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American corporations set Tunisia and Egypt free

If the digital punters out there are to be believed, it is the power of some corporates in California that is setting the Arab world free. It is the venture capitalists, the CEOs, the boardroom visionaries of Palo Alto that are to be thanked for the groundswell we are seeing in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. According to the social-media posse, we must bow our heads and give praise to Mr Mark Zuckerberg and Mr Jack Dorsey for sponsoring the Middle-East revolution.

Yup, Twitter and Facebook. They have both been pronounced as the cornerstones that one builds a revolution on. Got a regime you need to overthrow? Hashtag it, bag it, and throw it on the scrapheap, job done.

Well, not really. The last time I checked sticks and stones, bricks and clubs, and bucket loads of blood were needed to overthrow tyrants.

Just to make sure of this fact I taped the news last night and watched it a few times over. I am pretty sure when the protestors were pushing the police off the bridge in Cairo I didn’t see any tweeting en masse. I looked but I couldn’t find a BlackBerry army FB’ing their faces off. What I did see was a bunch of brave people taking on teargas, rubber bullets and baton charges. There was one moment where I did see someone throw what looked like a phone at a police car, but it turned out to be a brick, and not a Nokia 2110.

Look, Twitter and Facebook are nice. I like what they add to life. The LULZing, the vids of baby monkeys going backwards on pigs, the photos of yesterday’s jol, and the news links. I understand their role in organising things, and as platforms to discuss ideas or the latest fashion. But there is a massive difference between tweeting and shooting. Particularly when someone else is doing the shooting at you. When we brand the people’s movement in Egypt or Tunisia as a social-media revolution we belittle the risks these people have taken. We take away from the fact that they stood in the way of real guns and real tanks.

If I was to apply it in local terms, it is like branding the struggle years as the Mondi struggle. A revolution fuelled on paper flyers, brought to you by the paper people. Ridiculous, yes. But that is what we want to do now.

So why are we doing this? Why are we so keen to have the Middle-East Crisis packaged as the Coup d’etwitter? Why are we so keen to hand over credit for the protests to a bunch of business guys in Palo Alto? Because we want to feel part of the revolution. We want to believe that somehow that link we posted, that twibbon we put at the bottom of our picture, that #opegypt tag we put at the end of tweet actually did something. We like the idea that we’re involved, that we’re in on the action, and we didn’t even need to leave the couch, desk, bed, toilet (or wherever you prefer to tweet from).


  • David Smith is a world famous artist and a British Olympic hammer thrower. He is a curler for Scotland and Manitoba. A pro wrestler fondly known as the British Bulldog. A Canadian economist and a Mormon missionary they call the Sweet Singer of Israel. He is a British historian and a bishop. David Smith is the biographer of HG Wells, a professor of physics, a composer and a music teacher at Yale. He played rugby for Samoa, England and New Zealand. He created the Melissa worm, a deadly computer virus. He is the Guardian's man in Africa, he starred in a reality TV show and shot his way to silver in the 600m military rifle prone position at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp. But this isn't that David Smith. This is the blog of the other David Smith. David J Smith. The one from Durban by the Sea. The one who lives in Amsterdam. Yes, him. The David Smith who likes to write about himself in the third person. To learn about all the other David Smiths: To contact this David Smith: [email protected]


  1. Stephen Browne Stephen Browne 31 January 2011

    Hear, hear. Social media is at best an impartial force in social conflict – it is as likely to spawn a revolution as it is to drive people to spend more on orange juice. It should, however, be recognised that platforms like facebook and twitter are often some of the first things to be filtered out by oppressive regimes.

  2. Dave Harris Dave Harris 31 January 2011

    ” venture capitalists, the CEOs, the boardroom visionaries of Palo Alto”
    These children of the 60s – that generation that was going to change the world!
    Their messages of anti-war, social justice and peace and love have simply transformed as they grew older and got ensnared in the trappings of life. However, they did manage to lay the framework for successive disruptive waves of revolutions and by bringing up their children as free thinkers, since its ALWAYS the younger generation that creates change. Enough change to elect their first black president and spur the internet revolution which is democratizing knowledge across the planet at a rate that even dwarfs the invention of the printing press.

    These technology revolutionaries are really creating a very different “new world order”, where despotic regimes and tyrants are put on notice as the control of information is once again in the hands of the people. Imagine how short-lived apartheid would have been if our majority had the ability to organize with the social media tools we have today!
    Its no surprise that the flatfooted Egyptian regime’s pathetic attempt to cutoff internet access is so short-sighted that its almost laughable. Almost as funny as their recent use of low-flying fighter jets to intimidate the crowds…LOL

  3. The Creator The Creator 1 February 2011

    A good post, Mr. Smith, but one reservation. Wishing to pretend that social media, rather than people, are responsible for revolutions is not something which arises out of a desire to participate in revolutions. Surely, it arises out of a desire to pretend that people have nothing to do with revolutions.

    Not only will the revolution be televised, according to those commentators, but only the TV cameras matter to them . . .

  4. Walter Pike Walter Pike 1 February 2011

    You miss the point completely. Social media has by changing the economics of publishing and made the marginal cost zero, and by creating connections, runways for opinions and ideas to move down and by offering a different way for people to organise and coordinate made these events possible.

    Social media is as fundamental a change to society as printing was, and printing and other broadcast media shifted power from the church and the aristocracy into the hands of the merchants, just like these connections are shifting power from them.

  5. Robin Bownes Robin Bownes 1 February 2011

    Nothing to say, other than, “Well said!”

  6. MLH MLH 1 February 2011

    So things used to be slower, but the arms manufacturers and arms dealers said to have begun the world wars were hardly in the thick of it either. People on the ground still got fired up and still suffered the consequences. Social media are not going to make change at ground level any less terrifying for those who live it.

  7. Tanqueray Tanqueray 1 February 2011

    Setting Tunisia and Egypt free? I really hope you are right. However I think the Islamists will use events as a springboard to take control.

  8. Michael Graaf Michael Graaf 1 February 2011

    Your comparison with paper branding would be valid if: (a) Mondi was the only (major) brand of paper, and (b) if flyers had indeed been the struggle’s most crucial communication tool.
    Never mind digital punters, whoever they may be, just listen to Egyptians, Tunisians et al. They themselves mention the role of social media.

  9. die antwoord die antwoord 1 February 2011

    Jeez… for once I agree with Harris. But I wonder if he has the insight or humility to see that Mubarak’s Egypt is his beloved ANC’s SA, writ large and 30 years down the road… maybe if he did, most of his posts would not be so pro-ANC!

  10. mundundu mundundu 2 February 2011

    um, western corporate greed [encouraged, aided, and abetted by the american and other western governments] helped create the messes in the first place.

    don’t forget that part.

  11. Marius Marius 3 February 2011

    Let me point out the obvious. We did not say that twitter is ousting Mubarak. Why we are calling it the Social Media Revolution is because of the role that it played in organising the protests, in reporting on the protests and in gaining support internationally for the protest all of which eclipses the use of social media in the past. That should have been obvious. It sure as hell is not branding the struggle years as the mondi struggle dont be absurd, and trying to minimize the impact of social media by referring to its other uses which is of a superficial nature (sharing vids of baby monkeys etc) you miss the point because social media is a tool that can be used for just about anything. That does not mean it is only good for teenage schoolgirls to chat about fashion. As it is a tool it can be used to galvanize international support for the Egyptians which is what has happened. Open your eyes, you cannot see through the eyelids, you will be astonished what world lies beyond.

  12. Dave Harris Dave Harris 3 February 2011

    @die antwoord
    While Egyptians struggle to free themselves from a brutal autocratic regime, the first phase of our revolution here in SA, is over, since we’ve eradicated that brutal and oppressive apartheid regime. Many of the key perpetrators of apartheid however, still live and work among us.

    The next phase of our revolution is to shed the yoke of economic opression that has resulted in our glaring socioeconomic disparity – a direct result of apartheid and centuries of oppression. Recent reports on who holds the majority of CEO jobs or who owns the majority of prime land or who enjoys the lowest unemployment should open your eyes to the truth behind our slow transformation and why the media is bent on blaming our government for the mess that apartheid created.

  13. Robin Grant Robin Grant 3 February 2011

    Up until about 15 years ago, the only way to get your voice heard by the public, was to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper, and hope it got published.

    If you think that the advent of the social media communications platform is of no political importance, think again.

  14. todd kidd todd kidd 3 February 2011

    Thank you for your comment, Mr. David Harris. As a black American you give me hope that not all white South Africans want to continue business as usual. If South Africa is to succeed, white South Africans must learn to share the resources of the country with the native black African.

  15. therovich therovich 5 February 2011

    Nah, you missing the point. Before the Brick and the tear gas and what not.. there had to be A rally point..a trumpet to get people in one accord. and thats facebook and twitter. so “nice” is a serious understatement

  16. ian shaw ian shaw 17 February 2011

    Please, Todd Kidd, tell us in concrete detail what you mean that whites in SA must “share” resources with blacks? I am sure that in your America corporations or even small businesses did not give away any of their wealth. Nationalization did not work anywhere. Short of enforced “Soviet socialist” confiscation, no one would. Some wealthy black businessmen are also not giving away anything. So what do you mean by “sharing”? Any constructive thoughts?

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