Last Sunday, the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards took a big step in integrating social media into television. I was intrigued by their ability to incite a nationwide conversation about the awards show on Twitter; they even aired a commercial telling Twitter users to use the #SAGawards hashtag, a way to identify keywords in tweets and group those on the same topic.
Despite this noteworthy step toward blending traditional television and new media, my attention was drawn away from the #SAGawards hashtag as #Egypt took over my Twitter feed.
This social media revolution is truly remarkable because it is occurring despite the efforts of the Hosni Mubarak government to stifle protesters’ speech and prevent the spread of news about the crisis in Cairo by shutting down the Internet on Jan. 27 (which has since been restored). While news about the region has been dominated by stories of tragedy, corruption and violence, social communications on the Internet — which Mubarak specifically sought to eliminate — tell a somewhat more hopeful story.
That is not to say that the news coming from these tweets isn’t just as heartbreaking and troublesome as the images we see on television or in newspapers. Middle East reporter Jon Jensen (@jonjensen) tweeted, “Cairo smells like tear gas today. My colleagues are reporting severe police beatings, rubber bullets fired. I have not seen this. #Jan25.” Even more alarmingly personal is Google’s Middle East and North Africa Head of Marketing Wael Ghonim’s (@ghonim) Twitter post: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die #Jan25.” He has been reported missing since last week.
But what is hopeful is the way in which the world has come together, utilizing social media to restore the voice that Mubarak took away with the Internet blackout.
Google, SayNow and Twitter collaborated to create “Speak to Tweet” (@speak2tweet); protesters leave a voicemail on one of several international phone numbers, and their message is posted to the speak2tweet account with the hashtag #Egypt. The conflict chillingly comes to life when you listen to the voices, ranging from someone speaking in Arabic set against a background of unrecognizable chatter to a young girl who identifies herself as half-American, half-Egyptian and wishes listeners “a better life.”
On a smaller scale, a doctoral student at the University of California in Los Angeles created the account name Jan25voices, which he uses to tweet 140-character messages taken from phone conversations with protesters in Egypt reporting rumors and clips from Egyptian television:
“Egypt TV (Al Masryia): Pro-stability/Mubarak Demo: “Be aware of the “fingers” playing among you” #Egypt”
“Egyptian TV (Al Masryia): Army warning non-Army personnel: don’t wear army uniforms. #Egypt”
“Egyptian Voices: Girls whose mothers wouldn’t let them out. Now out. Protesting. With their mothers.
While the hackers of the world have historically gotten a pretty bad rap, during the Internet blackout they stepped up to become the heroes of the moment. The movement was largely anonymous: Hackers were “showing up” online just wanting to help in any way they can. Cryptic websites popped up, telling those in communication with Egyptian protesters how to circumnavigate the Internet blackout, such as using old dialup DSL connections and using specific IP addresses for Twitter and Facebook. The Web-savvy coders we once labeled “hackers” quickly became “free speech activists,” banding together to provide Egyptians with information on how to continue to keep communication channels open.
So while some find it fascinating that the Internet was shut off in the first place, I find it much more impressive that although you can try, it seems as if you cannot ever truly halt this universal means of communication. The Internet has become the ultimate beacon of the First Amendment, and while China can allegedly censor it and Egypt can allegedly turn it off, there will always been the anonymous techies in the chat rooms that will come up with a secret passageway that goes around the block.
This is also an issue that the United States may soon have to face as well: According to an article in Wired last Friday, there are plans to reintroduce the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010 bill that expired with the new Congress. If passed, the bill — colloquially dubbed the Kill Switch bill — would give the president the authority to take control of certain online systems in a time of crisis.
The government has a say in what we watch on TV, what appears in movies and what language we hear on the radio. The Internet, however, seems to be another story. During the Civil War, the postmaster general cut off postal service to the Confederate states, significantly straining the main communication line. Our modern communications are not so easily controlled.
Marissa Amendolia is a senior in the College and a former editor-in-chief of THE HOYA. She can be reached at [email protected]. BYTE THE BULLET appears every other Friday.