Mobile revolution in the Middle East

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By Christian Nielsen

“You won’t fool the children of the revolution.” Especially not if they’re Twittering away on their mobile phones.

Friday 18 March 2011

What started as a mobile-mediated youth movement has evolved into revolution and probably even war. The revolutionary wave hitting the Middle East and North Africa comes as no huge surprise to some scholars who predicted that the power of new media and instant communications would catch out unwary dictators and undemocratic governments everywhere.

In an article entitled ‘The blog versus big brother: new and old information technology and political repression (1980-2006)’, which recently appeared in the International Journal of Human Rights, the authors suggest that new technology features prominently in the current wave of globalisation which appears to be manifesting in widespread discontent, particularly among tech-savvy youth.

The authors, Indra de Soysa, director of globalisation research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and his colleague Lucia Liste Muoz, suggest that reliable information and free communication are something of a lifeline for fledgling opposition movements.

The authors note: “Sceptics of globalisation suggest that the new technology will hamstring governments from acting in the interests of ordinary people and for furthering communitarian values, leading to demobilisation of reform movements and empowering powerful capitalistic elites.”

Yet others, the authors continue, suggest that new technologies empower people at the expense of states, paving the way “for diversity of opinions and constraining the repressive tendencies of states and bureaucracies”.

Their December 2010 article – appearing rather forebodingly just weeks before the Middle-East/North Africa winter of discontent kicked off – appears to build on a 2009 paper by the same authors under the title ‘The blog versus big brother: information and communication technologies and human rights (1980-2005)’.

“TV is especially bad for human rights,” declares de Soysa in a statement, “because the government can feed propaganda to the population.” Evidence of which can be plainly seen in Libya today, as the world media are being harassed, obstructed and, according to some reports, even abducted by pro-government henchmen. Meanwhile Colonel Muammar Gaddafi maintains his defiant – many would argue delusional (see the Chronikler’s Defiantly delusional) – stand using traditional media like TV to misinform citizens.

Last week, as the country seemed to the rest of the world to be in the grips of full-scale civil war, a Libyan army captain said on Libyan state TV that security in rebel areas is at about 95%. “There are some rats that could be lying in some alleys and inside some flats. We are capturing them one group after the other,” he said. See Gaddafi in action on Turkish TV (BBC).

Young, sceptical and not into TV

That younger generations are turning away from traditional media (or “old technology”) like television in its basic form is well documented (check out the Nielsen report ‘Young people don’t watch TV on TV’). But what we are seeing, anecdotally at least, is that they are also increasingly sceptical about the one-way, lecturing approach to traditional media like TV. This is particularly true of countries where the media is state dominated, censored, or in dictatorships like Libya, just plain mouthpieces for the corrupt state to keep its people down.

So, this is really where the new technologies, especially mobiles and social media platforms, really shake the cage of dictators and questionable democracies. The internet and mobile phones make it harder for despotic leadership to feed the whole population with the necessary propaganda to prop it up. And social media also gives people access to information which might otherwise be censored or blocked on the internet (think China).

Technology as freedom fighter

In Egypt, for example, where a Google employee mobilised so many people in such a short time, social media really showed its potential as a political tool – a force for participatory democracy in some pure form.

Indra de Soysa points to the many eyewitnesses who sent pictures from mobile phones to media organisations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. “The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people. In Burma, the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case,” he notes.

In Africa, mobile phones are spreading rapidly which also means that Africans will be connected to the world in a completely different way than before. “The world is becoming flatter because people communicate horizontally,” he adds.

Saddam first

De Soysa puts the current wave of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom in the context of globalisation and the way communications have changed in just a decade. The youth today, he suggests, perceive themselves as citizens of the world – no longer believing that old men should dictate how they should live. De Soysa suggests Tunisia and Egypt were not freak events: the start of the latest wave of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East and North Africa began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he believes.

“The human cost was high, and many died. But it was an important symbol that encouraged people in other repressive regimes to believe that it is possible to get rid of a dictator,” he notes.

“I would not say that George Bush should get the Peace Prize, but in retrospect this was a very important event in initiating the change that is now rolling across the Middle East.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to take Marc Bolan’s advice: “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”… not anymore that is! If Bush helped at all, it was showing younger generations how wrong the old boys with their old technology got it.


This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Mind your thumbspeak, no one else will

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By Christian Nielsen

Deciphering hieroglyphs is much more fun than decoding the ‘thumbspeak’ of SMS texting.

27 July 2009

Hieroglyphs spoke volumes about ancient cultures striving to understand and be understood. For thousands of years, civilisations ‘progressed’ by improving their ability to communicate, first through pictures and written language on Egyptian papyrus and later Chinese paper – an evolution culminating perhaps in Gutenberg’s printing press which made mass communications possible.

Still moving forward, typewriters and then word processors took mass communications to new levels, charting the future content-driven space we all know and love – the internet.  But the ‘disruptive innovation’ that followed really did live up to its name and turned things upside down, disrupting more than business and industry. It broke a chain of language progression spanning millennia.

Mobile devices allow us to keep in touch with one or anyone at the press of a button (or two). They spawned the cheap and cheerful SMS explosion, driven by cost-conscious youths with ample time to tap endlessly into dinky keypads. It was only a matter of time before the attention-deficit drugs wore off and this need-for-speed generation grew tired of spelling out words. And the rest is history:  a whole new language was born, out of necessity you might say.

[“Gr8!” the teens retort . “Another old fart ranting about the good old days when people still spoke proper.”]

Not so. I would never advocate a world that preserved its language in formaldehyde or sealed it off hermetically like the French try to do. The power of the English language over the world today is in large part down to its predatory and adaptive nature, taking in all newcomers, from the succinct additions of the Vikings to the refinements of the Norman influences. Come one, come all.

But for feck’s sake spare us from texting language – short, abbreviated versions of ‘real’ words which need their own dictionary entry on Webopedia so that parents can know what their kids are up to. The New Yorker calls this “Thumbspeak” – which is surely so close to dumb speak that I shouldn’t have to point it out! – and mentions how this phenomenon inspired David Crystal to write his book Txtng.

And spare us from the world of acronyms invading this planet like unwanted bacteria.


This isn’t a word as far as I know, but at the rate new, stupid words are invented to cope with technology’s hold on language, it probably won’t take long before it will exist. So, I’ll stake my claim to coining it early.

Yes, I have a bit of an aversion to acronyms. It’s not a fully fledged revulsion because that would open me up to accusations of hypocrisy whenever I slip in an acronym and – God forbid – not spell it out, or worse still, try to invent one out of a need to be clever.

Of course, disruptive technologies – and for this we may include the internet – are not all bad. I found this very useful website which tracks down the meaning of acronyms. Typing in the word STUPID yielded a satisfactory result to illustrate the point (or pointlessness) of acronyms.  It stands for “Smart Talented Unique Person in Demand”. This is probably the same person who comes up with acronyms for new government initiatives, or oil pipelines.

[“Oil pipelines – where did that come from?” you rightly ask.]

In its recent report, The Economist couldn’t help but editorialise a little on a recent oil pipeline deal (‘He who pays for the pipeline calls the tune’).

“[Russia’s] Gazprom has just signed a $2.5 billion deal with Nigeria (it was named Nigaz, showing a refreshing ignorance of politically incorrect language).”

At least acronyms can be good for a laugh.

Maybe this is all 2MI (look it up!) and some kid will tell me to GAL. But I assure you I do. But then let’s go back to hieroglyphs – at least, they’ll be easier to understand because texting is all hieroglyphics to me anyway.  Luckily, there’s a hieroglyph-making website to help with that, too.

This article is published with the author’s permission. © Copyright – Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Attack of the killer texts

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By Khaled Diab

Rumours of deadly SMS messages are symptoms of a worrying trend in Egypt – the unstoppable rise of superstition.

March 2009

Some scientists suspect that the radiation in mobile phones may be having all kinds of detrimental long-term health effects.  But it seems that mobile phones may be deadlier than any of us ever suspected and may, in fact, cause instantaneous death.

However, it’s not microwaves that are to blame but text messages. At least that’s the theory according to a rumour that has been circulating in Egypt.

The word is that SMSs from “unknown foreign quarters” – although rumour has it that they originated in Saudi Arabia – are killing their recipients. But who could be sending them out?

I recently reported that, in a sign of the changing times, God had gone from voices in the head to voicemail in the Netherlands (no I don’t mean the Underworld). Perhaps like a good subordinate, the Angel of Death – or E’zrael in Arabic – is now following his Lord’s example.

Imagine how much easier, and cheaper in these times of recession and cutbacks, it must be for the Grim Reaper to text his bleak message rather than pay a home visit to every doomed soul.

So, what kind of death can the unlucky recipient expect? Well, according to press reports, one supposed victim vomited blood and then died of a stroke.

But what I can’t figure out is how these SMSs are supposed to kill the recipient. Do they concentrate all the radiation in the handset into a single killer pulse or death ray? Or are the text messages cursed in the way that videotape is in the Japanese horror classic, which I’ve never seen, Ring?

Despite the sheer farfetchedness of death by text, apparently enough people believed the rumour to prompt the Egyptian health ministry to take the extraordinary measure of issuing a statement in which it assured the public that “these rumours contradict all scientific facts”.

Despite the comical element of this episode, it does reflect a worrying trend. Undereducated, sceptical of the lies they are fed by their government, feeling disempowered and disenfranchised, certain segments of Egyptian society treat the rumour mill as a reliable source of information.

Of course, there are some rumours which are harmless urban myth. For instance, one old legend has it that some Cairo kebab joints, in order to save money, cooked up feral dogs for their customers. This could have something to do with all the food scandals that have shocked Egypt and the kelabgi pun, which combines ‘kebabgi’ (kebab maker) with ‘kelab’ (dogs).

However, there is a more serious side. The knowledge that the government routinely lies to the people means that some Egyptians will believe pretty much any dastardly motives and conspiracies attributed to it, including the death of the president and his replacement by a body double.

Sometimes this can have deadly consequences. During the bird flu epidemic, when the government banned the raising of poultry on city roofs and balconies, many people moved their birds inside, despite government warnings that it could kill them. “The problem is people think we fabricated the whole bird flu thing to cover up the ferry disaster [which killed over a thousand people],” admitted the head of the health ministry’s bird flu committee back in 2007.

Egyptians are just as distrusting of the designs of foreign powers as they are of their own government. For instance, there is a belief, like in may parts of Africa, in some Egyptian quarters that Aids is a western conspiracy to destroy Egypt’s moral and social fabric.

Also related to sex, some years ago, there were rumours that Israel, in order to corrupt Egypt’s youth, was secretly distributing chewing gum that made them horny. In fact, there is an entire sideline in Israel-related conspiracy theories, including radioactive seatbelt buckles, shampoo that makes your hair fall out and creams that gnarl the skin.

The media has also remarked a worrying growth in superstition in recent years. In fact, it has become a booming industry. One study estimates that it is worth about 10 billion Egyptian pounds annually and employs some 300,000 people. And aimless and silly superstition is creeping even into the media.

For example, rather than call for scientific funding into serious and useful issues, Zaghloul El-Naggar, a religious affairs columnist at the semi-official al-Ahram, last year called upon the Saudi authorities to analyse parts of the Black Stone in Mecca to prove that it originated in paradise and not on earth.

Sahar El-Gaar, a columnist at the independent al-Fagr, hit back at what she saw as superstitious and unscientific nonsense. “I support El-Naggar’s call to analyse part of the Black Stone. However, he must bring us a sample of the soil of paradise to draw a proper comparison with the black stone”

“Superstitions spread in societies in times of difficulty and distress, when problems afflict them and life becomes unbearable. Superstitions also spread when there is political and social oppression,” Nabil Sharefeddin once opined in the independent weekly al-Dustour.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 28 March 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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