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Social Media and Satellite TV: A One-Two Punch Against Mubarak

February 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we look further now at the role of media in the Egyptian uprising.

Our own Margaret Warner is just back from Cairo and joins me here. Also with us is Adel Iskander, who teaches contemporary Arab studies and media at Georgetown University. He writes a coluiskmn for the English-language newspaper The Egyptian Today. Lawrence Pintak is a former Middle East correspondent whose latest book is titled “The New Arab Journalist.” He’s dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. And Abderrahim Foukara is Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel.

Margaret, first thing to say is, welcome back.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. It’s great to be back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you — we heard that woman activist in the piece there. That was a common thing you heard from people about the role of social media?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, it’s important to note Gameela Ismail has been leading protests for the last six years, ever since her husband, who dared to challenge Mubarak in a presidential election, was put in jail.

And she said to me: We would — we would lead a — we would take a protest, say, to Parliament, we would have 80 or 100 or 120 people. And, on the other — and we’d be outnumbered by the police. And on the other side of the street would be people looking at us with sympathy and support. We would say, come join us. Join us. We’re here protesting for your rights. No one would join. And she would say: What is wrong with Egyptians? What is missing here? We know how unhappy they are.

And she said, so, that day was just incredible, because she was helping to lead one of the four marches to come in at the square. And, as she said, it was suddenly as if the ground was sprouting — sprouting human beings to join them.

And another woman who is a former parliamentarian said, you know, I used to dismiss Twitter and Facebook as kind of the pastimes of the well-to-do young people. And she said, I was so wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: At a very low — small level, narrow level of society.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, on very narrow levels of society.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And she — she acknowledged that she had been dead wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Adel Iskander, you have looked at how social media has developed in Egypt as it’s — an evolving political role for many years now. As it’s developed, who does it reach? Who has it been reaching? And how is — how did that change even in the last few weeks?

ADEL ISKANDER, Georgetown University: Well, I think it’s important to note that 20 percent of the population in Egypt has access to the Internet, which is a slim number, if you think about it. How many of those have access to Facebook? How many of them are prepared to use it for a political — for a political means?

Now, given the fact that these numbers are small, it shows that there was an early onset. There was sort of an early phase whereby people came together and used the Internet, used Facebook, used these social networking sites to come together and coalesce these groups. And because social networking brings together communities of friends, they can come out and protest as communities, which is sort of a different dynamic than anything else.

And, once that happens, then you go on to the next phase. The second phase is where people descend into the streets, and they scream out to people in neighboring homes and say (SPEAKING ARABIC) which means, come down, come down. And as the numbers swell, all of a sudden, you’re accessing a community that has never touched a keyboard before.

And, so, even though the numbers are fairly small, that number increased over time as people realized the utility of Facebook that was evident from the very early days.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you see it. In this case, it was all in a very compressed period of time.

ADEL ISKANDER: Absolutely, an incredibly short period. In 18 days, you had even the websites such as Wael Ghonim’s “We Are All Khaled Said” site, it had somewhere around 400,000 members just before Jan. 25. Now it has somewhere in the range of 700,000. So, the numbers have increased since.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Larry Pintak, I want to bring you in here, because you have watched this, both social media and Al-Jazeera, for many years.

Does — does Al-Jazeera and satellite TV reach a different audience, a broader audience? How does — how does — how does it interact with what we’re talking about here?

LAWRENCE PINTAK, Washington State University: This was a digital one-two punch.

The — the social media allowed the activists to network. It got them organized in those kind of communities Adel was talking about, got them on to the street. But it was television that really dealt the final blow. The fact that Egyptians and Arabs across the region could sit in their homes watching this play out on the street meant they were inspired.

So, all of those people who, you know, never logged on to a Facebook page could suddenly go out in the street and take part.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now — now, Mr. Foukara, I want to bring you in. Does — does Al-Jazeera see its role as, you’re clearly reporting this story, but you’re also clearly a player here, right?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA, Al-Jazeera: Well, Al-Jazeera — just to reiterate what Lawrence said just a little while ago, Al-Jazeera is obviously — the view — the scope of the viewership is much, much bigger.

And, for Al-Jazeera, you don’t need to be educated. You don’t need to be fluent in Arabic. You don’t need to be fluent in the Internet. The picture speaks for itself. And I think what’s happened, both in Tunisia and in Egypt, is there’s been a marriage of Al-Jazeera, conventional television, with new media in terms of reaching the information.

Al-Jazeera, for example, both in Tunisia and in Egypt, relied on information relayed through the Internet and gave it a bigger platform, not just within Egypt, but also in terms of informing other people in the region about what’s going on inside of Egypt.

You know, the old political axiom in the region, if you will, is that, if it happens elsewhere in the Arab world, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen in Egypt, but, if it does happen in Egypt, you can be almost sure it will spread to other parts of the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Larry Pintak, let me bring you back, because you have looked at Al-Jazeera’s development. What gave it such power this time?

LAWRENCE PINTAK: Well, let’s put it this way. Twenty years ago, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, most Saudis did not know about it for three days, because the Saudi media sat on it.

Jazeera comes along in ’96 and changes everything. Suddenly, you have a channel that is seen across the region reporting in a relatively unfettered way. Fast-forward to today, you have almost 500 satellite channels. So, Jazeera played a key role here. But there are plenty of other satellite channels, including many private channels based in Egypt, that were very important in this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Margaret, on the ground, how does it play out, the mix of these, social media, Internet, television? What did you — what did you see?

MARGARET WARNER: I think that what television today was amplify it for the non-Facebook generation.

And I will give you a couple — one example, at least. A retired Egyptian diplomat said to me, this was now — go back 10 days. After Mubarak gave his speech where he said he was going to – would not run again, and his son wouldn’t run again — it was really a moving speech, the night of the 1st — a lot of Egyptians were kind of, he said, feeling warmly towards Mubarak and that he had done the right thing.

Tuesday is the day that whoever it was sent in the thugs on the camels and horses. And he said, we watched that. And we watched our young people getting attacked. And he said — suddenly, he said, I was overcome with a sense of guilt that I had — that my generation had stayed silent and been part of this and had not given our children a politically healthy government. And he said, now they’re being forced to do this. And he said, I couldn’t stay silent any longer.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, he’s watching it on television…

MARGARET WARNER: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: … what his — what his younger generation had created…

MARGARET WARNER: Been…

JEFFREY BROWN: … partly online.

MARGARET WARNER: And been forced to create was his point and they had — his generation had let the kids down.

And the same thing happened the night that Wael Ghonim did his first interview after getting out. That was last Monday night. The movement was starting to lose a little steam. Suddenly, it was on TV. He’s — he’s crying as he’s told 300 young people have died. And he flees in tears.

And somebody said to me, everyone at home was sitting there watching this on an endless loop, because it was picked by Al-Jazeera.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Adel Iskander, is it also possible at the same time to overstate the role of social media, television in something like this? You know, there’s a great debate now about a kind of Twitter revolution, a Facebook revolution.

ADEL ISKANDER: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — what leads the way? What is the — there’s still the power of humankind, right, getting out on the street.

ADEL ISKANDER: Yes, absolutely.

I think it’s important not to fall into the incredible appeal of these two arguments, the argument that — the technological determinism, that, if the technology is there, that everything will fall into place, that we will have a revolution, and then the other side, which says, well, it’s all about people, and the new media technology has no role to play.

So, both Malcolm Gladwell and, you know, Clay Shirky are probably wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Prominent people who have made these arguments, yes. Yes.

ADEL ISKANDER: Yes, prominent people who have made these arguments are probably wrong, and the reality is somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

Again, you have to remember that the majority of the 80 million or over 80 million Egyptians do not have access to the Internet. And many of them for some time had no access to Al-Jazeera as well, when it was pulled off the plug by — or when it was pulled off of the NileSat.

Some of them were able to scramble to find other — other sources of information, but the Egyptian propaganda was quite influential in the early days of the revolution. So, at the end, it was all — it was all about the qualms, the grievances of the Egyptian population and their ability to see others come out and demonstrate in large numbers that compelled them to come out and really ask for their rights.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Larry Pintak, what do you think about this question, because it comes down to controlling the message, right? And governments can be very adept at doing that as well.

LAWRENCE PINTAK: Well they can be, but this showed us that there are limits to that.

I mean, you can’t plug all those information portals now. And while social media, television are just tools, the bottom line is that this revolution started a week after Tunisia. It was a direct cause-and-effect.

It may have happened eventually, but it was the — the catalyst of seeing Tunisia on television that brought people out on the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: And from watching what — as you have in the Middle East, would you expect social media, other older media, television, to continue to play a role?

LAWRENCE PINTAK: Oh, absolutely.

I think you saw with Egypt TV fighting a rearguard action, talking about foreign intervention, et cetera, it was one voice. And it was effective. It got people out there to attack foreigners, attack journalists. But the overwhelming noise, if you will, from satellite TV and other sources really overwhelmed the government’s mouthpiece.

And now we’re seeing across the region these little — little hiccups that are a response to all of this. And I think, basically, governments will see from this that the old ways of doing things, the old ways of controlling the message or killing the messenger, really are over.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, Mr. Foukara, I assume you have to expect — all of your team, wherever they are, have to expect that governments will do all they can to try to curtail — curtail your coverage, right?

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Well, absolutely.

I mean, I just want to go back to what Adel said a little while ago about the truth residing somewhere in the middle. I think that is absolutely crucial as a nuance to make.

But having said that, this is not a chicken-and-egg situation. What you have — in the case of Al-Jazeera, for example, you have a channel that has invested over in — over a period of over 10 years in understanding these — how these situations, how these systems work and what the real problems are.

But the fact of the situation is that there have been problems. The problems that we saw that lead to the uprising and revolution in Tunisia was somewhat similar in Egypt. So, you have that political keg, in the case of Egypt, waiting to happen for 30 years. But then you have that convergence of the new social media with people’s wide access to television.

And basically, governments, and especially the government of Egypt in this case and the government of Tunisia, just didn’t have anywhere to hide from that glare.

JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret, just in our last minute, you were talking to government — people looking at how the government was trying to deal with the media, right?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Jeff. And their only instrument seemed to either be kind of a crude old technology of state television, and — and Professor Pintak is right, that they did manage to, for instance, turn out some Egyptians to attack foreigners and foreign journalists.

But basically, they didn’t have the tools. They had unleashed all of this as part of economic globalization, remember. That’s how everybody got cell phones. That’s how the Internet suddenly got penetration in Egypt. But they had never mastered the art themselves. So, while they could try blocking the new media, they, unlike some other governments in the world, were not adept at using it for their own purposes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will leave it there.

Margaret Warner, Adel Iskander, Larry Pintak, and Abderrahim Foukara, thank you, all four, very much.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this transcript misspelled Adel Iskander’s last name. This transcript has been corrected.