In one of the most powerful scenes of the 2000-directed movie “Gladiator”, Oliver Reed, who played Proximo, addressed Maximus, performed by Russell Crowe, saying: “Listen to me, learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom”.
This scene speaks to the power that “the crowd” garners regardless of time, circumstances, and the nature of the ruling regimes. The crowd is one of the deciding factors in the realization of any fundamental change in a given society. Tyrants employ all means to suppress and oppress the masses, but at a certain point, when the masses draw on their collective power and revolt, unwanted rulers will have only two options: to either listen or leave.
Gladiators and Colosseums continue to exist in our times but in different forms. In today’s world, a gladiator might not be holding a sword but a digital camera. Fights might not be physical but digital, not taking place in a typical Colosseum, but on the Net. Round-shaped buildings full of crowds cheering their favorite gladiator gave way to a blue online platform with millions of likes and shares such as Facebook and Twitter.
Mohammad Ali: The Egyptian Digital Gladiator
The latest example of a digital gladiator is the Egyptian Mohammad Ali, a 40-year-old Egyptian businessman and contractor, who fled the country to Spain, and started revealing online stories about the massive corruption of the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, his wife and the military junta.
Mohammad Ali and his revelations shook Egypt at a time of political deadlock. Since the military coup 2013, the formal political opposition came short of offering an appealing discourse or action plans that meet people’s demands and hopes, until political despair prevailed. However, Mohamed Ali, armed with convincing rhetoric, equipped with a digital camera, and social media accounts, challenged the narrative of the regime and served as a catalyst of the counter-public sphere.
Social Media: The Colosseum of networked society
This instance brings back to light the very fundamental role social media play in enacting and disseminating information, knowledge of the world, shaping perceptions and ultimately creating and enforcing narratives. When used by activists, social media can be terrifying to authoritarian regimes by giving people the tools to create and disseminate their own narrative whereby they can evade the regime control on media. On the other hand, the same social media platforms can also be used by authoritarian regimes to contain people’s movement either through the production of parallel narratives or the launching of disinformation campaigns in order to distort and mislead.
Yet, social media networks facilitate the movement of information in a rage of flow that makes it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to manage or control the informational environment. Within a growing networked society, a story of one person can trigger significant attention either by actors active on digital social networks, or those who still follow the traditional media that eventually will find itself in a position to cover that story or be left behind.
Social Media In Soft Authoritarian Regimes
The Mubarak regime, especially after 2005, allowed some newspapers and media outlets to operate, covering stories that are not aligned with the regime’s policy, as long as some redlines such as the army, and the personal life of the president and his family are not crossed.
This narrow margin of freedom encouraged and enabled many politically interested individuals and activists to set up their own blogs in order to expand the public sphere, and to accommodate new claim-makers, specially related to human rights such as torture and sexual harassment.
Thus they were able to challenge the social perception of the regime paving the way for a new political agenda and creating a public opinion supporting the claims of opposition and ultimately carry out collective actions, such as the creation of both “April-6” movement and “We are All Kalid Saed”, which played a significant role in the 25 January revolution.
As regimes lose their ability to control the production and dissemination of information, it becomes even more difficult to control people both in terms of public opinion and collective actions.
Strict Authoritarian Regimes are no Exception
Some argue that what holds true for soft authoritarian regimes doesn’t hold true for strict regimes. However, some evidence proves they might be wrong.
El-Sisi regime, for example, learned from the lesson of Mubarak’s era and sought a complete eradication of press freedom by cracking down on journalists, as well as bloggers and social media users, putting political leaders and activists under massive surveillance, and imposing harsh penalties on social media posts.
Obviously, el-Sisi regime may have succeeded to a great extent in closing the public sphere and imposing severe repression on freedom of expression that enabled the regime’s narrative to prevail.
However, Mohammed Ali’s leaks defied the measures taken by the Egyptian government. Notwithstanding the hypotheses suggesting that Ali is part of an orchestrated plot devised by clashing wings within the regime, the case of Ali proves that an individual is able to generate a state of hysteria deep inside the corridors of power by disseminating alternative narratives, thus illustrating how strict authoritarian regimes are also vulnerable in a connected society even when tight information policies are imposed on the media.
Muhammad Ali’s stories were perceived as truthful and shocking at the same time. Although Egyptians probably knew about the uncovered information, the fact that they are disclosed by a figure close to the regime and familiar with its secrets, all the while possessing a strong sense of humor in front of the camera, triggered such a resounding event.
Ali did not turn to any of the traditional media, i.e. TV satellite, opposition newspapers, or even to the international press. He rather resorted to Facebook, chief among social media platforms in Egypt (approximately 39 million Egyptians registered on Facebook), believing that his revelations will have more credibility and outreach and will be more effective. As a matter of fact, the number of followers of Mohamed Ali’s personal page jumped from about 2,000 to 160,000 just before it was hacked by the authorities. All the videos being permanently deleted by the “hackers”, his new Facebook page called “The Secrets of Muhammad Ali,” reached more than 200,000 followers in two days only.
Social media platforms allow the humanizing of the case at hand, helping it escape the boring routine characteristic of the traditional media while still allowing it reap their benefit as successful campaigns push local and international press to cover the story. This event allows new challengers to step in and/or creates a window for collective action that could put the stability of the regime at great risk. Consequently, the regime loses its ultimate control of media coverage and is eventually pressured to respond, as was the case in Egypt, when the president el-Sisi himself decided to respond to Ali’s videos in a hastily prepared youth conference.
We live at a time when ultimate control of the public sphere is impossible. When the digital Colosseum is open for a Gladiator to fight within it, rulers can only watch and/ or fight back.