Can New Media Enhance Democracy?
The modern era of digital technologies has changed the way contemporary newspapers look like. Nowadays, the success of the media depends on the cooperation of journalists and web-developers, which combine the content with modern technologies. The content is not unique anymore, because of the rapid penetration of the Internet in the lives of people.
It is possible to tweet the breaking news and be the first one to tell the world what is going on. The wide audience will know the most recent information before the journalists will write a full-size article and the newspaper will be published. It is difficult to underestimate the role of new media in contemporary riots, for example, in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. The new media is connected with three main issues: it gives a push for development of cyberactivism, which enables street activism in its turn. It helps to organize and mobilize protests. In addition, it promotes an absolutely new for the Arab world form of citizen journalism and the freedom of speech for ordinary people.
In his book, Nick Couldry investigates into the problem of the neoliberal society and how a possibility to express the point of view and to be heard influences the political and social life in the country. He notes that the narrative role and the freedom of speech is a crucial thing in social experience. Without giving the citizens a potential for voice or a capacity for narrative, the government denies the basic needs of people. This leads to the social recession and uprisings sooner or later. The case of Egyptian revolution in 2011 is a bright example of how the state has been underestimating the basic need of people to have the freedom of speech. The traditional mass media underwent strict censorship and control from the side of the Egyptian government that is why people found a way out of the problem by means of the new media. The examples of the new media are blogs, YouTube, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others. The state was not able to control the political discussions Egyptians had in the Internet, which led finally to multiple uprisings in the country. Now it is possible to say that the new media enhances the democracy in the society and it is evident on the example of Egypt1.
It is necessary to describe the overall political situation in the Muslim world in general and Egypt in particular. Three years have passed from the beginning of a succession of revolutions that shaked the Arab countries. It is early to sum the results of the phenomenon known as the “Arab Spring”, though some of the results of these uprisings are evident even now. The main achievement is the revolution in minds of the Arab people about the nature of power and its key functions.
In December 2010, the Tunisian salesman Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the administration of a small town of Sidi Buziz as a protest against local authorities. It was difficult to imagine at that time that this suicide will give a start to changes that are comparable in consequences with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
A relatively bloodless uprising erupted in Tunisia after the self-immolation. Local President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was expelled from the country and took refuge in Saudi Arabia. This event literally exploded the Arab world: almost simultaneously people chanting anti-governmental slogans invaded the streets in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Several smaller-scale protests took place in Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
It seems like the Arab world was awakened after a long sleep. People started to recognize themselves as real citizens – politically conscious and willing to take responsibility for their own destiny. However, this regained political awareness did not solve all the existing problems. The citizens of the Arab countries faced a fundamental question: what direction to choose now? At the moment, there is no single answer to this question that will be good for all Arab countries, and its search involves serious challenges for people and state regimes.
The majority of Egyptians welcomed the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. However, after his resignation of the country’s inhabitants faced confusion and vacillation about their uncertain future. “Muslim Brotherhood”, that were close to the Tunisian organization “Nahda”, claimed for the Islamization of everything. The Left parties, which have been popular since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, claimed for socialism. Few liberals dreamed of building a society of European type, and the supporters of the “hard hand” wanted to restore the “lite version” Mubarak regime2.
Just like in Tunisia, the radical Islamists won in the free and democratic. Soon they demonstrated a complete incompetence in the economy with a penchant for authoritarian decisions in the social and political spheres. The new President-Islamist of Egypt, Mohammed Mursi, rejected numerous requests of the citizens to stop imposing his will, saying that his power is from God.
The President’s rating has fallen dramatically. The only way to remind him of the existence of other people in the country has become a new revolution. In summer 2013, Mursi was arrested, his party was banned, and the constitution created by the Islamists was abolished. Egypt now waits for a referendum on a new constitution and special elections. The analytics think that the military elite of the country that rules the state now might win the elections3.
This might return Egypt to the military dictatorship in the Mubarak style, as it was till 2011. There is a hope that the third president elected during the last three years will understand the lessons from the experience of his predecessors and will not impose his own vision of welfare to the citizens. Nowadays, the most populous Arab country is still torn apart by socialism, Islamism and dictatorship. The discussion about the political future of Egypt is far from the end.
Perhaps the appearance of the citizens that were able to defend their interests that are different from the official political viewpoint was the most important result of the uprisings in the Arab world was. They will not obey without saying a word if the majority of the community does not want it. The politicians now have to listen very carefully to the opinions of the citizens of their countries4.
The power itself finally lost its sacred character in the Arab world. It became a good tradition to get rid of the President that does not listen to the opinion of his nation. The Egyptian experience supports this idea.
It can be said that now the Arab world goes through the transition from feudalism to the creation of national states. The consequences of hundreds of years of life under the absolute monarchy are still strong in the consciousness of the Arab people, like religiousness and clan identity. People are too used to live in a situation where nothing depends on them. However, the freedom of speech in the new media, gaining civil rights make those people realize that the quality of their lives depends on the decisions they make, not on the will of a particular ruler.
Online media is characterized by a high degree of efficiency, relevance, rapid changes of information, the instantaneous spread of news, and the opportunity to comment and participate in the discussion. Compared to other traditional media like the television and the newspapers, the Internet prevents monopolization of sources of information, thus acting as the most democratic way of data supply. It is difficult to imagine the Egyptian revolution without the active update and involvement of online resources like social media. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were not only the means of spreading hot news, but also a quick way to organize the community5.
Mark Deuze divides online journalism into the following categories:
mainstream news sites that usually propose the readers the edited material with a minimum of unfiltered information from the audience itself. The examples of such resources are the online versions of the newspapers like CNN, BBC and The New York Times.
share and discussion sites;
meta- and comment sites;
index and category sites6.
There was no relative freedom of speech in the Arab world until the start of popularization of the Internet. The mass media underwent strict control and censorship from the side of the state and the citizens had no opportunity to participate in the political discussions with the government.
According to Howard, those citizen journalists who are not satisfied with traditional media‘s version of events are telling their own stories through social media. He also notes that “these patterns of political expression and learning are key to developing democratic discourses”7. He notes that social media is not only the way to give a start to democracies, but it also helps to develop the existing ones. Howard observes that the “networked design of social media is the key factor threatening authoritarian regimes, since these are the communication tools for the wealthy, urban, educated elites whose loyalties or defection will make or break authoritarian rule”8.
It is impossible to imagine a civil society without the free media. The new media refers to the so-called public sphere. According to Downey and Fenton, the new media, which is one the most effective ways of public communication, is the part of the process of forming the public sphere. It monitors the democratic development of the state and helps to share community and democratic values among people. Downey and Fenton underline that the public communication is not a descriptive characteristic of the civil society. Together they form a democratic political community9.
There is another notion that is important in understanding of the impact the new media had on the Egyptian revolution and the enhancement of the democratic background in the Egyptian society. It is the civic society, which cannot be disintegrated from the democratic political society. Diamond defines it in the following way:
“Civil society is the realm of organized social life that is open, voluntary, self-generating, at least partially self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules. It is distinct from “society” in general in that it involves citizens acting collectively in a public sphere to express their interests, passions, preferences, and ideas…to hold state officials accountable”10.
The Egyptian people developed a new image of the citizen in their country with the help of the new media. It promoted the image of a politically active person that is not afraid of expressing his opinion in the street. In other words, it can be called civic engagement. The Coalition for Civic Engagement and Leadership at the University of Maryland defines it in the following way:
“Civic engagement is acting upon a heightened sense of responsibility to one‘s communities. This includes a wide range of activities, including developing civic sensitivity, participation in building civil society, and benefiting the common good. Civic engagement encompasses the notions of global citizenship and interdependence. Through civic engagement, individuals – as citizens of their communities, their nations, and the world – are empowered as agents of positive social change for a more democratic world”11.
It is possible to say that the popularization of the Internet gave a serious push to the development of the new civic community. The new media that consist mostly of the independent Internet resources like social media enhance the democracy in the country greatly. It guarantees the freedom of speech. In social media, people are able to discuss the most urgent issues of the life in the country, which is impossible in the censored official traditional mass media.
As it was mentioned before, the new media in Egypt gave a push for development of cyberactivism. Before the revolution, many of the Egyptian people were unaware of the political situation and the spread of urgent information became a primary issue during the uprisings. Social media were extremely important in the process of spreading the hottest news and mobilizing people. Those, who had access to the social media and were involved in so-called cyberactivism made their best to let others learn the coordinates and form a street activist movement.
There were several active revolutionary groups that picked new members and promoted their activity through social media. The first group was called the April 6 Movement and it started functioning even before the uprisings began. It started from the day of a labour strike in El-Mahalla el-Kubra on April 6, 2008. The group used YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and mobile phones actively to transfer information about the movements of the police and about the time of strikes. They also provided legal help for those people who were arrested dung the riots. Though, their experience showed that there is a slight drawback in cyberactivity – even it was not a problem to organize thousands of Egyptians online in the Facebook, it became impossible to organize them all in the streets. Many of those who supported revolution online did not want to participate in the uprisings offline12. People were still not ready to go and fight for the freedom of speech and democracy, though even the fact that the expressed their opinion in the Internet is a big step towards the better future of Egypt.
Then this April 6 movement affiliated with another group called “We Are All Khaled Said” in Facebook and then in real life. There were more than 350.000 members in the Facebook group up to January 14, 2011. The movement was named in honour of a young Egyptian man who was beaten in the street to death by the police a year before. The majority of Egyptians started to understand that they pay the taxes to the government not to be killed by it someday. The new media raised an active protest against the lawlessness in the country.
“Egyptian tech-savvy activists were fighting back against state control of the Internet prior to the 2011 protests. Many had reached out to the international community to educate themselves on new technologies for bypassing state controls. The April 6 Movement received technical advice from the Italian anarchist party on how to use ghost servers, which bounce Internet searches to nonexistent servers to confuse any online monitoring, allowing users to share information and continue coordinating their activities in heavily monitored digital and telecom environments. Others in the movement worked with the Kenyan NGO Ushahidi to develop their capabilities for securely and credibly capturing raw video and reporting on the ground with mobile phones and building online content around it, and yet more received training from a U.S. NGO on how to use mapping tools, such as Google Maps and UMapper, to document protests and choose demonstration sites”13.
The cyber activists used and developed the new media like social media platforms actively during the Egyptian revolution. The resources like Facebook and Twitter were used for multiple reasons. Their main functions were to mobilize people in real life for uprisings, broadcasting urgent and general information about the political situation in the country, to transfer money and to support legally those who got in trouble with the police. It is possible to call the Egyptian revolution not only the political battle between the state and the citizens, but also a communicational one14. The activists used such systems as Tor and Hotspot Shield that guarantee anonymity for people online. The new media underwent serious changes in Egypt during the revolution. It became the monitoring system of the governmental regime, the eyes and the tongue of the nation. It is difficult to underestimate the impact it had on forming democratic society in Egypt.
It is possible to say that the medieval vision of political Islam among the uneducated population of Arab countries is one of the most serious obstacles on the way of formation politically engaged and democratic societies in the Arab world. The faith of those people in the fact that the Islamists in the government will magically solve all the problems underwent serious doubts on the example of Egypt15. Now more and more people in the Arab countries realize that imposing of religious norms does not guarantee prosperity. The majority of people start to understand that the results of the Islamic dictatorship will be absolutely opposite to their expectations. At the same time, liberal democracy causing frustration in the minds of the Arab people too. The free and fair democratic elections in Egypt led to the rule of Psalmists which resulted in the economical stagnation16. There is still the hope for improvement in the Arab world. The active participation of the new free media in the political life of the country led to the appearance of politically conscious citizens in Egypt, who care for the better future of their state. Perhaps, the Arabs will find their individual way of development in such discussions in the media. It might be the new approach without the ideological component and without paternalism the Arab world was used to. The new media that consists mostly of the social media, guarantees the freedom of speech and the rapid spread of information on the Internet. The possibility to find the uncensored information and being able to share the opinion with others is one of the key principles of the democratic society. Egypt went through the difficult period of breaking the dictatorship and now is fighting for the new way of living with the help of the new media.
Couldry, N., Chapter 1, from Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism, London: Sage, 2010.
Coalition for Civic Engagement and Leadership at the University of Maryland, Working Definition of Civic Engagement.
Dahlberg, L., Rethinking the Fragmentation of the Cyberpublic: From Consensus to Contestation, New Media and Society 9(5), 2007.
Deuze, M.,Understanding the Impact of the Internet: On New Media Professionalism, Mindsets and Buzzwords, EJournalist 1(1), 2001/
Downey, J. and Fenton, N., New Media, Counter Publicity and the Public Sphere, New Media and Society 5(2), 2003.
Diamond, L., Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Durham, M. G. and Kellner, D., Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Blackwell Books (2nd ed.), Morozov, E., Introduction and Chapter 3, from The Net Delusio. How Not to Liberate the World, London: Penguin Books, 2011.
El-Nawawy, M. and Khamis, S., Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses
in Cyberspace, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Fraser, N., ‘Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World’ Media, Theory, Culture and Society 24 (4), 2007.
Gopal, A., Egypt’s Cauldron of Revolt: It Was Striking Workers that First Inspired the Egyptian Uprising. And They’re Still at it, Foreign Policy, 2011.
Hindman, M., Chapter 1, from The Myth of Digital Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Howard, P. N., The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ishani, M., The Hopeful Network, Foreign Policy, 2011.
Khamis, S., Modern Egyptian Media: Transformations, Paradoxes, Debates and Comparative Perspectives, Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research, 1(3), 2008.
Nash, K., Transnationalising the Public Sphere: Critique and Critical Possibilities’, Theory, Culture & Society 24 (4): 2007.
1 N. Couldry, Chapter 1, from Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism, London: Sage, 2010, pp. 1-13.
2 M. Hindman, Chapter 1, from The Myth of Digital Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
3 A. Gopal, Egypt’s Cauldron of Revolt: It Was Striking Workers that First Inspired the
Egyptian Uprising. And they’re Still at It, Foreign Policy, 2011.
4 M. El-Nawawy and S. Khamis, Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses
in Cyberspace, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
5 L. Dahlberg, Rethinking the Fragmentation of the Cyberpublic: From Consensus to Contestation, New Media and Society 9(5): 2007, pp. 827–847.
6 M. Deuze, Understanding the Impact of the Internet: On New Media Professionalism, Mindsets and Buzzwords, EJournalist 1(1), 2001.
7 P. N. Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 182.
8 P. N. Howard, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 11.
9 J. Downey and N. Fenton, New Media, Counter publicity and the Public Sphere, New Media and Society 5(2): 2003, p. 191.
10 L. Diamond, Developing democracy: Toward consolidation, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, p. 221.
11 Coalition for Civic Engagement and Leadership at the University of Maryland, Working Definition of Civic Engagement.
12 S. Khamis, Modern Egyptian media: Transformations, Paradoxes, Debates and
Comparative Perspectives, Journal of Arab and Muslim Media Research, 1(3), 2008, 259-277.
13 M. Ishani, The Hopeful Network, Foreign Policy, 2011.
14 N. Fraser, ‘Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World’ Media, Culture and Society 24 (4): 2007, 7-30.
15 M. G. Durham and D. Kellner, (eds) Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Blackwell Books (2nd ed.). E. Morozov, Introduction and Chapter 3, from The Net Delusion. How Not to Liberate the World. London: Penguin Books, 2011.
16 K. Nash, ‘Transnationalising the Public Sphere: Critique and Critical Possibilities’ Theory, Culture and Society 24 (4): 2007, 53 – 57.