How social media helped overthrow a regime.

By Kaitlyn Walsh
Gunnar Dancer, 22, cracks open a beer and relaxes at his Minneapolis apartment after a long day at work.

An eerie silence fell over Tahrir Square on Jan. 28, 2011, a day demonstrators called the “Friday of Anger.”

“You could feel the tension, like something was going to happen,” says Gunnar Dancer, a University of Minnesota senior who had an internship in Egypt when violent demonstrations broke out in Tahrir Square, just two blocks from his apartment in downtown Cairo. The word of the protest spread, in part through a Facebook invite that thousands—including Dancer—received. His supervisor told him not to come to work that day, so the 22-year-old decided to roam the streets in case he could witness history. Dancer and some friends ordered breakfast at a place called Kazaz, not far from the square. Security forces patrolled outside.

After midday prayer, Egyptians poured out of the mosques and hit the streets. Sirens blared and men yelled. The crowd swelled. “The whole city just blew up,” Gunnar says.

Three days earlier, after 30 years of rampant government corruption, thousands of Egyptians took over Tahrir Square, in hopes of striking down President Hosni Mubarak and his repressive regime. Demonstrators tweeted and posted pictures from the front lines, feeding the world live updates as turmoil ensued. Using the hashtag “#Jan25,” tweets were connected and organized, so that people could easily follow the revolution as it happened:

Sandmonkey: “Police officer speaking on cell phone: ‘eiwa ya basha, the gas is on the way.’ Teargas is coming. #Jan25.”

Ghonim: “Pray for #Egypt. Very worried, as it seems that the government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die #Jan25.”

News of the violence in the square was disseminated around the world in an instant. Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr allowed protesters to update millions and inspire thousands of others to rush the square.

Power to the people

The rising popularity of social media has completely redefined the pace at which people organize, and at times, revolt. The Internet allows for instant mass publication of content that doesn’t have to be printed, stamped, or mailed. Twitter and Facebook are fast and free ways to share information. Previously weak and disorganized groups became a force strong enough to overthrow the 30-year-old might of Mubarak’s regime. “We are seeing these tools progress from coordination into governance, as groups gain enough power and support to be able to demand that they be deferred to,” Clay Shirky, a distinguished writer and lecturer on the effects of Internet technology, writes in his book, Here Comes Everybody.

In 1919, strikes erupted across Egypt and other parts of the Arab world. The revolutions were, in part, inspired by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech, which called for the end of Imperialism and for the sovereignty of each nation. His message of peacemaking and equity in all nations spread worldwide through telegraphs. Their messages were nearly instant, but paper and wire were limited, costly resources. And telegrams could only be sent from one telegraph to another. Today, the Internet has nearly infinite space and requires little manpower for a message to spread from one user to millions.

Social media is a faster way to convert information into collective action. “It really democratizes access to information and exchange of information,” says Eric Schwartz, dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Previously, millions of disaggregated, unassociated people who were basically not content with the way things were, [had] little capacity to affect change. The communications capabilities of social media enables the whole very quickly to become greater than the sum of its parts.”

But as the power of social media in Egypt was revealed, it was swiftly taken away.

Shutting down communication

A revolution fueled through online means, with groups organizing in public spaces like Twitter and Facebook, runs the risk of digital sabotage. For instance, the government can use online information to hunt down and repress revolutionaries, according to Ronald Krebs, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. He said groups that come together online are “easier to penetrate than small, face-to-face groups.”

“Facebook is not anonymous,” says Krebs. “It’s one thing to have a revolution, it’s another to take advantage of it.” When traditional repression isn’t enough, the government can wipe out the threat online organizations pose by completely shutting it down. Three days after the revolution ignited, that’s exactly what Mubarak’s regime did. It restricted all access to the Internet and mobile phone service for several days. If people wanted to know what was happening in the streets, they had to throw themselves into the throngs of revolutionaries and police in real time, or survive on the crumbs the Al Jazeera news service was able to toss out.

3arabwy: “I called my internet service provider. They confirmed Facebook and Twitter r blocked by the govt. #Jan25.”

During the blackout, Dancer huddled near the TV in his apartment, where he started differentiating the sound each type of bullet made as security forces fired at protesters outside. For hours on end, he chain-smoked and watched the news with his roommates and a couple of friends. They couldn’t go out for supplies without getting wrapped up in the conflict. But eventually they ran low on food and cigarettes, and against their better judgment emerged to stock up on fresh pasta and cartons of Lucky Strikes.

Dancer and his friends had spent the last few days on the edge of the fray, but couldn’t evade the clouds of teargas and the chaotic crowds of clashing security forces and civilians. They sprinted from the sounds of rubber bullets. Gunnar recalls the distinct “thud” of a percussion grenade hitting the ground, and then the incapacitating blast that could make your eyes and ears bleed if you were close enough. They ran. Their eyes burned and their lungs ached. They struggled to inhale, chests heaving. “I was running blind,” Dancer recalls. His eyes, usually clear and blue, were swollen, red, and flooded with tears. His dusty blond hair was caked in sweat and his lungs were like hot coals. He had to keep running. “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. All I wanted to do was vomit and cry out the tear gas.”

When the regime cut off the Internet, all Dancer had was Al Jazeera (which was often interrupted as its headquarters was raided by state police), which he says was better than the filtered, biased state-run news. Otherwise, he relied on what he could see from his balcony. Before the Internet block, Dancer trolled Facebook and Twitter several times a day to find out which parts of the neighborhood he should avoid. He got updates on the revolution. Without social media, walking the streets was like Russian roulette, spinning the chamber and hoping for the best.

Mubarak’s move to blockade the Internet and mobile phone service was meant to snuff out the demonstrators’ power, but according to a study by Navid Hassanpour, a Yale political science graduate student, it actually could have helped their cause. “Full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action,” he writes. When people aren’t updating their statuses or surfing the web for answers, they seek out more grassroots ways to organize. The regime’s tactics impeded communication, but pushed more people off of their couches and onto the streets. Revolution was everywhere.

What Twitter can’t show

There is nothing like seeing the inferno of revolution spread in real-time, according to Dancer. Mubarak’s headquarters in the square was set ablaze. Flames enveloped overturned cars. Tanks ripped up streets littered in shattered glass and debris. People were dirty and bleeding, covering their mouths with their shirts or rags for makeshift gas masks. Some protesters were badly injured. Others were killed.

One night, Dancer and his friends got split up. He and a friend were hiding in a ravaged apartment building with dozens of other Egyptians, not far from where they lived. They decided to make a run for it. Outside, there was a line of armed police, and an old man who was pleading with them. Gunshots rang out, and Dancer dove behind a car, not sure where the bullets would fly. He bolted, not noticing his pants had torn. A man ushered him and his friend into a shop, where eight people had already taken refuge. The man was a tailor, Dancer says, and told him, “Take those off,” pointing at the rip. “I’ll sew them for you.” It was an act of solidarity as the conflict raged outside, showing that language or skin color were not barriers: it was the regime against everyone else. It would be difficult for Dancer to sum up that night in 140 characters or less.

In the Wake of an Uprising

After several days, the army took over the square, backing up the protesters. Tahrir Square was in ruins. Dancer and his friends were evacuated, and in the confusion, didn’t find out they were being flown to Turkey until they were already in the air. In retrospect, Dancer says social media was a driving force in the movement. “That’s how it all started,” he says. Protesters filled the roles of historians and journalists on social media sites, their hastily written inscriptions permanently recording the uprising. And when news travels faster than ever, the world seems small. A revolution that ignited on the other side of the planet can easily become as close as the young guy sitting next to you in a coffee shop.