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A Tweet is Worth a Thousand Words: eCitizenship in the Egyptian Protests

By Guest Blogger Tyler Thompson, President, Student Government Association, Fort Hays State University, Kansas

Edited by Cecilia M. Orphan, American Democracy Project

The recent crisis in Egypt has brought international attention to the impact of social media in governance, a phenomenon which has exploded in scale since its first appearance in the 2009 protests in Iran. In countries around the world, social media tools are serving as catalysts for citizens to organize and improve their quality of life. As these technologies have become more popular, it is getting much more difficult for governments to control the airwaves, silence critics, and disrupt organized dissent. eCitizenship is impacting the lives of millions around the world, but few people have ever heard the phrase.

Social media has become such a powerful tool that the governments of both Egypt and Iran opted to “pull the plug” on the Internet in an effort to silence its message. In Egypt, there were orders given to all Internet Service Providers in the country to discontinue service. In addition to taking their citizens off the information highway, the Egyptian government has also shut down mobile phone service in locations where protests are anticipated.

Here is a perfect illustration of what happened in Egypt leading up to and right after the Internet went dark:

The vertical axis is the amount of bandwidth used in Megabytes per Second* and the horizontal axis shows the time of day. As you can tell, the Internet usage spiked significantly around 2:00PM, which coincides with the timeline of the riots in Cairo, when protesters clashed with police in riot gear. Suddenly, over two hours, the total traffic went from over 2,500 Megabytes per second to around 20 Megabytes per second.

*It is important to note the difference between mbps and MBps, as used in the chart above.  Megabytes (MB) per second is eight times larger than Megabits (mb) per second, which is the more common way of reporting bandwidth.

To put this into perspective, I have more available bandwidth in my home computer network than the entire country of Egypt had available on January 27 at 6PM. But that did not stop the protesters from getting the word out to the rest of the world – and that is the truly amazing part.

It started with Internet Service Providers in France opening up dial-up connections where users could dial-in from a traditional hard wired phone line. Although service providers in Egypt were told to go offline, it is extremely difficult to regulate outgoing analog traffic (dial-up Internet communicates no differently than a fax machine).  For users who happened to have an old 56k modem laying around the house, they could dial in and post their tweets from there.

Even though 56k may seem slow to us today, it is more than enough to deliver a 160 character message on Twitter, or even to upload a low resolution picture taken with a cell phone camera.  Who would have thought that 56k would one day be useful for vital communications between citizens attempting to make their voices heard?

On Monday, Google released a tool it developed over the weekend which would allow Egyptian citizens to call in their Twitter messages to Google and it would then transcribe and post them. This is useful for those that may not have Internet access, but can still make voice calls on their cell phones. (The tool can be found here.)

One of the things that makes Twitter special is how networks mesh and grow. Using hashtags (like #Egypt) everyday users are able to post about a certain topic and be heard right alongside everyone else. If someone watching the topic likes what you have to say, they can follow you, reply to you, or re-tweet what you had to say. The message grows stronger as does the audience. CNN’s news anchors are now asking citizens in Egypt to Tweet at their usernames, so they get an on-the-ground perspective which can be instantly reported via traditional broadcast mediums.

In anticipation for a planned million man march, it was announced late Monday that Egypt had ordered one small service provider – which had been allowed to continue operating (it appears for commerce reasons, as it powers their stock exchange) – to shut down. All mobile phone carriers in Cario were again ordered to shut down service.

One thing seems clear: as the Egyptian government tries to shut down channels of communication, many around the world are finding ways to counter such efforts and provide the Egyptian people a connection to each other, and to the outside world. The global technology community has rallied to support the protesters’ efforts to be heard.

Anyone who doubts the power of social networks – and eCitizenship – should pay close attention to the situation in Egypt. eCitizenship is the way of the 21st century – an environment where good ideas go viral and freedom of speech transcends borders of every nation in the world.

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