Protest, social media and the importance of journalism in post-Mubarak Egypt


The Empire programme on Al Jazeera English looking at "cyber-generated" change examined how the media "missed" the warnings of looming trouble in Tunisia.

The programme looks at some of the themes which were covered at the Frontline Club’s discussion: The changing nature of protest: does the mainstream media get it?

Following the #sidibouzid hashtag presenter Marwan Bishara showed how weeks before Tweets and photos were appearing showing student protests, police abuses and sporadic gunfire. The programme ncludes an account of the Anonymous campaign against the Tunisian government, how Egyptians were influenced by the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and how activists collaborated when Hosni Mubarak closed down the internet in Egypt.

The report was followed by a panel discussion which is worth listening to for debate on role of social media in protest and attempts by governments to restrict internet freedom, there were some interesting comments on the role of journalism:

Amy Goodman, the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!:

In Egypt I cannot think of a more important role for journalists than in this post-Mubarak time. They are going to be the check and balance on power. It is not pre determined what’s going to happen now. It was a people’s uprising but whether it becomes a democratic revolution is going to be determined by holding those in power accountable. Journalists have such an important role to play in Egypt today and they must be protected, not only in Egypt, but in the United States.

Professor Emily Bell, the director of digital journalism at Columbia University said the role corporate, mainstream media:

Has to be, if it is going to be true to the mission of journalism, which is holding power to account, to be able to concentrate efforts against these inflexions and pressure points in government and corporations which involve law and finance as well as involving government. In other words to focus on and put a shoulder to the door of some of these issues. Being able to do that is a really key role for the mainstream media because it is still respected and has access to government in a way that the internet doesn’t. It doesn’t yet have the collective power to do some of those labour intensive and resource intensive things.

[Wikileaks showed us that in the future] information will come to you in ugly big chunks and you have to be able to make sense of it and you have to make people care about it. And actually you need people who are paid money to spend time with stories and that is really what professional journalists do.

Professor Clay Shirky, the author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age answered a question about the increasing reliance on social media for information:

There is simply too much information to indulge in the fantasy that you can have unfiltered access to everything. The organic movement [of information distributed via social media] is a form of filtering, in which things that get retweeted, reblogged, passed on and sort of rise up, that is simply an alternate form of filtering. But don’t believe either that we don’t need filters or that we could live without them.

I don’t think we should be as naievely assuming the quality of the organic filters as we were in the 20th century when we simply assumed that Walter Cronkite when he told us that that’s the way it is, that that statement was at all accurate. We know that that statement is nonsense, we shouldn’t also imbue that same sense of ‘oh therefore it must be true’ when looking at social networks.


Also on the panel: Carl Bernstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist;  ; Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom;