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Two faces of social media 16 juillet 2013

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Philadelphia Inquirer (USA) Tuesday, July 16, 2013, p. D-8

John Timpane

The uprisings now under way in Egypt and Turkey show the power and limits of social media when used amid social upheaval.

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Chaos in the Twitterverse

The popular uprisings in Turkey and Egypt demonstrate the strength, and the limits, of social media in times of unrest.

Two uprisings now under way — each different, each far from over — show the power, and the limitations, of social media when used amid social upheaval.

In the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul, Turkey, demonstrators have made brilliant use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to air their grievances. They’ve been so successful that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, helpless to control the story, attacked Twitter as « the worst menace to society. »

« It may be the first time protesters used Vine, » says Turkish-born Zeynep Tufekci, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Information and Library Science. She studies society and the Internet, and she’s referring to the Twitter app named Vine, which lets users make six-second videos.

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Social media a chaotic place in Egypt

Gezi Park protesters posted vines that panned across the scene of the protests, displaying the makeshift tents, police helicopters, and sirens. « You wouldn’t think it would work, » says Tufekci, « but it turns out to be great for giving the flavor and tension of an event. »

Social-media « curators » — individuals or small bands of tech-savvy journalists who study and assess information — have been especially important in the Gezi Park demonstrations. Curators have played this role since at least the Arab Spring uprisings that began in December 2010. They act, in Tufekci’s words, « as another filter level » for the Internet, gathering and straining out the most reliable information.

« Anybody who does this aggregating and curating job, » says Marwan Kraidy of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, « if they gain credibility quick, can shape information flows, and these have. » Journo 140 is acting as a reliable filter for events in Gezi Park, just as the blogger Nawaat did for Tunisia in 2010-2011, the Greek blogger Asteris for Egypt, and as Andy Carvin of National Public Radio has been doing since at least early 2011 for the Middle East.

But in Egypt in summer 2013, no curators can catch up, and social media are at the mercy of the chaos. « In December 2010, Egypt’s protesters got out in front on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter and owned the story from the start, » says Tufekci. « That didn’t — couldn’t — happen this time. »

This time, all sides — pro- and anti-Morsi, pro- and anti-army, Western-oriented intelligentsia, political parties such as al-Nour — launched social media campaigns, and competing stories (revolution? coup? massacre? chaos?) clashed in the air. « Was this a coup or a revolution? » says journalist Sharif Abdel Kouddous by phone from Cairo. « The very fierceness of that debate tends to add to the confusion. »

« After all, » says Kraidy, « in Egypt, an army deposed a democratically elected leader — in the name of democracy. Not even social media, for all their power, can cut through the contradictions of that. »

Instead, they tend to be handmaidens of chaos.

Kouddous says that « the growth in social media such as Facebook and Twitter since even 2010 is remarkable. One big difference is that those in authority now use it. » Now-deposed President Mohammed Morsi was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both he and the Brotherhood use Twitter assiduously. « The official presidency actually answered direct questions via Twitter, which was something new in Egypt, » Kouddous says. « And the Brotherhood rolled out hard on Twitter when Morsi took on unpopular powers in November. »

Morsi even tweeted while he was being placed under arrest by the army. In turn, « as soon as they deposed Morsi and took power, » Kouddous says, « the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces posted it on Facebook. »

« So there is no one clear story, no curation, » says Kraidy, » no good guy-bad guy. Bigger media aren’t helping. « Al-Jazeera’s Arabic service was 100 percent behind the first revolution, but it’s 100 percent against this, which it is now calling a coup. That’s because it strongly reflects Qatar’s foreign policy, which is strongly pro-Muslim Brotherhood. »

Supporters of deposed former leader Hosni Mubarak, meantime, tweet in favor of the army. And many of Cairo’s biggest private media venues are owned by Mubarak supporters. « They are responsible for a lot of erroneous reporting, » says Kouddous, « as everyone is right now. »

The key word in the Turkey protests, meanwhile, was less revolution than repression. What had started as an unfocused local demonstration became galvanized as time went on. « What really made it flare up, and social media helped this happen, » says Tufekci, « is how these Twitter reports showed people they weren’t getting the full story from the government. It foregrounded the fact of censorship. » Thus Erdogan’s blast at Twitter: « The best example of lies can be found there. »

In Gezi Park, social media are working as in other protests: disseminating the protesters’ story, organizing a coherent, running narrative. « In Gezi, there’s a more focused location, a clearer story that lends itself a lot better to social media, » Tufekci says. « You can’t do social media in a big, messy battle. If they’re shooting rubber bullets and tear gas, as they have for the most part in Gezi, you run to the back of the crowd and tweet. If they’re shooting live bullets, you just run. »

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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