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Gladwell, Google, Twitter & Egypt: Social Media’s Revolutionary Mystery (UPDATED)


(A dramatic wrinkle in this story is below  — the Google marketing executive in question has been released.)

Here’s an intriguing subplot lost amid all the press coverage on Egypt and the Middle East this week.

Writer Malcolm Gladwell finds himself having to face up to his controversial Oct. 10 article “Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” In a nutshell, the article argued that social media is not as powerful a force as some believe it to be. (By the way, hear Tom Ashbrook’s intense interview with Gladwell.)

Gladwell responded to some of this in a recent New Yorker blog post: “Does Egypt Need Twitter?” He’s sticking to his original line:

[S]urely the least interesting fact about [the implications and origins of the protests] is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.

But in a weirdly grim twist, the plot has thickened.

According to the New York Times, Wael Ghonim, Google’s marketing chief for the Middle East and North Africa, has gone missing after heading to Egypt to join in the protests. His Twitter account has been silent since Jan. 27 and his whereabouts remain unknown. (UPDATE: Al Jazeera reports he has been released.)

One of Ghonim’s last tweets before the account went silent?

Hey @Gladwell, #Jan25 proved you wrong. Revolution can be a #Facebook event that is liked, shared & tweeted. http://nyr.kr/bYKeLq


Other of Ghonim’s most-recent tweets are worrisome: on Jan 25 -  “Now in Tahrir situation is out of control. Prevented 2 angry guys from throwing a huge metal on police cars from top of the bridge!”; and on Jan 27 – “Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people. We are all ready to die #Jan25.

UPDATE: Egypt frees Google manager who became protest hero

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) – Egypt on Monday released a Google Inc. executive who became a hero of anti-government protesters after he vanished nearly two weeks ago while taking part in demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Protesters in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square say Wael Ghonim, a marketing manager for the Internet company, was one of the main youthful organizers of the online campaign that sparked the mass protests on Jan. 25. He went missing on Jan. 27 and his whereabouts were not known until Sunday, when a prominent Egyptian political figure confirmed he was under arrest and would soon be released.

Ghonim has been held up as one of the heroes of the protest movement that has already extracted the most sweeping concessions toward reform that Mubarak’s regime has ever made.

The gestures have not persuaded the tens of thousands occupying downtown’s Tahrir Square to end their two-week long protest, leaving the two sides in an uneasy stalemate. The protesters have vowed to stay put until Mubarak steps down, while the regime wants him to stay in office until elections in September.
President Barack Obama said Egypt is “making progress” toward a solution to the political crisis. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said later in the day that what the Egyptian people want most to see is the government taking concrete steps to bring about demanded changes, including the end of Mubarak’s government, and free and fair elections.

He said “monumental change” already has taken place, with Mubarak pledging not to seek re-election in September, ruling out his son as a candidate to succeed him and the first-ever appointment as vice president.

The embattled regime announced a 15 percent raise for government employees Monday in an attempt to shore up its base.

Newly appointed Finance Minister Samir Radwan said some 6.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($960 million) will be allocated to cover the salary and pension increases, which will take effect in April for the 6 million people on public payrolls.

“We don’t trust him and he’s a liar. He’s made many promises in the past,” said Salih Abdel-Aziz, an engineer with a public sector company, referring to the president. “He could raise it 65 percent and we wouldn’t believe him. As long as Mubarak is in charge, then all of these are brittle decisions that can break at any moment.”

Public sector employees have been a pillar of support for the regime, but their salaries have stagnated in value in recent years as prices have soared, forcing the government to periodically announce raises to quell dissatisfaction.

Following widespread labor unrest in public sector factories in 2008, Mubarak announced a 30 percent increase in public sector salaries that appeared to temporarily blunt public anger at the time.
The regime appears confident in its ability for the moment to ride out the unprecedented storm of unrest, and maintain its grip on power, at least until September elections, but it has made a number of moves in response to protesters’ demands.

Egypt’s Vice President Omar Suleiman met several major opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, for the first time Sunday and offered new concessions including freedom of the press, release of those detained during the protests and the eventual lifting of the country’s hated emergency laws.

Egypt’s state-run news agency reported Monday that Mubarak ordered the country’s parliament and its highest appellate court to re-examine lower-court rulings disqualifying hundreds of ruling party lawmakers for campaign and ballot irregularities, that were ignored by electoral officials – possibly paving the way for new elections.

The ruling National Democratic Party won more than 83 percent of the 518 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections, which were widely condemned as being rigged.

Judicial officials also promised to start the questioning on Tuesday of three former ministers and a senior ruling party official accused of corruption charges after they were dismissed by Mubarak last week. The cabinet reshuffle was intended to placate protesters by removing some of the most hated officials in the government.

The official Middle East News Agency said former Tourism Minister Zohair Garanah would be questioned Tuesday along with the former ministers of housing and trade.

MENA also reported that the country’s top prosecutor had imposed a travel ban on former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and froze his bank account.

Life in Cairo was returning to a more normal routine after the weeks of upheaval. Banks were open for limited hours along with many shops. The stock market announced it would reopen on Sunday, though schools were still shut for the mid-year holiday. Traffic was returning to ordinary levels in many places and the start of the nighttime curfew was relaxed to 8 p.m.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APNT 02-07-11 1432EST

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  • http://www.marketingdissector.com Steve Parker

    I worry about anyone and everyone in Egypt–but especially those who are or could be mistaken for journalists. Your friends at the BBC had a correspondent on earlier this week who witnessed an unidentified man who he said was a foreign journalist attack by a mob and NOT rescued. He closed with “God help him.” This was on your air.

    Although I’m very active in social media, I see the point Gladwell is making. He’s simply saying the revolution is bigger than social media’s role in it. I agree. The majority of social media activists seem to be saying that social media should get all the credit for enabling the revolution–as if somehow SM is bigger than the overthrow of a government. I understand that point of view too, but respectfully disagree. History is on Gladwell’s side. There were lots of revolutions before social media. Now if they want to argue that social media has been an enormous tool for change and spreading the word, that’s something else. I would agree and I doubt anyone including Gladwell would disagree.

    I hope Mr. Ghonim is safe. But I don’t think we should make too much of his reference to Gladwell. It’s reasonable for anyone over there using social media to try to help the situation to feel it is essential.

  • http://www.langstonrichardson.com/ Langston Richardson

    Some day there will be written by the Alan Greenspan of the internet an article entitled, “Social Media: the new tech bubble?” As a marketing agency, my job is to stop clients from looking at any new, too wow-to-fail communications channel with a measured sense and a clear strategy. Unfortunately, the million or so self-proclamed Social Media Gurus beg to differ. They are looking at anything to suggest and justify their locked in positions that their clients who haven’t made a dent in ROI in social to continue to spend, will say, “LOOK AT EGYPT!! THAT’S SOCIAL!!”

    I think Malcolm is right and in the context of what he’s said, it’s being proven. It’s not primary. The living situation of the world that many of us in live with our barriers and shields makes us blind to that. We were blind to those other bubbles and believes as well.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    @ John Wihbey: While I don’t fully agree with Gladwell he does have a point. People assembled in the center of Cairo each day after the regime hit the kill switch on the internet and cell and while I know there were end runs around the kill switch the point is that the revolution in Egypt has momentum.

    Yes, social networking amplifies what’s going on and revs it up more quickly (maybe not such a good thing) but I’m not so sure its as important as many think it is.

  • Bonnie S

    When Mubarak cut Egypt off the net, that galvanized people in the West to realize what a huge dictator he was. Hackers helped get around the info blockade to restore communication among the protesters.

    If this revolution had NOT been televised (mostly online by Al Jazeera) and Tweeted, it would be over already, with a thousand dead Egyptians we wouldn’t hear about until the U.S. puppet Mubarak or the U.S.’s torture outsourcing resource Omar Suleiman was once again presiding over a “stable” country.

  • Tim

    The question is whether Egypt’s rebels are, or become, organized as a viable political and governing force–a “strong-tie” phenomenon, to use Gladwell’s terms– or whether they’re simply a disruptive, loose “network”. Perhaps it’s too early to judge the validity of Gladwell’s thesis in this situation.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Well said Tim. However they just need to force the current government out and allow for a democratically elected government to take over, they don’t have to be part of the new government to prove their viability as a force. I think both sides of the debate have overstated their cases: both Gladwell and his detractors. Revolutions have and will continue to happen without social media, and social media will play a part in revolutions going forward.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Frank Rich tackles this issue today and states what I stated above: more people came to the square on day two despite having no internet access:


    The social networking hype eventually had to subside for a simple reason: The Egyptian government pulled the plug on its four main Internet providers and yet the revolution only got stronger. “Let’s get a reality check here,” said Jim Clancy, a CNN International anchor, who broke through the bloviation on Jan. 29 by noting that the biggest demonstrations to date occurred on a day when the Internet was down. “There wasn’t any Twitter. There wasn’t any Facebook,” he said. No less exasperated was another knowledgeable on-the-scene journalist, Richard Engel, who set the record straight on MSNBC in a satellite hook-up with Rachel Maddow. “This didn’t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “This had to do with people’s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families.”

  • Carol Wolicki

    Revolutionaries depend on the power of influence to motivate and build followers. They use the tools at hand. If they are smart, they use the latest tools. Before social media, there were TV journalists to cover the news. Before cell towers, there were telegraphs. Before email, there were pamphlets. Social media has added speed, expanded network reach, and cut the cost. But it has also added complexity, because the infrastructure upon which it relies is still out of a revolution’s control and can be shut down. Social media has not replace anything; it has added an incremental tool. More will come. It’s not the tools who create revolutionaries. And it’s often not the revolutionaries who create the tools. In some ways, they use one another.

    Kudos to Steve Parker for a thoughtful response as well.

  • Mark DeYoung

    Where’s the Listen to the Show link to this one?

  • http://www.onpointradio.org/about-on-point/john-wihbey John Wihbey

    Hey Mark – This was just a straight blog — no show necessarily attached. We may pick up the larger topic later on. Stay tuned. -John, producer

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