Media and Revolts: Egypt, Syria and Ukraine

By Peter Sarram

On June 5, 2014 ISPI (Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale), as part of a series of encounters focusing on the role and modes of intervention of social media and communicative technologies on a variety of political processes, hosted a round table entitled “Media e Rivolte: Egitto, Siria e Ucraina” which, as the title suggests, concentrated on the role of the media –both traditional and digital—on the political upheavals in Egypt, Syria and Ukraine.

The roundtable was moderated by the ISPI’s Valeria Palumbo and saw the participation of Donatella Della Ratta, a fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and advisor to Arab Media Report; Stash Luczkiw, editor-in-chief of the English language international politics periodical, Longitude; Corriere della Sera Egypt correspondent Cecilia Zecchinelli; Gianpietro Mazzoleni, Professor of Political Communication at the Università degli Studi di Milano. This writer also partook in the event, representing the Guarini Institute.

Prof. Mazzoleni briefly gave an overview of the research on the role played by social media in political processes, stating that while social media might not have been the catalyst of the revolts –referring primarily those of the so-called Arab Spring—they certainly played a major role in their unfolding and in the way in which information and knowledge about the revolts were disseminated inside the individual countries and on the global stage.

The points raised by Cecilia Zecchinelli were primarily devoted to looking at the role played by media in the current political moment in Egypt, particularly following the de-facto coup d’etat against the government headed by Morsi which had emerged from the first democratic elections following the Tahrir square revolts. Zecchinelli noted how mainstream media in Egypt have been completely subservient to the government of Abdel Fatah El-Sisi. She remarked that the media’s attitude could only be characterized as being in the grip of ‘Sisimania’. According to Zecchinelli, the subservience was most apparent in the surprisingly high percentage of the non-vote in an otherwise triumphant presidential elections. For her the refusal to vote represented a silenced majority who opposes the military backed president and can only make itself felt and heard by evading the ballot box.

The media in complicity with Al-Sisi’s government was oblivious to this protest non-vote. Zecchinelli also spoke of the mainstream media as being as subservient to the current government as they were during the Mubarak regime. The main difference being that while under Mubarak that subservience was imposed through the threat of violence and repression this time around private media and their ownership voluntarily cooperate in their own self-interest. Zecchinelli also noted how some dissent to the current government and the post-Tahrir turn of events is visible in social media.

Donatella Della Ratta spoke of her experience in Syria primarily concentrating on the ways in which opposition to the Assad regime has made itself felt in the form of satire inside of the popular media artifacts which Syria has historically been a major producer in the area. Particularly in the local soap operas –called musalsalat—a vein of critique of the regime is much more present today than it ever was during the years preceding the revolts and the war. User generated content uploaded on social media sites, particularly YouTube, is also prevalent, where satirical appropriation of mass culture images proliferate. Della Ratta further noted how mainstream media is also wholly subservient to the regime and both state and private television networks are at the beck and call of Assad’s regime.

According to Della Ratta the main problem in the way in which the Syrian revolt has been represented in western media –or the problems that western media have encountered in fully reporting on the situation in the country—is due to the desperate search for a repetition of the midan type of popular revolt fashioned on the Tahrir model. As Della Ratta pointed out, the Syrian context and situation is completely different from the Egyptian one, Assad’s government being much more repressive and historically much more capable of exerting a form of social control that was absent in Egypt. Furthermore, Syrian cities like Damascus are also topographically different from those in the other countries where the midan type of revolt flourished because of an absence of large open urban spaces. Damascus is characterized by small, narrow streets making mass demonstrations and occupations of public spaces much more difficult to achieve.

Finally, Stash Luczkiw spoke of the unrest and the complex reality in Ukraine noting how the ambiguity and the hybridity of the ‘war’ in the country (“a war of expansion through a partisan war” was how Luczkiw characterized Russia’s tactics in Ukraine) made it very difficult to talk of the media’s role in a familiar way. Luczkiw said that the action of outside powers on internal constituencies had made social media a very effective and contested tool in the conflict. As a revealing example, he pointed to the use of the comments section of news sites and under YouTube videos as examples of ‘coordinated trolling’, a purposeful use of incendiary and controversial language and comments aimed at spreading rumors, false information and propaganda.

Luczkiw however also remarked on the advanced media literacy of many in Ukraine noting how it was much harder to openly lie as would have been possible with the sole presence of traditional media while at the same time the lack of clearly identifiable gatekeepers makes everything much foggier, ambiguous and permeated by noise. The outbursts that repeatedly interrupted Luczkiw’s intervention –by an obviously organized sector of the audience who primarily contested the idea that there could be any ambiguity in judging the situation in Ukraine—was actually a very good indication of how difficult it is to reflect in a detached manner the events that are unfolding in the region.

After a brief concluding remark from Prof. Mazzoleni, who quoted Manuel Castells’ configuration of social media as tools of empowerment, the moderator, Valeria Palumbo, ended the encounter without opening up the floor to questions so as to avoid what would have been an inevitable taking over of the discussion by the contesters who had interrupted Mr. Luczkiw.