David Faris on Digital Dissent and Revolution

//CGCS interviewed David Faris, author of the recently published book Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt, to discuss digital activism and use of social media in Egypt. Faris is a lecturer and researcher in the department of Political Science and Public Administration Roosevelt University and director of the interdisciplinary International Studies program. He will be speaking at Annenberg School for Communication, Room 500 at 12:30 on October 23rd.//


1) Some argue that using terms such as “Twitter revolution” overstate social networking sites’ in the Arab Spring. Do you agree or disagree with popular conception of the uprisings as largely driven by use of these new media?

I think this debate plays into the cyberskeptics and cyberutopians discussions, which I don’t find terribly productive in terms of advancing our knowledge of causal processes. Gadi Wolfsfeld argued recently that the role of social media should be contextualized, and I agree, although I might present a different take on the importance of different variables. The role of social networking overall varied from country to country in the Arab Spring. In Egypt, as I argue in the book, digital activism had a ten-year history prior to the uprisings that shaped the kinds of issues that were brought into the Egyptian public sphere. The date of the revolution itself was plotted openly online by the very digital activists who had spent years challenging regime practices, on blogs, on social media and in the streets. So if this doesn’t qualify as a ‘social media revolution,’ then there is no such thing. However, I find this term unhelpful because it suggest that scholars who emphasize the causal contribution of social media to the uprisings conceptualize it as the only key variable in understanding what happened, and I don’t think anyone seriously makes this argument. There were countless other important factors that led to widespread unrest in the Middle East, including but not limited to unmet economic expectations, unemployment, frustration with corruption and impunity, and particular authoritarian practices in each state. But I would argue very strongly that at least in Egypt, this long arc of organizing through social media did important work in altering the public sphere, conditioning Egyptians to witness and participate in dissent, and articulating long-suppressed grievances. In other words, I don’t think the Egyptian uprising would have taken the shape that it did without their efforts.

2)What are the most important factors that make Egypt, its revolution, and its digital activism unique from other Middle Eastern countries?

Egypt was genuinely an outlier in its treatment of the Internet. I call it a ‘response regime’ – the state restricted itself to piecemeal harassment of activists rather than deploying software to filter and censor the Internet. The harassment and detention of activists did not in fact have the deterrent effect desired by the regime, and consequently the state tolerated this flourishing sector of public dissent, criticism and organizing for a period of many years. This allowed a kind of community to develop around the tools of social media, featuring a committed cadre of regime opponents who worked together and formed linkages with offline groups (Kefaya, NGOs, labor organizers and more) to challenge the regime in the streets. While I don’t deny that the Tunisian uprising had an impact on Egypt, planning to contest the regime’s hegemony was well under way, and the activists had long ago conceptualized 2011 as a pivotal year in disrupting the planned transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal. So what’s unique in Egypt is that the Arab Spring flame was already lit, and Tunisia simply threw some extra gas on the fire.

3)How do you view the role digital activists outside of the countries in question played in these revolutions? How do these roles contrast with those played by activists based, for example, within Egypt?

Egypt was again unique in that activism was largely based within Egypt, with a core of committed regime opponents organizing more or less in the open. You can contrast this quite clearly with Tunisia, which had what I call a ‘control regime’ that pervasively filtered and censored the Internet. This meant that the most important online clearinghouse of activism in Tunisia was based in France, and that Tunisia was not the scene of years of protest and counter-protest between the regime and its opponents as was the case in Egypt. You can see an even clearer contrast with Syria, where many key digital elites lived in exile for many years, and where online writing and activism were much more hazardous.

4)What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying a region with such rapidly shifting politics and circumstances?

First I think it’s incredibly important to gain working functionality in the languages of the region. Particularly because so many Arabs are writing in dialect – ‘amiya – it is simply not possible to run this content through Google translate and analyze it from afar. The challenge right now, and this is a huge problem for me in my current work, is that many of these places are not terribly safe at the moment, and the political climate is such that running around asking for interviews with activists is going to be a much bigger challenge than it was even two years ago. Events in Egypt in particular are moving so fast, with coalitions shifting in bewildering ways, that it’s difficult to get a handle on. For researchers today, it may only be possible to pull up what my colleague David Karpf calls “lobster traps” – i.e. dropping your data-gathering apparatus, whatever that may be, into the sea of activity and deeply analyzing what you find. The Internet changes so quickly that it can be difficult to generate long-term hypotheses when state and activist practices are evolving together at breathtaking speeds. It really depends on what you want to do. Are you interested in what activists are doing on Twitter in different regional states? I think you can do that. But I’m skeptical that you can draw the right conclusions without fieldwork, and your ability to perform that work right now may depend on the level of physical risk you’re willing to assume, and the degree to which funding entities are willing to subsidize it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Egypt is like Iraq circa 2006, but there are certainly some security concerns there right now that should give advisers pause.

5)What projects are you currently working on? Where do you see the future direction of this research heading?

Right now I’m launching a significant comparative study of digital public diplomacy that seeks to examine state practices and outcomes in the realm of strategic political communication – both those of major Western states like the U.S., U.K. and France, but also regional states across the Middle East. My goal is to explain the impact of what I call the “Age of Sharing” on a realm of human interaction that has long depended on secrecy, and to understand different state conceptions of ‘public diplomacy’ by different actors over time. At the same time, I maintain an interest in the evolving digital activist community in Egypt, and I hope to return soon to do some theorizing about the reaction of that community to the summer 2013 coup, and the evolution of political factionalism online more generally. Finally, I maintain a longstanding research program on institutional political design as it applies to the post-Arab Spring states, drawing on established comparative politics literature on democratic transitions while hoping to generate new generalizable insights from the region (rather than simply applying concepts to the region).

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