New Social Networks With Old Technology - What The Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media


Egypt is the latest in a series of countries to witness the powerful potential of modern social media to catalyse and mobilise people around social issues. The Egyptian government response was to have the internet and mobile networks completely shut down. This was, however, not the end of the role that social media ideas played in the events that followed. People inside and outside of Egypt collaborated to re-create the missing networks using the still-available technologies of landlines, dial-up and ham radio.

This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

This view of the effects of social media presents a challenge to its study. Technological studies and formal analyses of relationships inscribed in social networks will never be able to capture fully the way people understand and interact with these technologically-enabled structures.

In this paper, I use the internet shutdown in Egypt to raise issues that I believe need to be considered in analysing the influence of social media on social movements. I discuss how existing models need to become hybridic, heterogeneous and responsive to the grassroots appropriation of technology, especially the future creation of alternatives to the corporate internet. In conclusion, I analyse the phrase 'Egypts Facebook Youth' as the emblem of social media's impact.

Social Media and Activism

The role of social media in enabling social protest has been the subject of significant commentary, especially since the so-called 'Twitter Revolutions' in Moldova in April 2009 and in Iran in June 2009. Widepsread coverage was given to Malcolm Gladwell's article in The New Yorker which dismissed the role of Twitter in Iran ('Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted') and to Evgeny Morozov's book 'The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom' which articulated a number of reasons why social media is potentially more useful to autocratic regimes than to citizens or activists. Researchers like Ethan Zuckerman have attempted to resolve the debate in specific cases through an analysis of relevant Twitter data sets without being able to draw definitive conclusions.

I've been involved in spreading both practical social media skills and a critical framework for their deployment in social change. In 2009 I led a workshop in Riga where Sami Ben Gharbia, a leading Tunisian exile and online activist, shared his skills and experiences with civil society activists from across Central and Eastern Europe. Sami is co-founder of nawaat, a Tunisian collective blog which was a key online aggregator during the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. As a participant in the eCampaigning Forum I see the frustration of practitioners who feel that their nuanced efforts to use social media for positive social change are overridden by the aforementioned cyber-skepticism or recuperated by the State Department to be used as a tool for US foreign policy My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it's impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.

Events in Egypt

The young opposition in Egypt as been using social media to organise since the 'Kifaya' (Enough) movement in 2004. According to researcher Jillian C. York of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard,

“demonstrators were seen pre-planning online strategy nearly a week prior to January 25. Egyptians on Twitter discussed the best hashtag to use days in advance, settling on #jan25, while the hundreds of thousands of members of the “We are all Khaled Said” group on Facebook collected e-mail addresses in a Google Doc in case of a Facebook ban. As the demonstrations got underway, members of that same Facebook group posted updates from around the Web, sharing videos, photographs, and first-hand accounts.”

At the time of writing 659,627 people had signed up to the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page and 35,995 were signed up to the “January 25 Revolution Day on torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment” which was also used to organise for the demonstrations. On January 25th hundreds of thousands of people gathered for peaceful protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo and in other cities around Egypt.

According to activist and technologist Ahmad Gharbeia “The role of the internet was critical at the beginning. On the 25th, the movements of the protesting groups were arranged in real time through Twitter. Everyone knew where everyone else was walking and we could advise on the locations of blockades and skirmishes with police.”

The Cut-Off

On the first day of protest on January 25th 2011, reports began to emerge of interference with the online social networks that were being used to coordinate the demonstrators. Despite denials from an Egyptian Government spokesman, Twitter put a message on its official PR stream saying that use was being restricted:

"Egypt continues to block Twitter & has greatly diminished traffic. However, some users are using apps/proxies to successfully tweet”.

Indeed, some people in Egypt were quick to discover ways to circumvent the blocks. It emerged that the mobile version of the Opera browser used a proxy server to reformat web pages, thus enabling people to evade the block on specific sites. The first pragmatic deconstruction of the social web was visible, as people circulated direct IP addresses for Twitter and Facebook. For people in the central Tahrir ('Liberation') Square, the situation was more difficult, as reports came in that mobile reception was also being blocked and Vodafone subsequently stated that they complied with an order from the Egyptian authorities to to suspend services in selected areas. It was reported on social media that residents around Tahrir square removed the passwords on their wifi routers so protesters could reach the outside world.

Over the following days the circumvention efforts became more systematic, building on the base of knowledge within the human rights community about tools like Tor (a network of virtual tunnels that hides the connection between a user and the website they are viewing). By keeping some of the network entry points hidden, Tor is also able to evade many internet censorship systems. The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.

However, on 27th January 2011 the government of Egypt took the unprecedented step of shutting off internet access for the entire country. In a statement that day, the internet monitoring firm Renesys reported:

“In an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet...At 22:34 UTC (00:34am local time), Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide”.

The graph of Globally Reachable Egyptian Networks against Time on Jan 27th shows Egypt falling off the the Internet. Examining the above data in detail, the Renesys analysis concludes “this sequencing looks like people getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air. Not an automated system that takes all providers down at once; instead, the incumbent leads and other providers follow meekly one by one until Egypt is silenced”. As the former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer (& former Google executive) Andrew McLaughlin wrote:

“Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt's reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime's brutal and hamfisted response to last week's emergence of citizen protests”.

Google's own Transparency Report (which provides information about traffic to their services from around the world) shows the drop off late on Jan 27th and the flatline on Jan 28th in a graph which has uncanny similarities to the signal trace on a cardiac monitor.

The only ISP to stay connected was Noor Group, the connection provider for the Egyptian Stock Exchange. A few people connected via Noor were able to provide some net access to their fellow citizens until Noor, too, was taken completely offline in the evening of 31st January.

The Response

People inside and outside of Egypt collaborated to re-create the missing networks using the still-available technologies of landlines, dial-up and ham radio. The mainstay of this effort was analogue: setting up international numbers for users in Egypt to connect via dial-up modems. Some ISPs, like FDN in France, offered free access to Egyptians specifically in response to the government's actions, and internet activist groups like Telecomix set up modem links and circulated lists of dialup numbers. On their blog they report their experiences:

“No data was flowing. As the phone lines were working, this was the solutions: Modems. Technology form the last millenium lying dusty in some boxes. We built them in our computers and reactivated them. Some of us still had them working. We set up servers which could answer modem calls via landline. Many of the Telecomix agents who were setting up this were even not born when this technology was considered modern and they had to do many hours of try and error till they got them up and running. Some touched their first modem on these very days.”

Telecomix was also at the forefront of experimenting with much older technologies as a way to re-establish horizontal communications with people in Egypt, such as ham radio:

“#SOS Please avoid #hamradio transmissions near 7080.8 kHz #cw transmit frequency, esp. region 1. Listening for #egypt. #dx #swl #hamr”

They established a fax-to-web bridge which would receive faxed messages from Egypt, remove header lines which might identify the sender's location, and publish the content to their main web page. While it is not clear if any faxes were received, it seems clear that the ham radio option wasn't viable for the situation in Egypt.

Another pre-web technology being used during the internet blackout was the Bulletin Board System, or BBS. This system for exchanging news and messages allows users to connect and log in directly over a phone line using a modem, and uses different technical protocols to the TCP/IP of the internet to network BBSs:

Block web 2.0 - counter with Net 1.0 - BBS networks springing up in #egypt to connect people - it's the 1980's all over again.”

Even when a part of the Internet is shutdown, the social web can give agency to the savvy user. John Scott-Railton is a graduate student at University of California with a network of personal friends in Egypt. When their social media was shut off, he phoned them for updates and posted them online at his Twitter account @Jan25voices. When the mobile networks were blocked, he drew up a list of people he knew with landlines. Even when many journalists were struggling to report from the ground there were live updates from Jan25voicesas Scott says

"Some of the updates I was getting were from people's aunts standing at the window, holding their phone out so I could hear what was happening"

A parallel piece of corporate innovation was the speak2tweet collaboration between Google and Twitter. On January 25th, Google acquired SayNow, a company with a set of services that connected phone calls and social media. Following Egypt's Internet shutdown, engineers from Google and Twitter collaborated to create speak2tweet which allowed Egyptians with phone access to leave a voice message on the SayNow site. A link to the message is automatically tweeted on the Twitter feed @speak2tweet.This also spawned a crowdsourced translation effort – people entered the translations on a google doc and they were posted on the site 'Alive in Egypt'.

The Internet in Egypt crackled back to life on February 2nd 2011, the day after Hosni Mubarak's first defiant post-protest broadcast. Quite why Internet services were restored at the same time that the regime was implementing a violent crack-down was a source of confusion to many observers. This chart of Egyptian Internet traffic from Arbor Networks shows the return as being as dramatic as the cut-off.

The Lessons

Even when the backbone supporting the social networks had been stripped away, people inside & outside Egypt strove to sustain sustain social communications with determination and creativity. Indeed, they sought to craft point-to-point analogue technologies like modems and landlines (and even fax & ham radio) in to a substitute, as well as a bridge back to the rest of the Internet. This approach suggests a radical change in people’s perceptions of their entitlement to connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies, flying in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.

Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.

There are parallels with the unfolding impact of open source software, where the practical affordances of a technology form leveraged a wider impact for ideas of 'openness' (such as open innovation and open data). Internet scholar Wendy Seltzer comments on the Egyptian shutdown by drawing a parallel with the layers model of the Internet protocol.

“We also see that the Internet is not any particular means of data transport. The independence of layers means that applications don’t care what the route underneath looks like, so long as there is one. That meant that even cutting off Internet service providers couldn’t stop information flows: while Egyptians could call out from the country, they could tell their stories at @jan25voices, and through the Google-Twitter-Phone service, @speak2tweet, that automates some of the voice-Twitter connection.”

On the basis of Egypt and other examples, one can say that the social media model of communication now has a social or cultural layer that exists over and above the actual technical platforms that normally facilitate it. This is a generalisation to wider culture of the tendency observed several years ago by anthropologist Jeffrey Juris in his book 'Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization' that networking practices

form part of an innovative mode of radical political practice that has to be understood in the context of an increasing confluence between network norms, forms, and technologies. It is important to point out that, when I talk about networking practices, I am not only referring to the use of digital technologies, but also to new forms of organizational practice. Activist networking practices are both physical and virtual, and they are frequently associated with emerging political imaginaries. It is precisely the interaction between network technologies, network-based organizational forms, and network-based political norms that characterizes radical activism”.

For those of us who have experience of both community mobilisation and social media, this doesn't come as a surprise. Networks are common to social media and to every aspect of social and business life, and it is the disruptive interplay of networked technology and business & social networks which is opening up new possibilities of social impact. The elements of participatory innovation observable in events following the shutdown of the Internet in Egypt have characteristics in common with Crisis Camps (e.g. the crowdsourced and social web-enabled response to the earthquake in Haiti) and our Social Innovation Camps (which bring together interdisciplinary self-organised teams to hack web-based solutions to social problems in 48 hours).

Future Research

This view of the effects of social media presents a challenge to its study. Technological studies and formal analyses of relationships inscribed in current social network platforms will never be able to capture fully the way people understand and interact with these technologically-enabled structures. What follows are issues that we believe need to be considered in analysing the impact of social movements. We also discuss how existing models need to become hybridic, heterogeneous and responsive to the grassroots appropriation of technology.

The first challenge is the fluid online-offline way these networks work. Restricting an analysis of relationships or dynamics to an online data set neglects the 'dark matter' of offline interactions that are necessary to make sense of the whole. While this is true in general, it becomes even more so when the trajectories of interaction leap from Twitter to mobile phone to street and back again.

Grasping social media in the context of social change also means appreciating the intent of the participants. In the same way that the embedded ethnography of Danah Boyd (PDF) cut through the haze around youth and social networks created by the collision of Pew Research and media punditry, there's a need for participant observation at the interface between social media and social impact. The overlap of social movements and the social web has generated is a tendency for near-real time reflexivity, where participants reflect openly on their experiences and tactics, as exemplified by the Twitter-based debriefs of the UK Uncut activists organised around the hashtag #ukuncutdb. Jeffrey Juris reports that

contemporary social movements are increasingly “self-reflexive,” as evidenced by the countless networks of knowledge production, debate, and exchange among global justice activists, including listserves, Internet forums, radical theory groups, activist research networks, etc.”

I have observed similar reflexivity in the online movement of #jan25 (the hashtag for the Egyptian uprising).

Retrospective studies of situations like Egypt and Tunisia also need to address the framing bias of pseudo-public spaces like Facebook and YouTube. Technology and policy choices strongly affect the way they are used in community mobilization. This ranges from citizen media videos being removed from YouTube due to 'violent content' that violates the Terms of Service, to the repeated suspension of activists by Facebook for not complying with the “real name” policy for their own safety.

All these challenges may converge if trends catalysed by the Egyptian shutdown come to fruition. Galvanized by the shutdown, a group of tech entrepreneurs started the OpenMesh Project which aims to create with ad hoc mesh networking solutions in a city where the Internet backbone and mobile networks have been silenced. Conversations along similar lines can be observed across blogs and social media (see, for example, the comment thread in the aforementioned Tor post). These initatives and the use of BBS in Egypt echo the call by author Douglas Rushkoff to abandon the current Internet on the basis that it has been surrendered to centralised corporate control. Presciently, he called for a new net of 'the commons' that learns from BBSs and deploys overlapping meshes, ham radio and telephony.

Recognising that if any of this happens it will be as part of a convergence of technology with cultural forms, we can propose that critical frameworks drawing on mesh models will be useful to future analysis. For example, de Landa has developed the idea of meshworks (PDF), influenced by the theoretical work of Deleuze and Guattari. “Meshworks are based on decentralized decision making...self-organization, and heterogeneity and diversity... It can be said they follow the dynamics of life, developing through their encounter with their environments (by “drift”), although conserving their basic structure.”

Conclusions from Tahrir Square

The mis-translation of a protester's sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is 'FACEBOOK', in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as 'Thank you Facebook'. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is 'Thank you, Egypt's Facebook youth'. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them 'Egypt's Facebook youth' it also recognises that they're acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.

And therein lies the visible impact of social media. It doesn't create uprisings or anything else, but it opens up ways of thinking and behaving because it makes thinking and behaving in those ways (horizontally, self-organised) more effective than before. It opens up new fields of possibilities.