The National Constitution Center hosted a panel of journalists and activists April 12 to discuss the effects of social media in the political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.The “The Rise of Digital Democracy” event featured Jennifer Preston, a staff writer and the first social media editor at The New York Times, as the moderator for the other speakers, all of whom had experience in social media, activism and the Middle East.
Tony Burman, Al Jazeera’s head of strategy for the Americas, spoke during the presentation, as did Charles Sennott, the executive editor and co-founder of GlobalPost, an online international news agency. The two activists on the panel were Susannah Vila of Movements.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young activists around the world, and Nadine Wahab, an administrator for the influential “We Are All Khaled” Facebook page.
For the majority of the event, which was hosted in part with the Kal and Lucille Rudman Media Production Center at Temple University and the Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies at Drexel University, the speakers discussed their opinions about the role that social media played during these events.
“These [social media organizations] are tools, but at the end of the day you need people to use the tools,” Burman said, adding that Al Jazeera could not have covered the Arab uprisings without material contributed by thousands of citizens, as the network famously promoted tweets, camera phone videos and Facebook statuses created by people living in the affected countries.
Vila’s organization, Movements.org, aims to help activists from movements all over the world to share strategies, like how to avoid tear gas or how to organize as many people as possible without getting arrested. She introduced a video clip of a Movements.org trainer in Libya teaching the people how to use video to share their stories and current events.
Additionally, panelists spoke of their personal ties and roles in the promotion of citizen journalism and activism in the Middle East and North Africa, as two of the four speakers were in Egypt during or after the revolts, and another, Burman, lived in the Middle East for a number of years.
Sennott, who was filming in Tahrir Square during the bulk of the protests for a documentary collaboration with the PBS documentary program Frontline, shared audio taken from a reading of what he described as the “birth certificate of a new Egypt,” a type of manifesto that the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlaw political activist group in the Middle East, wrote the night former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power.
Wahab smiled proudly and nodded her head in agreement during the length of the clip. In the true spirit of the event, she participated at the panel via Skype, as she is currently based in Cairo working as the deputy campaign manager for Egyptian candidate Mohamed ElBaradei’s presidential bid. During the revolts, she was based in the U.S. but was instrumental in running a Facebook page that she estimates received thousands of comments and hits every day by citizen journalists and protestors even when the Internet was temporarily shut down in Egypt.
Among the audience members was Hazem Reda, a Drexel freshman political science major who moved from Egypt to the United States in January 2008. Reda is a member of the “We Are All Khaled” group that was discussed in length, and is also a member of the group that associates themselves with the April 6 Movement, which earned its name from a day of protest in 2008 and since continued to be a popular activist group for Egyptian youth.
Reda estimates that he has about 500 Facebook friends from Egypt, half of whom regularly used Facebook to raise awareness about their opinions on the events occurring in Egypt during the January revolt and the days following it.
“Everyone was just posting stuff about if the revolution did succeed and how the revolution should succeed and what’s going to happen after the revolution,” he said.
Though Reda does not have a Twitter account, he followed certain feeds on Google through the “Realtime” search feature, as well as status updates on Facebook. However, he doesn’t rely solely on social media for information.
“Of course I read newspapers for the understanding of what’s actually going on and, I guess, get a better perspective on the events,” he said before adding that he watches Al Jazeera “all the time.”
He said that many of his friends and family back in Egypt would message him on Facebook to ask his opinion on events from the perspective of someone living in the U.S. Many also wrote to give him ideas about what he could be doing to show his support thousands of miles away from his home country.
Reda attended two protests in Philadelphia, saying it was the least he could do since he wasn’t actually in Egypt. Back home, his mother and cousins rallied in Tahrir Square, driving to the University of Cairo and walking the four blocks from there to the protest destination.
Reda’s house was targeted by the police in February because it is located in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Cairo where mostly foreigners and liberal-minded people live, as it is close to Americanized and Europeanized schools in the area.
“When the police disappeared, the secret police were attacking people just to make chaos, and one of the houses that were attacked was my house,” he said. “To cause chaos in this area would be a strike to the revolution.”
In addition to describing Middle Eastern revolutions, the speakers of the event also touched upon the American Revolution and its aftermath in the U.S. more than 200 years ago.
“I can’t think of a more appropriate place to discuss the role of digital democracy,” Preston said, referencing the fact that the Constitution was written mere blocks away from where the speakers and audience were seated.
The panelists ended the event by discussing the possible roles that social media and youth activists could play here in the U.S. during the 2012 presidential election, especially given the online grassroots movement that helped propel President Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.
“Young people in America haven’t used these tools very much,” Sutton said. The other speakers agreed, attributing the fact that America’s youth hasn’t had cause to speak out like young people in other countries as a possible reason for a lack of youth activism.
The experts predicted that new uses of social media will become more prominent in the politics of America in the coming years.