How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews
How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring, BBC Two
How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring, BBC Two
Doc makes spurious claims for the revolutionary properties of social media
It seems unlikely that the founding fathers of social media had in mind a revolution of any greater magnitude than turning your teenager’s bedroom walls inside out and making themselves rich in the process. Still, here we are, less than a decade later, reeling from a series of very literal revolutions which have, over the past nine months, upheaved a vast tract of the Arab world and recalibrated the definition of people power. Revolutions which, the BBC now claims, were catalysed and facilitated by Facebook. The remit of How Facebook Changed the World – fronted by the aesthetically unimpeachable Mishal Husain – was, er, to demonstrate how Facebook had changed the (Arab) world. And if you embraced the pacy, hour-long narrative (and didn’t ask too many questions) then that’s kind of what happened.
Things have moved on a bit since the days of humbly beseeching and the finding of truths to be self-evident: and so we watched as, helter-skelter, from Tunis in December to Cairo in February (the rest is not yet televised), plucky liberal-democratic types took on the collective grubby dictatorships of North Africa – using only their BlackBerrys and encrypted internet chat rooms – and one by one forced their ostensibly "elected" leaders to offer political terms, thereby admitting not very shamefacedly that yes, they had, in fact, been dictators all along.
The chief mistake of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was, apparently, to mistake Facebook for a purely "recreational" website, while busying himself censoring all sites that were avowedly political. In a country where 25 per cent of the citizens have broadband (and 90 per cent mobiles) this was an error. Of note. The 25 per cent turned out mostly to be French-speaking postgraduates with a developed understanding of their civic entitlements.
After 30 years at the top, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak cannot have been under any misapprehension that he was beloved of the people, either. But when it came to credible threats to his grasp on power he “thought [and this is brilliant] that only factions that had a pyramid structure were dangerous”.
The documentary was largely comprised of segments of phone-cam footage (some of it pretty graphic), stitched together with to-camera narration from Ms Husain (pictured below) and the occasional Google map. It didn’t waste too much time on historical context, or detail. The result tended towards broad generalisations (all looting in Cairo apparently the work of Mubarak’s agents, provocateurs, etc), and a slightly pedestrian "Internet 101" flavour to the whole business – as though a lot of blue-rinsers would be watching a programme with “Facebook” in the title (and with New Tricks on the other channel).
None of which is to denigrate the colossal achievements of the protestors in either country. The Arab Spring was, and continues to be, a triumph for several beleaguered citizenries, and an example to the wider region. But – and far be it from me to point out that Zuckerberg, Inc has form when it comes to taking credit for other people’s ideas – I’d like to humbly suggest that Facebook had rather less to do with all this than may have met the eye.
In both Egypt and Tunisia, the complaints behind the civil unrest were the same as they have always been: dictators rigging elections, torturing dissidents, mistaking the National Bank for their personal ATM, and generally being incapable of taking a joke. The protests, also, followed the standard path. Certainly this path was cleared somewhat by the availability of 21st-century technology; but the database hacking, the broadcasting (by Al Jazeera) of incendiary images of brutality, the negotiations with the armed forces, the iconography, even the planning of protest tactics (maps: paper maps) – none of these had much to do with social media.
In Egypt, where only a fifth of the population has access to the internet, what brought the mob to Tahrir Square was activists handing out fliers, sending texts and dropping massive hints in front of the city’s famously gossipy taxi drivers: less information superhighway, more rush-hour traffic. And the defining moment of the protest was The Battle of the Camels – which is low-tech, even for Egypt.
In fact, the only people really invigorated by Facebook were Mubarak’s secret police, purposely misinformed by the protestors. The government responded – as if to prove my point – by taking the almost unthinkable step, in the modern geopolitical context, of switching off the internet. What happened? Everyone went outside to find out WTF was going on in their city. Angry mobs in the streets: just what Dr Guevara ordered. (NB The first thing Hosni Mubarak did when he turned the servers back on was send everyone texts extolling the virtues of peace and patience. If you’ve not lived in a country where this sort of thing happens you’ll struggle to imagine how creepy it is to realise the president quite literally has your number.)
The film-makers did not in any way deny or distort these facts, merely hurried past them to get back to the social media narrative. But by doing so – and notwithstanding the bloody frontline footage – they somehow ended up making the whole business of revolution seem faintly “virtual”.
Revolution, quite unlike the web, needs focal points. Slogans, online or anywhere else, aren’t enough. What you need – if you’ll pardon the expression – is bodies on the streets. Facebook does provide a sort of corral – on martyrdom pages, for instance (and have we in the West not waited and waited for the "right" kind of Islamic martyr?) – in a way that a standard web page cannot; but it’s not real. It’s not blocking any tanks and it doesn’t stop bullets. It cannot prevent radical Islam from infiltrating liberal-democratic protest movements across the region, nor will it guarantee successful post-conflict government. The Yanks were notably cagey when it came to Mubarak’s ousting, and it’s too early – in realpolitikal terms, anyway – to say that they were wrong. In the end, the winner will not be the one who had the most Friends, but the one who was prepared to get shot.
What social media did do, of course, was speed everything up. Historians still can’t agree on the length of the French Revolution; but the Tunisian one took 28 days. Revolutions need momentum, and if Facebook did nothing else it strengthened the protestors’ belief that they were not alone, at home or internationally. That’s not worth a Nobel, but it’s a legitimate contribution.
All in all, though, How Facebook Changed the World was a pretty shameless attempt to sex up a fairly ordinary documentary on some extraordinary events – and unless it transpires that three out of five revolutions prefer social media, I think the jury’s still out on Facebook. Part two is on Thursday, next week. Meanwhile – and lest we needed proof that there are worse ways to change the world – there was Syriana on ITV.
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