Can we understand the revolutions through Youtube?
(WARNING: Although the links in this post have been carefully selected, and although Youtube has limits on the amount of violence that can be posted on its website, some of the videos linked to here are not just NSFW but downright disturbing. You click outside of this blog at your own risk).
We have all heard about the role of social media in the Middle East revolutions. The number of images, tweets, and Youtube videos from people on the ground in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc. seems unprecedented. How useful are these inputs on their own in understanding the uprisings? In this post I present my experiences of what it can be like to learn about the situation in the Middle East exclusively through Youtube videos.
An important point must be made right away: In the countries where there have been recent uprisings, with the exception of Iran, people’s first language is Arabic. I do not speak Arabic, which means that the videos I have seen have likely gone through another user and have been made searchable for the English-speaking world. In other words, since the videos were uploaded in their original Arabic, I have received slightly processed material.
I decided to focus only on three countries: Tunisia, because that is where the revolution is said to have started; Libya, because that is where the revolution has turned into an armed rebellion; and Bahrain, because that is, with the exception of Iran, as far East as the revolution has gone. I started by entering “Tunisia protest” in the search bar. The immediate results shown mostly came from Al Jazeera, which had a nasty habit of “processing” the videos and explaining them to me. Furthermore, much of their footage came from their (brave!) professional camera staff on the ground instead of citizen-uploaded material. I wanted to see if I could understand the story with the raw, uncut, amateur footage.
The answer is no. Users like Leakspinner are very good at collecting original videos from citizens’ accounts and even making compilations out of them. However, much of what they show consists of police brutality, people with bullet wounds being carried away from protests, and hospitals full of victims (too graphic to link). On occasion I got to see other videos, like weapons training from the Libyan rebels. Even then, although the videos showed me that there was something big going on in the Middle East, there was really no way for me to tell what was actually going on, who these people were, or what they were fighting for. I needed someone to explain what I was seeing, so I finally caved in to Ali J.
Al Jazeera has had an enormous presence in the Middle East and North Africa since the revolutions started. They have been in the middle of the protests and have documented the spread of the movement very carefully. As a result, they have a very complete version of the story. They make use of the amateur, citizen-recorded videos to paint the larger picture, to help viewers worldwide understand what is happening on the ground as well as in government, and they try and find out why. This is something that people watching from abroad cannot understand simply by watching uploaded videos of protests and violence from citizens in the middle of the revolution. Al Jazeera is not the only network that is reporting. Russia Today also has a large presence, although they seem to make more use of graphic citizen videos. The same is true for Euronews. American networks are noticeably absent.
Thus, it is possible to follow the uprisings through Youtube, but only if it is done right. The best way to do so is to subscribe to the Al Jazeera channel and let them paint the picture for you. Unfortunately, they do not have a separate channel for the Middle East, so you may have to sift through other bits of news. Still, even though the citizen videos may be limited, they can definitely help us understand why the revolution took off so quickly. One of the more striking things about the videos is that you can almost always see another person with taking a video with their phone at the same time. If these videos are uploaded to their social media profiles, all their friends can see them and participate in the discussion and the movement (excuse my French). When you see a fellow citizen’s brain hanging out from his skull because the police cracked it open (not linking here!), you are that much more likely to be moved by the situation. In other words, the citizen videos are more important for the people in the revolution because it draws attention to the injustices for other fellow citizens rather than people watching abroad. The rest of us should stick with Al Jazeera.