Crowdsourcing democracy: was the Arab Spring over-hyped?

October 26th, 2011 by

April6_HannaSistek7© Photos by Hanna Sistek @Sistek

This year, crowdsourced journalism has really “hit the headlines”. From journalists crowdfunding their own investigations, to The Guardian newspaper crowdsourcing its editorial policy.

Of course, the biggest crowdsourced news scoop of 2011 is the Arab Spring. From Morocco to Bahrain, citizens risked their lives to film, tweet and blog real-time on-the-ground reports. In the West, over-excited tech commentators discussed the great “social-media revolution”. Yet, six months after Tahrir Square, Egypt remains troubled and divided: a few weeks ago, 26 Coptic Christians were killed in Cairo during clashes with the police.

Social media helped kick start the revolution. But can technology also help create better, more democratic, Arab states? Tanja Aitamurto, a visiting researcher at Stanford, and Hanna Sistek, a journalist in Delhi, are researching exactly this question. Recently I caught up with them and discussed what they had discovered.

Stanford vs Egypt: compatible cultural codes?
Hanna and Tanja began by investigating Stanford-based crowdsourcing projects. During the uprising, volunteer programmers developed several platforms to support the Egyptian protestors. Has this software – often created during all-night “hackathons” – had any real impact?

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Tweet Nadwa, and activist meeting held near Tahrir square.

Yes and no. Take Wathiqah, a site for Egyptians to discuss their new constitution. In just a week, Wathiqah got 18,000 hits. However the site soon became inactive. The reasons why are complex. The Egyptian constitution had to be completely rebuilt; some people thought this process should wait until after elections. Others felt Wathiqah was too closely linked to presidential candidate Mohamed El-Baredei. Ideally, Hanna explained, the website should be run by someone neutral and unbiased – making it a truly open discussion platform.

It was a different story in Morocco where King Mohammed VI created a committee to revise the constitution. In response, two Morocco-based computer geeks set up reforme.ma. In Morocco (unlike in Egypt) reform was based on the old constitution, so people had a clear starting point for discussion. In one month, reforme.ma received over 150,000 opinions and suggestions. This huge response convinced the national committee to consider crowdsourced suggestions when drafting the new constitution.

It’s interesting that Western-developed platforms failed to get Arab support. An election monitoring platform – developed for Egypt at the request of the American University in Cairo – had to be completely re-written by local project assistant Michael Ayoub. “The programmers from Stanford wanted to use a new programming language for writing the site. They wanted to learn this programming language, but it wasn’t very useful over here” says Ayoub. He tried to communicate this with the Stanford developers, but felt that his needs were ignored. We think of social media as universal, but perhaps sometimes, even in crowdsourcing, you just gotta be there.

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Another one from Tweet Nadwa. More on those meetings here.

To Cairo via the crowd
With this in mind, Hanna and Tanja decided it was time to head for Egypt, (crowd)funding the costs via Spot.us. After touching down in Cairo, the two intrepid reporters got to work recording videos and writing articles (one and two). Hanna and Tanja are now writing a book on the role of online participation in building democracy.

So, was social media really revolutionary, or has its relevance been overstated by internet enthusiasts? In Hanna’s and Tanja’s own words:“Just like during the uprising, online activism is merely one way of protesting. It is crucial to get boots on the ground, and activists on the streets [...] However successful online campaigns are, Egyptian activists are facing serious challenges as the revolutionary 18 days this spring drift further away. Egyptians are getting tired of ongoing restlessness and protests, and the unity of the country is diminishing as religious minorities, such as Coptic Christians, are emigrating to safety abroad”.

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A demonstration by the April 6 movement in old Cairo. People are eating Sohour, the morning meal during Ramadan.

What we have learned, perhaps, is that you can’t reform or rebuild a society with just good intentions and 140 characters (or less) – especially if you are based at a far-away university. Yet while the tools from the social media “revolution” may not bring about revolution themselves, if managed in the right way, they can be used to organize people, spread ideas and demonstrate popular support for reforms. Perhaps eventually, then, they can help bring about real change.

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Hanna & Tanja


  • Matt

    I’d suggest that the most important impact of ‘social media’ was to ensure the story was told outside of the countries in question – breaking the censorship and official cover-ups & silence that traditionally quashed dissent. This time around everyone could see what was happening – this will have undoubtedly ensured other world powers were informed and able to apply pressure/interference/support. 


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