Some have branded it “the only good thing” to come out of Egypt’s elections while others declared it “hero of the day.” Whatever you think of it, Twitter was brimming with a near overdose of instant information for those following Egypt’s parliamentary elections on it. Just blinking often meant that some 20 new Tweets tagged as “Egyelections” popped before your weary eyes.
As the day unfolded, breaking news from all over Egypt shattered across the Twitter-scape as quickly as those witnessing the events could type on their mobile phones. Journalists, activists, regular voters, concerned citizens, and of course, bored people, tweeted and re-tweeted news bits and opinions all confined to Twitter’s sacred 140 character limit.
The conclusion? Not a fair election, if those tweets are anything to go by. But detailing the violations and the violence, on the other hand, is where Twitter proved useful.
“It was central to exposing the entire rigging process,” says Jihan Ibrahim, a student activist, who spent the entire election day tweeting from an electoral monitoring station set up by El-Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture.
“The fact that people on the ground with smart phones could tweet what was happening in front of them played a huge role,” she says, though she is also quick to note that Twitter is only a tool in a much larger process.
“Without those reporting on the ground, without the mobile technology and the ability to verify the information, it wouldn’t be very useful,” says Ibrahim.
But is it ultimately useful? With thousands of tweets from, or based on reports by, non-journalists and random strangers, is the accuracy of information a cause for concern?
The key, according to Ramy Raoof, an online media expert and digital activism specialist, is to not compare information on Twitter or other social media channels to news from the mainstream media.
“The mainstream media have goals and regulations and specific audiences in mind,” says Raoof, “while services like Twitter are more about allowing regular citizens to report what they see in front of them. It’s up to you to discriminate [and determine] the information’s worth.”
In that sense, those using Twitter need to behave like investigative journalists themselves, looking at the different information sources and formulating their own stories based on the varying evidence. The spoon-feeding process of “confirmed” facts that is typical of mainstream news reporting is absent.
By 3pm last Sunday, there appeared reports on Twitter that either stated two had died so far from election violence, or seven. Likewise, some claimed voting in Nasr City was going smoothly, while others said voters were being stopped from entering polling stations.
Moreover, most tweets were not concerned with facts at all but with attempts at wit: user @Ghonim was quick to sarcastically quip, “Who said people can’t vote? In fact people can vote up to 10 times for the same candidate.”
Yet despite a seeming cacophony of virtual voices, an over-arching picture of the elections was nonetheless clear. As more and more tweets from users of different backgrounds and agendas continued to confirm clashes in Suez, Mahalla and elsewhere, combined with links taking users to fresh pictures and videos showing thugs wielding swords with protesters barred from polling stations, the climate of election day appeared grim.
But the success of Twitter in uncovering this can only be truly appreciated in the wider context of other social media outlets. Unlike the mainstream press competing against each other for audiences, the social media channels work together in a complementary capacity.
Take Bambuser, for instance -- a free application that allows users to stream live content on the Internet while capturing it on their mobile phone’s video camera. It also uses GPS to identify the location of the user on a map adjacent to the video streaming online.
First time voter, Tarek Shalaby, used the service to document his entire voting experience. Placing his mobile phone in his breast pocket with the camera lens peeping out, Shalaby says his goal was to share his experience live by documenting it as it really was -- and not just in words.
But Bambuser would be largely useless if no one knew that Shalaby was broadcasting. Hence the service automatically sends a link in the form of a tweet and a posting on his Facebook wall to inform others that his voting experience is being broadcast.
This is an example of the complementary forces of social media functioning at their best. Because the reality is, while there may be over a quarter million Twitter accounts in Egypt, most of them are inactive. But for the few thousand Egyptians who do use Twitter regularly, and even for the few hundred who use it for political purposes, the intertwining nature of social media ensures that what goes on in Twitter will branch out much farther than the reaches of its own network of users.
It’s because of this branching effect that Twitter may truly have been the hero of the day.