Mark Zuckerberg, President of Egypt?

Posted on March 3, 2011


Hearing Iason Athanasiadis speak about his experience as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East—and specifically his time in Tahrir Square during last month’s protests—was hands down, my favorite “My Life As…” lecture here at Stony Brook University.

I could fill this entry with the various reasons explaining why this lecture was my favorite, but in order to get credit I’m going to stick to what was said about social media.

I was one of the many people who rolled their eyes when hearing that Mark Zuckerberg was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2010.” I personally thought Julian Assange would have been a more gutsy choice, and even if not him, then at least the Chilean miners—how often do we get such a Hollywood ending?

The events that have occurred in the Middle East over the last month—and specifically the role Facebook has played in all of it—made me start to rethink my quick judgment of Time’s choice. Perhaps I never quite thought through just how powerful Facebook is—I only thought about it in the context of my own life and using it to comment on funny cat videos that my friends post.  Hearing Athanasiadis speak shifted my point of view further in favor of Zuckerberg as the 2010 choice.

There has been much discussion on the impact of social forums like Facebook and Twitter on the events  unfolding in the Middle East.  “In Egypt, new medium is part of message” , a segment that aired on NBC Nightly News on February 7th, is just one example. Athanasiadis also touched on this idea, and agreed with many of the thoughts that have been circulation. He also pointed out some new things that I had not yet considered.

Athanasiadis, like the NBC segment, also affirmed Facebook’s role as a tool to facilitate protests and demonstrations, saying that most demonstrators used it “to organize themselves…in order to get trained up and networked.” He told the audience of Stony Brook faculty and students a joke he had heard in Cairo to illustrate the popularity of Facebook in that realm of the world. It was something along the lines of Facebook being so popular in the Middle East that if Mark Zuckerberg ran for president of Egypt, he would be elected—even though he is Jewish.

Athanasiadis also spoke about social mediums having a greater impact today in Egypt than in the 2009 Iran protests. The internet has been free (in terms of cost) in Egypt for the last few years, meaning that people have had time to build up their networks, he said.

He also pointed out something I haven’t considered, that hasn’t had much coverage or discussion: that social mediums are also being used by governments in the Middle East. Social media is “extraordinarily powerful for restrictive governments” he said. He  mentioned hearing interrogations where protesters were asked to explain their relationships with certain Facebook friends that were deemed suspicious.  I thought this was particularly interesting, because social networks are usually discussed in the context of their use by protesters and not by the governments.

I really enjoyed the lecture; it pushed me to view sites like Facebook and Twitter outside of the context I usually think of them in. Athanasiadis summed it up best by saying social networking sites are “transforming one of the most crucial parts of the world.”

This photo is from the NBC Nightly News Facebook page; a protester in Egypt holds up a sign that reads “thank you Facebook”

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