whether by Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, landlines, television, radio, samizdat, or the flyers that my own politically-minded father used to crank out with nothing more than a typewriter and carbon paper, people who have been pushed too far will find ways to speak truth to power. They always have.