Recently, the world had the distinct pleasure of being able to see a viral video that has surely changed the face of YouTube for generations to come: Master Cpl. Jeff Davis’s lip synching of Taylor Swift’s monster hit “Shake It Off.” Davis, a nineteen year veteran of the Dover Police Department in Delaware, with fierceness and swag helped to create a staged (and it was staged) music video in his patrol car, hoping to promote the importance of dash cameras as well as the soft-hearted nature of law enforcement officers as a whole.
Of course, I found the video very amusing; seeing what seems to be a very large, intimidating man with a shaved-head and a gun on his hip bopping around and waving away a sordid past of unrequited love certainly made me chuckle (I am only human). However, the cultural critic in me is reminded of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business: “If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude.” (102).
Linda Herrera’s book Revolution in the Age of Social Media: the Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet speaks a great deal to this particular point in that she overtly attempts to show readers how imperative social media was in sparking change in the Egyptian political landscape, while also subversively pointing out how social media could and should be used by “us,” the everyday users, the ones passively laughing at powerful figures mimicking teenage heartthrobs. “We” could be in trouble, because “we” recognize and experience the influence that websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vimeo have on public discourse, while it is very easy for those in charge to turn these new digital technologies against “us” if they are not properly monitored or swiftly debunked.
In her essay, “Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape,” Zeynep Tufekci speaks about how protestors who use social media as a non-violent weapon for change do it to gain attention, evade censorship and coordinate quickly. However she also points out that social media “have also aided governments and other factions of society by providing them with tools they can also use to their advantage,” and can contribute to “weak policy” and “threats to the sustainability of movements” (2).
The January 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s regime was successful in ousting the long-standing leader, but soon enough Mubarak and The Muslim Brotherhood (which ultimately took control of the government after the revolution) figured out how to use these technologies to their advantage. True, Mubarak’s “pre-digital approach” was unsuccessful because he and the regime did not fully understand how to interact with social media, but The Muslim Brotherhood proved to be more tech savvy by creating e-militas that produced vemes that penetrated “deep within the arteries of social media” (122).
In her chapter “Memes and the War of Ideas,” Herrera provides readers with a clearer understanding of what took place after Mubarak’s fall from power: the manipulation and persuasion using denial, ridicule and appropriation by The Muslim Brotherhood, and the assaults and physical assassinations against social media administrators who tried to now take down the newest government, which was equally oppressive. What Herrera does eloquently is to present to the reader how much of a struggle this has been for the Egyptian revolutionaries - how painful and pain-staking. The Egyptian revolutionaries were and continue to be diligent and steadfast in their fight for freedom and justice.
In her chapter, “The Anti-Ideology Machine,” she writes, “The ideas that will change history will not come about from a random collision of half-ideas in cyberspace. They will take shape from sharp and inquiring minds that are actively and consciously fighting the dominant culture and system of power” (145). She proves this by offering a history of how the virtual world became a mechanism for change in the political context. She starts with a discussion of the recruitment of technologically-inclined, video-game-loving, cell-phone-using millennial generation during a time when Egypt had no choice but to open up its doors to the technological revolution (“Wired Youth Rise”). Herrera makes the claim that what she calls the “Cultural Spring,” which began soon after the fall of Baghdad, was youth-led and primarily brought about by online conversations, blogs and cyber-activity geared towards the creation of demonstrations against the Mubarak regime. In 2008, the Egyptian youth mobilized online and created the “6th of April Youth Movement” that ultimately led to violence against and jail-time for its creators. It also provided an opportunity for the United States to get involved.
The United States, and more specifically the U.S. State Department, found ways to create initiatives like the Alliance of Youth Movement (AYM) to benefit its own interests (“Cyberdissent Diplomacy”), which in many ways was, according to Herrera, an attempt to win the war of ideas, or what she calls the ideological revolution. The United States Agency for International Development also established the Middle East Partner Initiative that developed “Diplomacy 2.0,” in the hopes of bringing “diplomacy to the digital age” (30).
It is at this time that the Internet, however flawed, becomes more and more of a place for political change, and simultaneously also becomes dangerous for those in power. Herrera points this out in her graphic chapter titled “Marketing Martyrdom,” where we are made to experience the brutal beating and deaths of twenty-eight year old Khaled Said and various other revolutionaries. The fact that Herrera is writing a sharp piece of journalism, albeit in an academic style, becomes obvious here, and her textual analysis about the harsh imagery and e-mails is quite stunning. She brings home the point that the abuse and murders of these so-called “martyrs” were marketed so well that the movement had no choice but to progress. What “Marketing Martyrdom” also does is make her readers aware of the importance of image culture during a time of great political strife.
This can also be said for her chapter “Virtual Vendetta,” where Herrera makes the claim that "V" from the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta became an imperative figure in the progression of what would become the “Viral Revolution” involving politically charged Facebook pages, online chats, Google, YouTube, and even memes/vemes, among other Internet and digital staples. In the end, the protests and revolutionary tactics are fueled not only by the need to eradicate oppression, but also by “admins” watching films (other examples provided are Stuart Townsend’s Battle in Seattle, The Matrix, Gandhi and Hitler: the Rise of Evil), playing video games and enjoying anarchistic football games.
Ultimately, all of this (the marketing of Egyptian martyrs, the changing social media landscape, the creation of propagandistic visual/digital material) leads to a physical revolution, and this is where we can locate Herrera’s larger agenda. She wants to not only show the power of social media, but to also raise awareness around the potential dangers that can come from using this new form of protest if not scrutinized constantly. The “virtual warrior” must have what Herrera calls “virtual intelligence,” which is effectively defined nearer to the end of Revolution in the Age of Social Media.
“The revolutionaries who take social media seriously, these virtual warriors who effectively hone the disputative, creative, and subversive potentials of the space, possess a high degree of virtual intelligence. These warriors do not have a dogma; they reject dogma and are propelled forward by the goal of the anti-mechanism. They struggle to create anti-mechanisms by revealing, decoding, and derailing the ideological mechanisms of the system” (156).
But there is a contradiction in Herrera’s definition, even if it is effectively articulated.
On the surface, one could agree that virtual intelligence “is not contingent on a person’s formal schooling, material wealth, class position, religion, sex, age, or connection to power” (156-157) and that a virtual warrior “rejects dogma and all that is holy and sacred, not out of nihilism but in an effort to free the mind” (157); that in “the war of ideas, nothing is sacred—not the symbol and blood of the martyr, nor even the revolution itself” (157).
One is reminded of André Breton and his Manifestoes of Surrealism: “Surrealism, such as I conceive of it, asserts our complete nonconformism [his emphasis] clearly enough so that there can be no question of translating it, at the trail of the real world, as evidence for the defense” (47). By claiming that Surrealists as a whole do not conform, Breton places himself as the leader of a group that conforms to their nonconformity. By creating a manifesto, an ideological stance, a political agenda comes to be associated with it. A political stance is inherent in calling these individuals “warriors” or “revolutionaries.” In my opinion, a dogma becomes established, even if they believe that they have no dogma.
Herrera’s final chapter, “The Anti-Ideology Machine,” reveals how much respect she has for the individuals out there fighting against tyranny and inequality. At the same time, she gives readers the opportunity to argue with her and opens up the conversation after presenting “us” with a very thorough history in the hopes that “we” can express “ourselves.” She foregrounds the voices of those on the margins who have the courage and determination to go against oppressive power structures.
Ultimately, it seems that Revolution in the Age of Social Media is a call to action. No longer can “we” sit passively and find ways to both view and use sites for superficial purposes. “We” cannot continue to inertly watch cats playing pianos or gawk at celebrities or police officers dancing in front of dash cams without being critical of the institutions that present these materials. “We” must recognize that there is an overall agenda that underlies these images, and it is up to “us” to revolt, whether we do so against a tyrannical dictatorship or by simply asking if we can use these newer technologies in a way that is not just for amusement, but to make change happen!
Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Composition and Communications at SUNY Cobbleskill. He has published in Film and History, Scope, The Journal of American Studies of Turkey, and The Common Good: a SUNY Plattsburgh Journal on Teaching and Learning. He focuses on around mass media, mainly film and composition.