Thursday, February 24, 2011

Zuckerberg of Arabia? Reality Check…

“It was us and the Internet [who liberated Egypt]. George W. Bush and It was Freedom Fries and J-Date. OK, probably not J-Date…”
Jon Stewart

The shibboleth of the week intoned by Web 2.0 fanatics is that Facebook was the magic key that brought down two dictatorships in the Middle East (interestingly, Facebook doesn’t play much of a role in the ongoing reporting of this week uprising in Libya, a truly, truly closed society). The strongest proof for this thesis is probably Google executive Wael Ghonim’s effusive praise of Mark Zuckerberg as his inspiration. Oh, right, that and the movie V for Vendetta. Now, you can’t doubt Ghonim’s courage. The man, after all, was imprisoned blindfolded in the cells of the Mubarak political police for two weeks. The mere thought makes me shudder.

The thing is I’m reading cyber-skeptic Evgeny Morozov’s Net Delusion right now. He brings a lot of empirical evidence to challenge the idea that the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran was triggered by Twitter. Reality check: Less than two tenths of one percent of Iranians had Twitter accounts in June 2009. The bulk of Twitter traffic on Iran was in English, not Farsi. The Twitter Revolution is actually an illusion generated among observers in the West who are ready to buy into “Internet-centrism” and “cyber-utopianism” (Morozov’s terms). Not to mention the current social-networking mania that assaults us on a daily basis.

Now comes the Gregorian chant about Facebook and Egypt. I came across this blog post covering a protest in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tunis (deposed Tunisian dictator Ben Ali took refuge in Saudi Arabia).  The caption reads: “This photo was taken outside of Tunisia’s Saudi Arabian embassy.”

This is empirical evidence of the highest order. The participants themselves of the Tunisian Revolution invoke Mark Zuckerberg as one of the triggers for the democratic revolt.

Hmmm… Look closer at the picture. The people are protesting outside a Saudi Arabian embassy, but not in Tunisia. Look at the sign on the building. I enlarged it (poorly), but you can just make it out “Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” An English sign? In Tunisia? A little more googling reveals that they are actually in Washington D.C. It seems that once a narrative becomes entrenched, it begins to generate its own evidence.

Enlarged sign in background.
Now, I know a thing or two about the origins of the French Revolution. The scholarly consensus, two hundred years after it occurred, is that no one is exactly quite sure of its causes. To think that you can flippantly come to a conclusion after two weeks that a Facebook page toppled a sixty-year-old military dictatorship is just typical geek infantility.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

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