Social media and its effect on the Egyptian protests

Social Media Egypt Protests 2011

Neither widespread protests nor calls for a change of leadership are necessarily new things, but new technologies such as social media have affected the way information changes hands in such situations, most notably the ongoing struggle in Egypt.

With major demonstrations taking place across the Arab Republic in Cairo, Alexandria and other big cities, movement leaders have been communicating with their followers and those around the world using services such as Facebook and Twitter – and not with the current government’s ignorance.

With information being accessed on Egyptian networks and broadband connections rising exponentially throughout the growing demonstrations, the Egyptian government first moved to block Facebook and Twitter, as these were two main arenas protesters had been using to organise events and quickly communicate to a large populace.

Facebook acknowledged a hampered service of the social networking site in Egypt as early as last Friday, with spokesperson Jillian Carroll telling Reuters, “We are aware of reports of disruption to service and have seen a drop in traffic from Egypt this morning.”

Despite these disruptions, those using the services on their mobile phones could reportedly still use the networks through hand held apps, which continued to work unabated. However, the government then struck against the country’s internet connections in general, ordering ISPs to cut off international connections to Egypt.

Renesys, an organisation that monitors internet activity amongst other things, gave an in-depth look at the situation as it unfolded. Chief technology officer for the company observed: “In an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet.

“Every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world. Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and all their customers and partners are, for the moment, off the air.”

The firm later found that select Egyptian outlets maintained connectivity over the weekend through their use of The Noor Group as a provider but, unfortunately, that provider also went offline on 31 January.

Once again, however, news outlets, protesters and concerned citizens of Egypt alike have found increasingly inventive ways of accessing the internet and communicating with the world. ZDNet found that pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera may be employing satellite phones and internet services in order to keep the world updated on the situation unfolding in Cairo and beyond.

The tech news site also reported ordinary citizens taking a sort-of step back to step around the blockage of broadband connections – by rigging up phones and computers to access international dial-up modem numbers. In this method, mobile users dial into modem pools and, if the mobile has Bluetooth capabilities, the user can patch together an internet connection to their home computer. While slower than traditional broadband, this method helps Egyptians communicate with the outside world.

Google and Twitter, along with SayNow, a new acquisition of the search giant, have teamed up to promote increased connectivity with the outside world as well. According to Ujjwal Singh of SayNow and AbdelKarim Mardini of Google, the team formed over the weekend to produce a Speak-to-Tweet service, where Egyptians can dial one of three international numbers (+16504194196 or +390662207294 or +97316199855) and leave a voicemail. A link to the voice message will then instantly be tweeted, and messages can be listened to by dialling the same numbers or by visiting twitter.com/speak2tweet.

The United Kingdom and United States, both long-time allies of Egypt and its president, Hosni Mubarak, have separately called on the country’s government to lift the bans on social media and the internet, as well as take steps to address the protesters’ concerns.

“We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said before the blackout. In a later interview, she said: “Democracy, human rights and economic reform are in the best interests of the Egyptian people … Any government that does not try to move in that direction cannot meet the legitimate interest of the people.”

UK Prime Minister David Cameron agreed, telling BBC News that Egypt “must go down the path of reform and not repression,” and its government must facilitate a “proper, orderly transition to a more democratic situation.”

Regardless of the impact of social media and other web services on the protests in Egypt, we can only hope that the situation reaches a conclusion peaceably, and in good time.

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