To read the post-uprising reviews, the Egyptian revolution was brought to us by Twitter and Facebook.
“Credit belongs to the [social media] tools,” declared a panelist at a National Press Club discussion last week on the media’s role in events.
But Bob Drogin, a long-time correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, said the view was different from the ground.
He reported on the revolution from Egypt and was on Tahrir Square when President Hosni Mubarak announced he would step down.
Word spread through old fashioned cell phone SMS, he said.
“The only new media I saw was texting. That’s how the news came out. Everyone was texting it.”
While estimates on the number of Facebook users in Egypt range from 4 to 5 million, they represent a tiny slice of the country’s 82 million people. Less than one percent has access to broadband. But Mubarak contributed to the perception that social media was fueling the uprising when he blocked Twitter and Facebook on Jan. 25 to prevent it from being used to organize protests and blocked most internet access three days later.
Lost in the buzz over social media were the more significant roles played by radio, newspapers and television in the months leading up to the revolution — especially Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Drogin said. They provided sustained and comprehensive coverage of the Tunisian street protests that led to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and galvanized the Arab world — and they have led coverage of the Egyptian protest movement as well as the revolts in Libya and Yemen.
Drogin has been a correspondent covering foreign affairs, national security and intelligence for the Los Angeles Times since the 1980s. He was bureau chief in Manilla and Johannesburg and has reported from nearly 50 countries. He is author of Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War, which showed how the administration came to rely on phony evidence of weapons of mass destruction to justify the war with Iraq.
So this isn’t the first time he’s found himself bucking popular perception. There’s a temptation among Westerners, he said, to view foreign events through their own context, which often is far removed from the experience of those involved.
“Mirror imaging,” Drogin said. “The Facebook and Twitter revolution is our interpretation of what happened, because that’s what we want to believe.”