Much of the press coverage of Egypt’s present meltdown has concerned the influence of social media. Organizers used Twitter, Facebook and other channels to get out their message and instigate a popular uprising.
Egyptian authorities belatedly recognized the power of social media on Wednesday last week. They cut off access to Internet sites such as Twitter and Facebook, according to the UK Guardian news site.
Evidently social media has been an essential tool for protesters to coordinate their efforts. Egypt had already cracked down on bloggers, and according to the Guardian piece, “in 2009 the Committee to Protect Journalists listed Egypt as one of the 10 worst countries for bloggers because of the tendency to arrest [government] critics.”
Such a heavy-handed dictatorial approach betrays a profound lack of understanding about social media’s power to communicate ideas.
Is it possible, with better understanding of social media, that this crisis could have been averted?
Sophisticated social media monitoring tools could easily have picked up “buzz” weeks or even months before protesters took to the streets. Social media monitoring would have given the Egyptian government the chance to evaluate the response to its proactive measures and to adjust its policies accordingly.
A proactive approach might have afforded the Egyptian government time to react with conciliatory measures. Monitoring could have identified thought leaders and influencers, to whom the government could have reached out with an olive branch. Would they have avoided the type of instinctive crackdown that contributed to the present crisis? Maybe not. But in any case, social media monitoring would have helped the government judge the zeitgeist and to take appropriate pre-emptive action. Instead, they are now on the defensive, and if history is any lesson, have already lost.
The Mubarak government missed the opportunity to manage change gradually. For such lack of leadership, perhaps they deserve what’s coming.