“Atheist Online, Religious Offline”: Secularist Cyberactivism as a Social Movement in Post-Arab-Spring Egypt’, a talk by Dr. Sebastian Ille, Lecturer in Economics, based on a paper co-authored with Dina Mansour-Ille.
Those present were: Sebastian Ille, Dave Rampton (Faculty of Politics & International Relations), Anthony Grayling (Master), Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics), George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Mark Fabian (Visiting Fellow), Daniel Swift (Faculty of English) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).
The advent of the worldwide web has changed human interaction in fundamental ways, and the domain of politics is no exception. The theme of Sebastian Ille’s talk was the ongoing social media activity of secularists in Egypt. The story of the Arab Spring in 2011 is a well-known instance of this: the uprisings were much shaped by protesters’ online social communications through such media as Facebook. This makes for a rich new field of study, and within this field the ongoing social media activities of Egyptian secularists formed the theme of Sebastian’s talk. He presented the results of recent research into the physiognomy of their Facebook groups, and argued that the emergence of these new venues of association – of debate and deliberation, and advocacy of social and institutional change – demands that we rethink our understanding of what counts as a social movement.
The research proceeded by means of questionnaires to participants in over thirty different secularist Facebook groups, and the use of software to gauge the types of connectedness within and between groups. The respondents were of course individuated by their online identities only, but all presented themselves there as ‘secular’. (Sebastian noted that of the two Arabic terms ‘almaniya’ – separation of state and religion – and ‘madaniya’ – the state’s not being oppressive or imposing – , the latter has come to be preferred by activists as less offputting.)
Sebastian showed us two sorts of output from the study. One was designed to elicit demographic characteristics, along with views and attitudes, and consisted of tabulations of answers to questions. The comparatively modest quantity of answers meant that the statistically significant results tended to be confined to the unsurprising: participants have an age and education profile fairly typical of internet users but are likely to speak a foreign language and to be liberal in social attitudes generally. The other output of the study consisted of graphic representations obtained by network analysis of the modes of mutual connectedness of the groups’ members, as registered by replies to blog posts. Here what was notable was the comparatively flat, non-hierarchical structure of the groups, with no individuals greatly more connected within the group than the rest.
This was a result that was taken up at length in the discussion, as having implications both for the difficulty of suppressing such networks otherwise than by closing down online platforms and, on the other hand, for the chances of opposition movements’ acquiring acknowledged leaders, and hence familiar powers of collective action. Mark gave it as his impression, from conversation with Chinese students in Australia, that the Chinese authorities tend to permit oppositional sentiments to be expressed in online chat but step in as soon as any mobilisation seems imminent. China presumably is better able to identify users of social media than Arab governments are, but Anthony noted that it has also been ready to close down web platforms in the face of unrest, as in Xinjiang.
A number of interesting comparative questions were raised. Mike wondered whether the same flat profile would be found in networks created by shared interests in, say, football. David and Anthony drew contrasts with, respectively, secret societies and international networks of learning in the past, and Mark asked about the coalescence of anti-communist protest in the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989, a topic on which Sebastian had his own personal angle to offer. As regards the question of whether a collection of Facebook groups with secret participation could possibly constitute a social movement, several colleagues went along with Sebastian’s affirmative view. Dave pointed out that many such movements in the past have arrived only over time at public action, and Mark observed that in principle theoretical accounts of social movements had better be sensitive to evolution in the means of communication and collective action, and indeed open to overhaul in the light of such pervasive changes as the internet continues to bring.