The purpose of this RAPID proposal is to investigate questions surrounding the use of social media during the current political crisis in Egypt. From a research perspective, the case of Egypt is unique in the unprecedented scale, role, and rapidity in which media is being used in organizing and reporting on events. This project will develop software that will perform ongoing data collection of information about the Egyptian uprising and use a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques to analyze the data. Because events in Egypt are transpiring rapidly, it is imperative to capture data relevant to current events immediately.

Though studies have examined social media use in crisis settings, this research setting is distinctive in several ways. First, the scale and rapidity of mobilization in the current Egyptian setting in conjunction with the role of social media is unique and may be indicative of the future role of social media. Second, most studies focus on a single type of media, such as blogs or Internet forums, and this study will examine different social media and will try to understand what function each had in the current setting. Third, it will study how information was globally communicated despite the fact that the Egyptian government installed a "virtual curfew" on the Internet and satellite phones. This research will focus not only on technical features of the applications but also on social and cultural issues involved in social media use in crisis settings.

Broader Impacts. By understanding how social media is used for mobilization and communication during a major disruption in society, the project will contribute knowledge about the role and potential of social media. By examining how such information can spread outside of a "blocked" society, it has strong implications for understanding the role of social media in promoting democratic voices in a society. Though the proposed data collection infrastructure is geared towards events related to Egypt it can be applied to numerous other countries and events, ranging from political crises to natural disasters, to national elections, and more. The project will provide infrastructure that will allow people from all over the world to view the data, gain firsthand reports on what is happening in another country and provide commentary and discussion. It will be a valuable teaching device to expose young people to current events in other countries.

Project Report

Social media is being used increasingly more in crisis situations for citizens to mobilize, report, coordinate, and communicate. Results from topic modeling and qualitative coding of over 18,000 Egyptian blog posts written prior to, and after the time period of the Egyptian uprising of 2011, show several ways how social media is transforming society. Coding revealed that reporting and commentary blog posts increased with the growing momentum of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, and topic modeling showed how the posts provided a narrative of the Egyptian uprising. The posts during that period transformed the shape of the Egyptian blogosphere from one that reflects the diverse interests of bloggers discussing personal life and other topics into a cohesive thread. Our investigation illustrates that the blog posts during the Egyptian uprising provided a consistent narrative of the events, often used to counter that narrative provided by the authoritative power, the Egyptian government. Based on our results, we feel it is more accurate to interpret the Egyptian blogosphere during this period as providing a form of "counter-power" to the government through enabling the collective production of a consistent and counter-narrative that challenged the government version of the events. As state media tried to downplay the size and strength of the uprising, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, bloggers posted videos and first-hand accounts of what was actually happening in the streets. Counter-narratives broadcast on blogs were consumed and circulated by both domestic and international audiences. Egyptians blogging in English translated events and supplied counter-narratives for global audiences, contributing to the shape of debates that took place in the international public sphere. In this way, counter-narratives aimed to delegitimize the Mubarak regime’s authority. By virtue of being social media, counter-narratives are broadcast into an online public sphere where discussion and linking are encouraged. This increases the chance that it will be shared by others. As the numbers grow, chances decrease that government authorities can contain it. Our results also show that the malleability of the blog media enabled authors to adapt the tool to meet their needs. Blogs were used to give updates similar to micro-blogs, and videos and photos were embedded into blogs, transforming the presentation of content from a single-media tool into multi-media. This hybrid presentation enhanced the credibility of blogs in narrating the events. Bloggers linked their posts to other ICTs which suggests that users adapted tools to suit their emerging needs and in doing so showed how they appropriated and developed new forms of social media. This project has numerous broader impacts on society. By understanding how social media is used for mobilization and communication during a major disruption in society, we can learn more about the potential of social media for challenging authoritarian regimes. We argue that the enablement of counter-narratives in a country where political speech in traditional venues was tightly controlled by the government is a convincing example of the enactment of counter-power through the use of contemporary social media. As more real-world examples of counter-power through social media appear in the coming years, we posit that the ability or inability of governments and other power-holding institutions to exercise control over the numerous forms of expression enabled by these technologies will become an issue of greater contention.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS)
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William Bainbridge
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University of California Irvine
United States
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