Online or Offline Activism?

Social networking is becoming prominent in activism, but can it replace the visceral aspect of traditional activism?

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Online or Offline Activism? Social networking was used by protesters in Egypt, but it the success of the protests was due to more than online activism.
By  Gwen Davis Published  March 9, 2011

Social networking has been a critical component in activism for some time, everything from protests to revolutions streaming across the invisible word of mouth. However, with the advent of technology and the internet, both the networking and the activism itself has become far more convenient, with dissidents able to vent their views with a single tweet, post, or email. Nevertheless, there is a visceral aspect to offline activism that cannot be replicated behind the shadowy confines of a computer. While both have their advantages and disadvantages, as protests in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt have shown, at times it is a combination of both that proves most effective.

Online activism, after all, is impersonal. Part of what made the demonstrations in the sixties so effective wasn't just the activism itself, but the way it was communicated. When people heard about a man being denied service, or told to sit in the back of the bus, they heard it from a friend or a family member, a person who had the story and the scars to prove it. These weren't pithy statements made in text, but words and emotion that could only come across through human contact, soulful and real. It inspires individuals to not only boycott, but march and protest on behalf of what they believe in. Text, no matter how poignant, doesn't carry the same weight.

A Visceral Connection

The emotion component of online activism carries itself from word of mouth into real protest. While online activists may encourage their fellow man to boycott a product, or vote against a particular agenda, the energy and dedication required to produce change can only be felt by those willing to take to the streets. Even prior to organized protests, offline activists would meet in real groups, sharing their thoughts and ideas in a forum that allowed their passion to spread like a virus.

On the other hand, online activism does have distinct advantages. For instance, it allows people to act much more quickly than word of mouth, and it helps a group keep a centralized narrative. Furthermore, although offline activists can create stronger connections by meeting in person, social media web page hosting groups allow individuals to find like-minded people they otherwise would have never known. In the end, while less people may be inspired to act, that figure is more than compensated by the sheer number of people aware of the need for action. Online activism also provides individuals with more safety, often allowing them to express radical ideas anonymously.

The Aftermath of the Revolution in Egypt and the Impact of Online Activism

The merits of online activism are no more prevalent than they are in Egypt. For example, protester Wael Ghonim, who also happens to be Head of Marketing at Google for the Middle East and North Africa, used Facebook pages to create a virtual headquarters for the entire revolution, according to a prominent collaborator for the movement. He volunteered as a tech consultant for special interest representative groups, and helped increase the popularity of Facebook groups as a forum for political discussion. For years Egyptians have been finding individuals with similar ideas using social media, and discussing ways they can be active in bringing about change. Groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other ideological factions have also used social media in order to recruit new members. Disaffected youth have found online activism as a way to express themselves without fear of being ostracized by the older and more staid community.

Ghonim in particular was integral in manufacturing the online movement, setting up website hosting for Mohamed El-Baradei, the leader of the opposition. El-Baradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has become the patriotic face of the protests for democracy. Without the advent of social media, it would have been much more difficult to establish a single individual as the head of the movement. Offline activists can often be disjointed in both their message and their hopes for a new regime. Using social networking technology, the Egyptian people were able to rally the people and the faces of their new government far more quickly than with traditional methods.

Online activism also has the benefit of being uncensored. With many dictatorial regimes, the media is controlled by the state. This prevents human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice from being reported to the masses. In particular, garnering the international support and pressure often necessary to topple a powerful government can be difficult if they aren't even aware of the injustices. While text may lack the visceral component of hearing information face to face, getting the information out beyond a person's immediate circle is impossible through means of offline activism alone. With the press in the government's pocket spewing nothing but propaganda, individuals must use social media, whether it be text, video, or images of atrocities to bring attention to their plight. In Egypt, many revolutionaries used Twitter and Facebook to not only rally and organize their technocratic political movement, but to utilize as an unfiltered platform to inform the global stage of the events taking place.

The internet was so effective in transmitting the revolutionary message that then Egyptian President Mubarak instituted an internet black out, banning all social media sites. Ghonim himself was imprisoned for his role in the insurrection, news of which traveled across the internet and quickly turned him into a symbolic martyr for the case. When Ghonim was eventually released, he once again touted the power of social media and the internet.

Yet as was the case with previous revolutions, none of this online activism would bear any fruit without the offline activism working on the ground. Using the two methods in tandem, dissidents mobilized quickly and effectively. They managed tactics and coordinated their movements like a disciplined army. They even passed around ideas for protest signs and organize chants. More importantly, they engaged in real human interaction, creating visceral connections with their brothers and sisters, screaming their ideology from the pit of their soul and not the caps lock key of their keyboard. It is this sort of offline passion that swelled up support and created the spark necessary for the success of a revolution that forced Mubarak to step down.

The question now is: With elections inevitable for a new government post-Mubarak Egypt, will Egypt's campaign for change achieve the same success as Obama's Change campaign?

Gwen Davis is the Site Manager of Hosting Observer and Web Hosting Search – Objective web hosting reviews of popular web hosts. A firm supporter of open source, she also blogs for Tek-Tips.NetHawk and If the article has been helpful to you, you can follow the author @GwenDCipher

3019 days ago

Social media certainly allowed the spread of activism from Tunisia, to Egypt, then to Libya. The more determined that an authoritarian government is to hold power, the more physical presence activism needed. Mubarak didn't resign without immense protests over a long period. The colonel in Libya is determined to fight to the end. Iran and China crushed their activists before they could mobilize. So, you definitely need physical activism, even going to armed conflict, depending on the opponent.

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3022 days ago
Vic Cruz

Excellent article on the role of social media and activism.

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