They spoke of their dreams, their frustrations, and their eagerness to learn. In turn, their hosts asked them to teach and inform. That’s what can happen in a casual discussion over pizza.
In this case, the visitors were students from five Egyptian universities (including Cairo University and Alexandria University) and the hosts were students in the International Media program at American University in Washington, D.C. (many of them authors of this blog). By the end of the evening discussions, the students had resolved the face-to-face interactions should make the bridge to Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Social media actually set the agenda for this meeting on Dec. 13.
The Egyptian students are visiting Washington, D.C. as part of a communication exchange program sponsored by Internews, a notable non-profit organization focusing on advancing communication in the developing world. The Egyptians has asked the students from American University to share their experiences using media. But the D.C.-based students also wanted to hear the stories from the front lines of the Arab Spring.
In her presentation, Amal Fawzi made clear not all of the students had served as activists, but rather took more traditional media roles as observers of the revolt that pushed out dictator Hosni Mubarak. “We had all lost confidence in the media before the revolution,” Fawzi said because traditional media were either run by the state or were in league with Mubarak’s regime. “They lost our trust and we don’t know if we can believe them now.”
Some may believe the Egyptian media are done struggling in the wake of Mubarak, as Egyptians head to the polls for a second round of parliamentary elections and demonstrate against the military council currently ruling the country. However, some sources note how the country’s military rulers have adapted more sophisticated tactics meant to spread the chill of self-censorship. Fawzi’s view is a cautionary tale for all media about how people can lose trust and not return as an audience when they have choices. And social media platforms are giving them those choices.
Fawzi said her student group was already producing a non-traditional multimedia program distributed via Facebook at least a year before the revolutionary movement swept Mubarak out. The program mixed news elements with humor and satire and was finding an audience tired of the more traditional media. Once the political winds started blowing, their audience grew tremendously because they were raising awareness about the anti-Mubarak demonstrations and giving information about the revolt that couldn’t be found in traditional media.
Ahmed Galal from Alexandria spoke about how he and other students at his university used social media to link with activists in Cairo and spread their views. Media were once “dominated by the regime,” he said but the government had ignored controls on social media because they did not view those forms as a threat. “The regime did not realize their importance,” he added.
Galal said this activism spurred the creation of electronic newspapers, internet radio programs and internet videos at his university. And the legacy of the revolution is that these non-traditional forms have become popular.
During the February revolt, the Mubarak regime eventually discovered how these media forms were fueling popular discontent. “They suspended Twitter and Facebook,” Galal said, “and then they attempted to cut cell phones but it was too late.”
Those days in February, Galal noted “we discovered the best in us as Egyptians, instead of the worst of us” as exemplified by the poor human rights record of the Mubarak regime.
Now, Galal said the challenge for the entire media system, but especially social media is “forming the new Egyptian identity.”
No wonder the students from American University were enthralled with these stories. Not a bad way to end a semester of deep thoughts about the revolutions in the media world.
Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, please see: “A Deeper Dialogue on the Media’s Role in the ‘Twitter Revolutions'” and “Social Media, the Recipe for Revolution?” The students did fulfill their promises and as of Dec. 16 have set up this Facebook group for more exchanges.
(The photo is by Lorenz Khazaleh via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)