Video as a Force for Social Change

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[This Spicy Ideas column first appeared in the April/May issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "Watch Like an Egyptian."]

The camera zooms wide and shakes with the familiar bounce of an amateur mobile phone video. We can see the street below from several stories up. In the distance, a set of headlights pierce the darkness and slowly start to charge toward us. The amber glow of streetlights reveals large groups of protesters standing in the road. The approaching vehicle guns the engine and lurches forward to meet the crowd. In a terrifying instant, the white van swerves into the sea of bodies. The distant bumps of sheet metal striking human flesh can be heard in the background. Several figures are thrown into the air and over the vehicle as it speeds up, bounces over a curb, and roars off down the now-vacant avenue.

This isn’t a scene from the latest Hollywood blockbuster or a sequence from a popular video game. This is real life. An Egyptian captured this footage and uploaded it to YouTube in the final days of the confrontations between state police forces and protesters calling for regime change in downtown Cairo. A search for “Egypt” on any of the social networks or video/photo sharing sites will bring a flood of user-generated content documenting the entire 18-day revolution.

The most amazing part in watching the events unfold in Egypt was not the atrocities committed on the people in that country. Horrible situations occur every day between feuding groups of people all over the world. The most amazing thing about this revolution was how it was covered. Mobile phone videos, Facebook photos, and Twitter messages from the people involved in the protests scooped the major news networks every day. I found myself watching social networks for the latest stories instead of the cable news outlets. History may prove this as the first social-network-powered revolution.

The revolution for democracy that started in Tunisia, moved to Egypt, and spread through Iran, Yemen, and Bahrain was fueled by something that has toppled regimes for centuries. Hope—that’s what started this all. Seeing someone else rise up and win their own freedom has inspired others to do the same. And the tools for sharing these stories allowed for exponential reach to the world. Tunisian Facebook groups inspired Egyptian YouTube channels and shouted the message of hope across the Middle East.

The most telling moment during the protests in Egypt came when the government shut down the internet in an effort to suppress coverage of the daily protests around the country.

No internet, no problem. Google and Twitter partnered to create a voice-mail-to-tweet tool that allowed protesters to continue sharing their stories of the conflict. Volunteer geeks from around the globe set up dial-up access numbers to help Egyptians connect. Messages, videos, and images continued to pour out of the country and stir emotions around the world. What should have been a death blow to communications only steeled their resolve to have their demands met.

Events captured and shared, like the YouTube video mentioned previously, eventually forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down and agree to free elections this fall. It wasn’t one video that brought down a government; it was a flood of content like we have never seen before. Groups of protesters huddled around a power strip with mobile phones and laptop screens flickering in the night were more powerful than any weapon ever devised. While rocks were being hurled on the streets of Cairo, the messages flung from the mobile phones went much further and did much more damage.

While the dust may have settled in Egypt, the power of online video has just started to stir up the movement for democracy around the world. The message is clear. There is hope. And we only have to look online to see the injustices of the world and those heroes fighting for freedom. The truth is out there, and someone, somewhere, has a camera ready to share it with the world.

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