Ramesh Srinivasan: Influence of Social Media Behind Egypt’s Political Upheaval

The professor of Information Studies has done extensive research on new media's impact on economic development, poverty reduction.

Ramesh Srinivasan, associate professor of information studies at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, was interviewed this month on the online commentary series, “Young Turks.” An expert on the influence of social media on major political and social upheavals, Srinivasan discussed the use of social media by citizens in the Middle East, as well as his experiences with activists during the  2011 revolution in Egypt, and how grassroots movements both on the street and through social media, continue to impact that nation today.

Srinivasan, who has been working on his research in Egypt for the last three years, spoke on the divisive rhetoric that has arisen in light of Mohamed Morsi’s election in Egypt.

“Morsi was democratically elected… but the system was false in promise, and he did abuse power in a way that forced the loss of his legitimacy,” said Srinivasan in the interview.

Srinivasan discussed the violent response of the Morsi government when faced with protests by the Egyptian people, and the lack of response to an online petition signed by 30 million citizens who demanded Morsi’s removal as president. Srivinasan emphasized the difference between the willingness of the Egyptian people to take matters into their own hands, whether online or in the streets, and the American predilection toward “slacktivism.”

“Many people in the Arab world, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, are far more willing to put their bodies in harm’s way, partly because the straits are so dire,” said Srinivasan. “The reason they put themselves in harm’s way and did such miraculous things in 2011 was for a vision that they had, that was a more legitimate, democratic government.

“I have a friend who is a female activist in Egypt, and she said, when the news of the prison scandal and [Edward] Snowden came out, ‘Why aren’t there at least 30 million Americans in the streets right now… throwing rocks?’ In the United States, this is a far more challenging issue to identify, but there is a lot we can learn. In America, it’s really hard to visualize power, because power is based on particular types of complicit connections. In Egypt, it’s very straightforward to see who the oppressor is… it’s whoever is beating you up on the street.”

Srinivasan pointed out that while the Egyptian revolution has been characterized as based on social media, the majority of the people affected do not actually have internet access; in 2011, only five percent of the population, who were mostly young and upper middle class, were online, as opposed to the older, working class population most affected by the Morsi regime. He says that the “seeds” of revolution were planted primarily through labor movements or other activism that connected both old and new media platforms.

“The term, ‘social media revolution’ is a misnomer,” said Srinivasan. “But that doesn’t take away from the fact that people who were connected didn’t use those technologies in highly clever ways. [For] one, they used it to organize with one another. That may not reach masses of people, but you use to it organize with one another in a country where if you met in person, as I ‘ve seen before in Kyrgyzstan, you would be assassinated or thrown in jail. Second, they were very creative with who they got to follow them – not how many, but who – on Twitter. Because if you got the mainstream media, who have masses of people in a country with… high satellite television penetration… if you can get those people to follow you on Twitter or engage on FB, you can amplify your message. It rapidly mutates out of the specifics of a social media platform and into the wider public. They were hoping that there would be such a popular groundswell, that no institutional force could just rapidly co-op this.”

Having done extensive research on internet freedom, global communication, and how new media technologies impact economic development and poverty reduction, Srinivasan said that the United States can learn from the revolutions – digital and otherwise – in Egypt and the Middle East.

“People have been successful despite tremendous odds and a lot of money and power against them… in pushing against particular issues,” he said. “It’s really important for protest movements to gain some success over at least, some small issues – it gives the movement a lot of momentum. I think there is a space here in the United States for some interests that are progressive to be supported by people through social movement. I think to focus on specific topics and specific interests start to show chinks in the armor of the powers that be.

Srinivasan pointed out the editorial differences that exist between Al Jazeera in the Middle East, Al Jazeera English, and Al Jazeera America, that serve to dilute news stories as they are spread to international news outlets. He says that spin exists everywhere, even in media’s distribution of news to audiences in their home countries.

“What they did and they continue to do in Egypt is move out of those media bubbles,” said Srinivasan. “They don’t do that by saying, ‘Social media is nonsense, it’s useless.’ They realized how they can properly use it to interact with other ways of organizing. They figured out ways to connect street-based protest – which we don’t do enough of – with social media environments. They figured out ways to connect social media environments with progressive television channels that might exist in that country. You have to build your groundswell across all of these connections, across all these networks.”

Srinivasan has a joint appointment at UCLA as an associate professor in Design|Media Arts. His extensive academic credentials include an engineering degree from Stanford, a masters degree from the MIT Media Lab, and a doctorate from Harvard University. Prior to arriving at UCLA, Srinivasan was a lecturer at the UC San Diego Department of Ethnic Studies; and a Doctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

To view Srinivasan’s interview on the “Young Turks,” click here.

For more information on Professor Srinivasan’s work, visit his blog here. He can be followed on Twitter via @rameshmedia.