The Egyptian revolution began on Facebook with a call to protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Protesters used Twitter to maneuver around police and reach the area. People arrived at the location expecting to see a few hundred like-minded individuals. Instead, they found a few hundred-thousand.
Until they reached the square, Egyptian dissidents had no clue of their strength. It was a remarkable indication of the power of social networks as a political organizing tool, as has been seen in many uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
Khaled Fattal ’84, chairman of the Multilingual Internet Group, discussed this phenomenon and its implications for the future during a recent lecture at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD).
“It’s undisputed that, without the role of social media, these revolutions would have been handicapped,” Fattal said. “Over the last 30 years, there have been numerous events in the Middle East that could have been the catalysts for change.”
The Multilingual Internet Group is a consortium of Internet-based companies with the mission of empowering, serving and interlinking the current and next-billion Internet users who don’t speak English.
The seminar was sponsored by SPPD, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the USC Marshall School of Business.
“So much of the coordination, communication and inspiration for the democratic and freedom revolutions that have occurred in many countries and are continuing to this day were facilitated, fostered and made possible through social networking and the Internet,” said Jack H. Knott, the C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Dean of SPPD.
Around 20 million people in Egypt, or about one-quarter of the country’s population, are on the Internet. Early in the political unrest, the Egyptian government attempted to block Facebook and Twitter, then took the unprecedented step of shutting down Internet access in the country altogether. The cyberspace blackout lasted a week but could not thwart the revolution. President Hosni Mubarak stepped down a week later.
Fattal is particularly interested in the post-revolution role to be played by social media. There’s some level of disenchantment among people everywhere, including the United States.
Fattal wondered if the United States will ever follow the lead of many corporations that have Twitter and Facebook accounts to listen to their customers.
“I can see in the future a new version of social media coming into place that would allow citizens to be engaged on something really significant – whether that be taxes or whether to go to war or not,” Fattal said. “At least we need to aspire for something better because then what Americans want will be reflected in the policies.”
With the omnipresence and speed of the Internet, politicians no longer have to speculate about what the masses think before making a decision. They can know for certain. It also can be a scary proposition because there is no intelligence requirement or education on a topic needed to click a button on the Internet.
“What I found interesting was his point that Twitter or social networks might help in the governance process,” said Muriel Skaf, a first-year Master of Planning student at SPPD. “I’m not entirely sold on it, but it’s certainly interesting to consider for the future as a catalyst for better governance.”
Internet usage worldwide is around 2 billion people, but the users need to know something about the English character set or a European language to start their navigation.
Fattal sits on the advisory committee for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which he said will begin allowing top-level domains – such as .com or .edu – to be in non-English characters beginning in January.
“When we talk about engagement and empowerment in those communities, now they will be able to be engaged in their own native languages,” Fattal said.
He anticipates that the change could increase Internet usage in the world by 50 percent or more in the next two to five years by allowing Internet goers to use their own language.
“I think the opening up of the Internet to non-English languages is going to be fascinating,” said Laurel Grzesik, a first-year SPPD Master of Public Policy student. “There are people out there that could have access to the Internet but, if they have to type in English, it prevents them from really using it to its fullest extent.”