Digital Dissidence & Political Change: Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt
Radsch, Courtney C. Digital Dissidence & Political Change: Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt. Doctoral Dissertation, American University, School of International Service. December 2013.
459 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2014
Courtney Radsch Central European University (CEU) - Center for Media, Data and Society; American University, School of International Service, Students; Council on Foreign Relations (CFR); Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA)
Date Written: January 16, 2014
This dissertation analyses how a youth-led, technologically driven social movement led a collective political struggle for change in Egypt that revolved around the legitimacy of the existing system and demanded rights to expression and participation. It seeks to understand the political impact of new ICTs, namely blogs and networked social media, in authoritarian contexts through the use of Egypt as a case study and by employing new methods of ethnographic inquiry that link the online and the off-line in recognition that they are mutually constituted.
I propose that focusing on the micropolitics of practices and discourse, with due consideration of structural and institutional dynamics, reveals how epistemological and ontological changes take place when a distributional shift in the primary modes of communication occurs, and thus helps us better understand how ICTs are implicated in processes of political change.
I argue that Egypt’s young cyberactivists, and particularly citizen journalists, radically shifted the informational status quo by witnessing, putting on record and imbuing political meaning to symbolic struggles to define quotidian struggles against social injustice, harassment and censorship as part of a broader movement for political reform. A central contention in this dissertation, therefore, is that blogging and social media reconfigure the potentiality for expression and participation, but that it is the particular concatenations of technologically-inflected repertoires of contention that transform potentiality into actuality. This analysis reveals the mechanisms by which the potentiality of the Internet and social media is transformed into concrete instantiations of political struggle through activism, news making practices, and collective action.
Throughout the dissertation I analyze specific episodes of contention to explain how ICTs facilitated collective identity formation, organization, mobilization and advocacy, with far fewer organizational and logistical barriers, rendering the dynamics of contentious politics in this case distinctive from other revolutionary periods. This new youth movement created innovative repertoires of contention, which they developed and adapted very quickly, constrained less by structural factors such as economics and distance, which the properties of ICTs help overcome, than they would have been in the past.
I argue that it is not sufficient to explore only moments of collective action, because this does not explain how the “maker of claims” came to identify themselves as such, nor how they build consensus around their claims. This is of particular interest in the new communications environment of the post-millennial period, and therefore I also focus on the phenomenological lifeworlds of these cyberactivists to show how networked social media gave opposition and subaltern groups, such as liberal secularists or the Muslim Brotherhood, new tools for individual and collective identity creation and enabled freedom of expression and opinion.
The empirical focus of the article is Egypt but I argue that the mechanisms and dynamics identified have a much wider domain of application. I propose several new mechanisms including asabiyah, ijma’, and isnad to explain movement dynamics and to account for the technological aspect of cyberactivists’ repertoires of contention, and propose revising the concept of amplification and certification to account for the fact that the algorithmic properties of ICTs now play a role in contentious repertoires.