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Twitter Helped To Distort Egyptian Protests
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Twitter Helped To Distort Egyptian Protests

Middle East

Twitter Helped To Distort Egyptian Protests

Twitter Helped To Distort Egyptian Protests
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An assistant professor at UCLA recently returned from Egypt, where he researched the effect of social media on the movement to bring down former President Hosni Mubarak. Ramesh Srinivasan tells Steve Inskeep the notion that the revolution was driven by social media is vastly overstated.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the Americans studying Egypt's revolution is UCLA Professor Ramesh Srinivasan. After reading Twitter and Facebook messages out of Cairo, he traveled there and found subtle differences between protesters. Well-off Twitter users wrote about liberty or freedom. Blue-collar demonstrators were more likely thinking about things like tomatoes. Consider a taxi driver Srinivasan met named Sharif Abul-Hassan(ph).

Professor RAMESH SRINIVASAN (UCLA): He explained to me that for 30 years, people in his family and people around him, his friends, had basically had their money and their land stolen from them. He explained to me, as did others, that the price of tomatoes was inflated. And tomatoes are usually not too expensive in Egypt.

And there's no hope of any sort of economic change. Wages were an issue. Job security was an issue. And people saw the regime as letting people speak up in various ways, but actually robbing them of their own economic livelihood. So what you actually see, here - which is interesting, Steve - is a real contrast in the types of grievances people are articulating between this subset, the Twitterverse and Facebook activists, and some of these other folks like a Abul-Hassan that I spoke to.

INSKEEP: There was an Egyptian who said to me - having experienced the uprisings that led to Mubarak's ouster - that there were the Facebook crowd and the intellectual crowd and the elite crowd. But there were also a bunch of tough guys from poor neighborhoods in Central Cairo who provided the muscle to defend to Tahrir Square, without which nothing would have worked, he said.

Prof. SRINIVASAN: That's absolutely true. And it's not just the muscle, but it's actually the actual physical presence. So the nature of the grievances that people had in the frontlines were very different than what was being reported on Twitter at the exact same time. And the phenomenon around Twitter, where you have to re-tweet things that your friends say, tends to create something of an echo chamber.

INSKEEP: Give me an example of that which you just described.

Prof. SRINIVASAN: I was I actually in and around Tahrir, and there was supposed to be a big protest in front of the Interior Ministry. And some of the folks on the Twitterverse I was seeing were claiming that there were hundreds of police security directly shooting even live rounds in the air at people.

While I was at this protest, I actually was watching where some of the people were who I was following on Twitter, and I saw them at the periphery of the protest. And then I went to the frontlines, and I was observing what was going on over there. And I didn't observe any sort of live rounds or anything being fired into the air, other than rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.

So it's sort of a game of telephone. I think people sort of observe or they hear something, and they think that that might be a phenomenon that they're reporting on - for example, a live round. And because of re-tweeting, where people sort of echo one another's thoughts and they want to spread it to their own audiences, right, that's actually going to create the mass distortion of something that was initially just a little bit off of reality.

INSKEEP: Do you think this revolution would have happened without social media at all, given that no large percentage of protestors seemed to be using social media, in your view?

Prof. SRINIVASAN: I'm convinced the revolution would have happened without social media. The really interesting question here is when. There were a number of institutional factors, factors in the economic climate, factors around the political climate and just the mobilization. People had been hitting the streets with and without Facebook for up to seven, eight years, and this was the time people really had to make it happen, with or without social media.

INSKEEP: Well, Srinivasan, thanks very much.

Prof. SRINIVASAN: Thanks for your time.

INSKEEP: Ramesh Srinivasan studies social media at UCLA.

And you've heard him on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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