This week’s New York Times Magazine has a well done article about the role Facebook is having in the formation of civil society in Egypt. While the internet and social media’s potential for civic engagement is certainly large here in the West, in places where there are larger amounts of censorship, where it is illegal to organize publicly, where people are dragged off to jail in the middle of the night by secret police, the implications of its presence are likely to be more dramatic. The article gives a hint of both this potential as well as its limitations.
On the one hand, places like Facebook will provide a place to organize groups around issues in a way that the government can’t simply shut down. The article quotes Ethan Zuckernman, of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and founder of Global Voices, on why it’s important that activism and organizing are happening on sites like Facebook in Egypt:
The April 6 movement illustrates what he calls the “cute-cat theory of digital activism.” Web sites or proxy servers created specifically for activists are easy for a government to shut down, Zuckerman says, but around the world, dissidents thrive on sites, like Facebook, that are used primarily for more mundane purposes (like exchanging pictures of cute cats). Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the “American Idol” fans and cat lovers as well. “The government can’t simply shut down Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they can’t afford to radicalize,” Zuckerman explained.
This is incredibly important, and represents a shift in how regimes that censor are able to quiet inconvenient voices on the internet.
On the other hand, the article ends with a dose of reality about how far Facebook activism is going in the country. It seems that while there’s a great amount of excitement online for organizing against the authoritarian government in Egypt by its citizens, when groups attempt to bring people to the streets consistently, they are often met by police who are monitoring those same online forums that were used to organize actions, or simply by poor turnouts which might be attributed to fear or apathy. “What does it mean to have a vibrant civil society on your computer screen and a police state in the street?”, the article asks in its closing paragraph. Watch Egypt carefully and we may find out.