Egypt’s netizens succeeded in mobilizing for the Revolution of 25 January using social media. The revolution which started as an event on the social networking site Facebook.com took the world by storm when Egyptians succeeded in overthrowing a dictator who ruled the country for almost three decades. For the past few years in Egypt, social media became a powerful tool used by citizens to uncover corruption, mobilize for protests, and act as real watchdog over the mainstream media and the government. Although social media have mostly been used by citizens as a platform for public opinion expression and mobilization, they have become important propaganda tools used by governments. In the case of Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which ruled Egypt for a transitional period of 16 months after Mubarak stepped down, realized the need to speak the same language of the Egyptian youth, to communicate with them electronically, as well as to issue counter–revolutionary propaganda. This paper will mainly focus on SCAF’s propaganda on the social networking Web site Facebook and the different propaganda techniques used in post–revolutionary Egypt.
“The mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment.” — John Stuart Mill (cited in Weimann, 1991.)
Egypt’s army has always portrayed itself as an army from the people and for the people. When police brutally cracked down on Egyptian protesters who took to the streets on 25 January 2011 revolting against poverty, injustice and lack of freedom, many chanted calling for the army to interfere. And when the army finally showed up three days later, people chanted “the army and the people are one hand.” The army which took power after an 18–day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, gave a very impressive speech the night Mubarak handed over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. A senior member of the Council spoke to the public on national television, saluting the “martyrs” who were killed during the events, vowing to fulfill the people’s “legitimate” demands and safeguard their “great revolution.” Images of General Fangary saluting the martyrs on TV were in every single newspaper and television channel. Posters of Fangary’s gesture were being sold in Tahrir square and everywhere else. Months later when SCAF was actually ruling the country amidst continuous protests and violence from SCAF itself, posters of an army officer holding a baby carrying the slogan the army and people are one were all over the entire country. Public buses and other forms of public transportation carried the poster. Even army tanks surrounding strategic areas carried the same poster. One renowned Egyptian psychiatrist, Dr. Manal Omar, appeared on a privately–owned television network analyzing the message behind the army–baby poster saying it appears that the people of Egypt are being depicted as the baby that needs to be protected and nurtured by the army.
The fact that Egypt’s netizens succeeded in mobilizing for the Revolution of 25 January by creating an event on the social networking site Facebook.com setting a date and time for the revolution took the world by storm. When Egyptians succeeded in overthrowing a dictator who ruled the country for almost three decades, everyone rushed to call the revolution the “Internet,” “Twitter” or “Facebook” revolution. It was clear that Egyptian tech savvy youth spoke a different language, one that their aging regime didn’t speak. However, realizing the need to speak the same language of Egyptian youth netizens, SCAF created an ‘official’ Facebook page six days after Mubarak stepped down to “communicate with the Egyptian people” (https://www.facebook.com/Egyptian.Armed.Forces).
On 17 February, SCAF issued its first communiqué on its Facebook page announcing that the army wants to build bridges of communication with Egyptian youth, dedicating the page to the revolution. SCAF used the official page to issue regular communiqués on Facebook addressing the Egyptian people. SCAF also responded to comments and questions from citizens online. More government and official entities decided to follow suit. The Egyptian Cabinet also created an official page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Egyptian.Cabinet.Of.Ministers) as well as an account on twitter (@Cabinet_EG). The same goes for the Ministry of Interior which also created a Facebook page after the revolution (https://www.facebook.com/MoiEgy?sk=info). Using social media to directly communicate with the people in Egypt was unprecedented. Although netizens were excited with this breakthrough in government–citizen communication, SCAF’s ‘bridges of communication’ were not free from counter–revolution propaganda. This paper will mainly focus on the propaganda techniques SCAF used on its ‘official’ Facebook.
Before moving on to how SCAF used social media for propaganda, it’s important to look at Egypt’s political background to understand that the Revolution of 25 January which some call the “Internet Revolution” or ”Facebook Revolution“ was not as simple as a virtual event on Facebook that went real. In his book Egypt and the Egyptians in Mubarak’s reign, Galal Amin (2009) described Egypt as being in “distress”. He wrote that citizens complain often about corruption and shortcomings across all platforms including economic, political, educational, cultural, and social platforms. Egyptians have been complaining about the general quality of life for decades. Although Egyptians never took to the streets in millions as they did during the January 25 Revolution, they expressed their frustration with the regime in mass demonstrations over the past few years. This accumulation of anger was obvious in the increasing number of demonstrations, especially sit–ins, in front of the Egyptian Parliament.
In 2008, the city of Mahalla witnessed deadly clashes following a general strike over the shortage of bread, rising prices, and low wages. In 2010, Freedom House International (FHI) reported that Egypt scored 6 on political rights, just one point higher than the lowest score of 7. The country also scored 5 on civil liberties. The freedom organization ranks countries on a scale of one to seven, with one representing the top level of freedom and seven representing the lowest. Egypt’s low scores on both civil liberties and political rights translate into a “not free” status by the freedom organization. Surprisingly, FHI 2013 report depicts some improvement for Egypt which moved up to the status of “partly free” after scoring 5 in political rights and maintaining the same score of 5 in civil liberties.
Despite revolutions which swept a number of Arab countries, with Tunisia and Egypt in the lead, most Arab countries still operate under variations of authoritarian rule. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions succeeded in toppling their dictators after many lost their lives in the struggle for freedom. Signs of optimism were high about the political future of such countries but the road to freedom appears to be a rocky one. The military ruled Egypt for a 16–month transitional period, starting 11 February 2011 when former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down ending almost 30 years of a dictator’s reign. The transitional period ended on 30 June 2012 with the election of President Mohamed Morsi. The transitional period witnessed many attacks on freedoms, with citizens arrested during demonstrations, tortured, and subjected to military trials. In the past few months of President Morsi’s rule, police and supporters of the current regime have brutally attacked protestors on more than one occasion. With a population of 85 million with 34 percent under 30 years of age, Egypt is still ready to fulfill its revolution’s slogan of “bread, freedom, and social justice.”
Internet penetration while still low has skyrocketed from around five million users in early 2006 to 30.94 million in 2012 reaching a penetration rate of 37.92 percent. With Internet penetration rate on the rise, it was becoming harder to suppress freedom of expression or hold information from the public. Even with an estimated six million users in 2007, citizens were able to influence the media and policy agendas by reporting police brutality and mass sexual harassment incidents on the internet within the same year. Egypt’s mainstream media denied the mass sexual harassment incidents at first but when the news leaked to the world through the internet, the media later admitted the incidents and reported the events. Similarly, Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas exposed in 2007 an incident of police brutality and posted the video of policemen torturing a minibus driver on YouTube. The video sparked a “media feeding–frenzy that ultimately forced the government to prosecute the kind of conduct that has long been condoned.”  The policemen were accused of torture and were sent to prison, which was considered a great victory for activists in Egypt. Social media became a powerful tool used by citizens to uncover corruption, mobilize for protests, and act as real watchdog over the mainstream media and the government.
After the revolution, the number of Facebook users went up to 6.65 million from 4.7 million (Mubarak, 2011), soaring to 10.7 million by May of the same year (Egypt’s Facebook users double: Ministerial report, 2012). “A common feeling of resentment towards the coverage of the revolution in both state–owned and private media has led young activists to launch their alternative media outlets using social networks” (Solayman, 2011). Due to the fact that state–owned media misled Egyptians during the revolution depicting and portraying protestors as paid enemies trying to disrupt social peace, social media became a popular alternative for seeking the truth in the absence of media credibility. State–owned television often hosted celebrity guests who insisted that foreign hands are playing a role in the revolution by paying protestors $100 along with a Kentucky meal on a daily basis to keep going (El–Wardani, 2011). The former intelligence chief Omar Suliman was quoted by the media as saying the protestors had “foreign agendas.” Privately–owned media was mixed as some were biased depending on ownership and the integrity of the presenters. However, the revolution clearly demonstrated to the people that they cannot expect “independent unbiased media” that is controlled by businessmen close to the Mubarak regime. Opposition media reflects the interests of special groups as well. Such a dilemma added and poured into the popularity of social media despite serious issues that have to do with lack of credibility and spreading rumors on SNSs (El–Wardani, 2011).
Prior to the revolution, a few pages appeared on Facebook nominating Gamal Mubarak, for presidency (Morozov, 2012). The same techniques were employed after the revolution with pages launched by anonymous people in support of the army in general, members of SCAF in particular, or even ousted President Mubarak himself. A famous page(s) created for Mubarak after the revolution carried the name “We are Sorry President.” Official Facebook pages and Twitter accounts representing government figures or entities, political opposition figures, and even activists are on the rise (Ghannam, 2011). Political parties also maintain a strong presence on social networking Web sites.
The current Islamist regime and its supporters have joined the social media competition building a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter. Rassd played a major role before, during and after the referendum over the new Egyptian constitution. The network heavily mobilized in favour of the draft constitution which was eventually passed with a majority ‘yes’ vote, but without societal consensus. Rassd glorified the constitution framing it as fair and socially just. The network also tarnished opponents of the constitution portraying them as remnants of the old regime, adopters of foreign agendas, and disloyal to Egypt. While Rassd portrayed the constitution as flawless, the April 6 youth movement criticized the constitution as indicative of a failed democratic transition. New news networks covering events in Egypt are being launched on Facebook and Twitter. Two famous Facebook pages ‘Rassd — R.N.N’ and ‘M 6 April’ describe themselves as news networks. The former is known to be associated with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood although it doesn’t formally identify itself as a media arm of the brotherhood. The latter is operated by the April 6 movement. Interestingly, the social media Rassd news network was launched one day before the revolution on 24 January 2011. Rassd which describes itself as network “to the people from the people” has two million likes while April 6 has 200k likes. Social media has become a hub for political polarization and propaganda in Egypt.
Propaganda is defined in the Dictionary of media studies as “messages or texts that are produced to deliver a set of ideas that are distorted or unique, in the service of a political interest.”  Lasswell’s (1927) classic definition of propaganda states that the concept “refers solely to the control of opinion by significant symbols or, to speak more concretely and less accurately, by stories, rumors, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communication“ (cited in Severin and Tankard, 2001).
There are three main objectives of propaganda, which begin with mobilizing hatred against the enemy, acquiring the friendship and cooperation of neutrals, and finally end with demoralizing the enemy. The objectives represent a three–step propaganda model. Propagandists fulfill such objectives through several techniques. Common propaganda techniques include glittering generality, name–calling, card stacking, and bandwagon. Glittering generality refers to associating a person or an idea with a good label or a “virtue” word. This technique aims at accepting the propagandist’s message and regarding it as positive. One of the most popular and mostly used propaganda techniques is ‘name–calling,’ which refers to attributing a bad label to a person, group or idea. Card stacking is another technique based on exercising selective truth. The technique works on exposing specific facts regarding a particular issue while completely disregarding or omitting other sides or facts integral to the same issue. Another propaganda technique is bandwagon, which works on portraying consensus over an issue, person, idea, or group. The intention is to compel people to shift their views and attitudes in order to be on the same wagon with the rest of the group or else they will be left out (Severin and Tankard, 2001).
As mentioned earlier one of the strong propaganda tools used by SCAF is a Facebook page created in the advent of the January 25 Revolution. The page has 1.9 million likes. But SCAF’s official page only likes three other army–related pages. The page of the new defense minister of Egypt issued in 2012 which has 107k likes; the page of the Egyptian army spokesperson which has (103k) likes; and a page named “Admin of the Official Page of SCAF” which has (154K) likes. SCAF published its communiqués as images on its page each carrying a ‘message number.’ SCAF used the colors of the Egyptian flag in its messages. White text against a black background and read title, carrying SCAF’s logo. SCAF published communiqués extensively during the first few months. A total of 94 communiqués were published in 2011 alone with the year 2012 witnessing a significant drop in the number communiqués which only reached 11 in total. Although SCAF issued 26 letters in February 2011 alone, the number and frequency of its communiqués dropped significantly reaching their lowest in the month of October with one communiqué only (Naguib, 2011).
“A careful reading of the SCAF’s 93 letters reveals a shift in its discourse, particularly in its understanding of its role vis–à–vis the revolution, its perception of national interest and its depiction of the revolutionaries” (Naguib, 2011). In her article ‘A year in review: the SCAF rules in 93 letters,’ Rime Naguib (2011), noted a shift in SCAF’s discourse. A gradual and total evolution: The military started with guarantees of protecting and fulfilling the demands of the revolution, shifted to maintaining stability and “the unity of the national fabric,” and finally threatened to use an iron fist against protestors who are disrupting social peace. SCAF legitimized its threat saying it was safeguarding the state and “higher interests of the country.”
In its first message, SCAF vowed to protect and safeguard the revolution constantly reminding people that the army took the side of the people when they refused to fire at protestors during the 18–day revolution. SCAF reiterated this message often to emphasize its guardian role especially at times of unrest. SCAF often addresses the January 25 youth as “our sons.” Again emphasizing and cultivating the idea that the army is by the people and for the people. SCAF reiterates its role as the guardian in many of its communiques: “SCAF protects you and this nation providing you with the security and stability that maintains your right to express your legitimate demands ... . SCAF will remain your revolution defender.” In its opening communiqué SCAF acknowledged the legitimate demands of the people, vowing to protect the revolution. According to Naguib (2011), SCAF was persistent in describing itself as a “safety shield” and “fortress of security” the more protests increased. This is a clear example of ‘glittering generality,’ the technique of associating virtue words, which SCAF used extensively in its positive self–portrayal.
Although many Egyptians perceived SCAF as the ‘guardian of the revolution,’ many others were skeptical of such virtue in light of army brutality exercised while arresting and dispersing demonstrators. Critics soon voiced their skepticism about the army’s role in the revolution and the hashtag NoSCAF (#NoSCAF) soon filled Twitter timelines demanding an end to military rule and a swift transition to civilian rule. Although SCAF claims to never have fired a single bullet during the 18 days of the revolution, the army also didn’t prevent a massacre from happening at Tahrir Square, commonly referred to in the media as the ‘Battle of the Camel.’ Several media reports also circulated about the army preventing medical supplies from reaching the Square. The reports said the army blocked such supplies at the checkpoints surrounding Tahrir Square. SCAF also used the glittering generality technique in describing its supporters. SCAF’s Facebook communiqués often described citizens who support the army in pursuit of stability as “honorable citizens,” a description which simply implies that the protestors are not honorable because they are destabilizing the country in SCAF’s eyes. In many communiqués, SCAF acknowledged the fact that it sent civilians to military courts which issue harsh sentences. However, SCAF projected itself as trying to maintain peace and social order by arresting thugs who infiltrate peaceful demonstrations. The army portrayed protestors as “thugs” to justify arresting people and subjecting them to military trials. The army often labeled protests as destabilizing the country and obstructing the economy’s “production wheel.”
Online pressure coupled with on–street protests to free civilians in military prisons forced the army sometimes to release those people or at least issue another Facebook communiqué promising retrial. When famous activists got arrested, netizens often launched aggressive and persistent campaigns to free those on Facebook and Twitter. The hashtag Free (#Free) followed by the name of the person behind military bars filled Twitter timelines. Naguib (2011) noted that “the pardons are said to be stemming from the good will and forgiveness of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, rather than being the result of an admission that the armed forces are carrying out random and unlawful detentions and that civilians should not be tried by military tribunals.” In messages 29, 30, 36 and 40 on Facebook, SCAF declared that it granted retrial to many prisoners at the request of their fathers who wrote personal letters appealing to General Tantawi, the head of SCAF then. This again depicts Tantawi as the sympathetic and understanding father with a big forgiving heart.
Most of the pressure against military trials came from a group of activists who created a movement called ‘No to Military Trials of Civilians.’ In spite of military assurance and statements that people were being released or that they stopped send people to military prisons, the movement often cornered SCAF by issuing regular tweets and statements about the names and numbers of civilians arrested by the military on a regular basis. The group also offered help, support and lawyers to such cases. The #NoMilTrials remains popular on Twitter to date and the group established a high degree of credibility among activists and prodemocracy supporters in general. The No to Military Trials group reported that there were around 12,000 civilians in military courts arrested by SCAF after the revolution. However, SCAF dismissed such accusations. In Message 45, SCAF described the accusations as ‘rumors.’ Yet, in message 72, SCAF announced pardoning political activists Loai Nagati and Asmaa Mahfouz who were accused of slandering the armed forces. Although SCAF declared that it stopped arresting civilians and subjecting them to military courts, its messages on Facebook announcing the release or arrest of people contradicted such claims. In Message 30, SCAF justified military trials of civilians saying it was targeting “thugs who terrorize the people of Egypt.” The ‘No to Military Trials of Civilians’ movement organized more than one electronic demonstration, urging netizens to flood SCAF’s and the cabinet’s Facebook pages with the message, “No to military trials of civilians.” The movement would set a particular time for the e–protest where all active netizens would express their resentment to military trials at the same time.
Despite the presence of journalists and citizen journalists who took footage of army officers’ brutally against protesters, SCAF denied such accusations always describing them as rumors. To negate such accusations, SCAF issued a video message showing protestors throwing Molotov cocktail bombs at soldiers securing cabinet premises. In message 35, SCAF denied accusations that it used real ammunition against revolutionaries saying that it’s impossible to fire at the “sons of this great people.” However, to clear its name and put the responsibility in hands of revolutionaries to protect what it called “strategic areas” in the country, SCAF threatened more than once not to interfere during demonstrations leaving the security and safety of people and buildings to the revolutionaries and honorable citizens. However, when it came to SCAF’s premises with marches heading to the ministry of defense, SCAF warned that any attack will be considered “a threat to national security and will be met with utmost severity.” According to Naguib (2011), SCAF implied here that revolutionaries had such intentions.
A campaign called Askar Kazeboon (Lying Officers) was launched by a group of activists showing army brutality against the protestors. The campaign started with YouTube videos, a Facebook page and Twitter account. It gained immense popularity because the activists didn’t just stop at social media. They took their laptops and projectors to the street, initiating the first public street shows of Askar Kazeboon. That was a turning point for internet activists who realized that the majority of Egyptians did not watch their videos on YouTube and that they needed to bring the virtual world to the real world (Khamis, et al., 2012).
The name calling technique of giving a bad label was employed by SCAF in many messages. SCAF frames demonstrators as agents, thugs, and destructive people attempting to disrupt social peace and destroy the economy. Name calling can be clearly seen in message 69 on Facebook, where SCAF accused the April 6 movement of plotting to separate the people and the army. SCAF warned the people, urging them to stand up to this plot. “SCAF calls upon all people to be careful, and not to fall for a plot that targets Egypt’s stability. [We call upon the people] to stand up strongly [in the face of such a plot],” the message read. The outcome of message 69 was grave. Thousands marched heading towards the ministry of defense in defiance to SCAF and in support of April 6. But SCAF blocked their way with barbed wires from one side and residents of the area where the march stopped or alleged thugs blocked the road from the other side. The protestors were ambushed. Residents of the neighborhood and alleged thugs threw stones from building rooftops killing one protestor. Many analysts negated the fact that the attackers were thugs, saying that people in the area simply reacted to the army’s call to protect the country against the aggressors.
In the same message SCAF employed the glittering generality technique by reminding people again and again that they are the “guardians” of the revolution. This technique is employed all throughout SCAF’s Facebook communiqués. In Message 47, SCAF congratulates the Egyptian people on the 100th day of the revolution, reminding them that the army sided with the revolution, protecting it from day one. In the same message SCAF vowed to support the democratic transition in Egypt, work on making the economy more stable and “protect national unity from foreign hands that are trying to tear it apart.” The last part is particularly interesting because early in the revolution Egyptian official media tarnished the image of protestors saying they are foreign agents funded by Iran to revolt and disrupt social peace and order. SCAF continuously pointed fingers accusing foreign agents of any crisis that occurs in the country. They often attributed killings and other revolution–related violence to an unknown “third party,” tampering with the country’s stability in an attempt to break the people and the army. Such messages were followed by the arrest of civil society personnel in Egypt who were later deported after U.S. pressure to their homeland. Many are still facing trial in the same case.
The image of Egyptian revolutionaries changed significantly since 11 February 2011, the date Mubarak handed over power to the army. An iconic photo feature published in the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm carried pictures of young Egyptians who were killed during the revolution under the headline, “the flowers that blossomed in Egypt’s gardens.” It was an image that touched millions of Egyptians. The feature painted a positive image of young nationalistic Egyptians who sacrificed their lives to effect change in their beloved country. This image soon changed. Constant portrayal and reference to thugs among the protestors and questioning whether protestors are the “genuine Jan. 25 youth,” tarnished the image of the protest movement all together, fulfilling the first step in the propaganda model: Tarnishing the image of the enemy.
The second step — procuring the friendship of neutrals — was acquired through SCAF’s use of glittering generality with supporters and neutrals alike. While SCAF called them honorable citizens seeking their wisdom in protecting the country from protesting “thugs,” the revolutionaries kept making the same mistake of calling such neutral people “the couch party,” referring to them as passive and not caring to become involved. Despite that, activists still learned a hard lesson when they propagated mostly online for a ‘No’ vote over a set of constitutional amendments, demanding a new constitution and not a referendum on amendments. SCAF propagated for the amendments to the 1971 constitution using the bandwagon technique, convincing Egyptians that accepting the constitution was the right thing to do. It’s the wagon that will put them on the road to stability. Activists, however, learned that their aggressive online ‘No’ campaigns did not succeed like their Facebook event on the eve of 25 January. They learned that they lost the constitution battle to SCAF. But they realized that this was partly caused by the fact that they were speaking to themselves. They were living in a social media bubble. This realization pushed them to stand up to SCAF’s propaganda machines by taking their videos to the streets as part of their Askar Kazeboon campaign.
The same campaign is moving forward under a new name to stand in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood propaganda. The same group of activists altered the name of the campaign using the same existing Facebook page to Kazeboon Besm Eddin (Liars in the Name of Religion). They employ the same techniques. They used to produce videos exposing SCAF’s lies and now they produce similar videos exposing the brotherhood’s lies. However, the new campaign is not as successful as the first anti–SCAF campaign, partly because the brotherhood has a support base and partly because Egyptians are tired after two years of social and political unrest. The online regime propaganda machine is ongoing. SCAF portrayed itself as the “guardian of the revolution” and the Muslim Brotherhood is portraying President Morsi as the “knight of the revolution.” Finally, after tarnishing the revolutionaries in post–revolutionary Egypt and procuring the friendship of neutrals and supports, the third objective of propaganda is fulfilled and the enemy is demoralized. Yet, despite SCAF’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s giant propaganda machines, revolutionary Egyptians remain resilient enough and continue the fight for freedom and social justice in an attempt to fulfill the demands of the revolution which they started on 25 January 2011.
About the author
Sara El–Khalili is lecturer at the American University in Cairo (AUC), teaching journalism and mass communication since 2008. Her research interests focus on journalism and political communication. As a professional journalist, she covered stories for the Associated Press, Cairo Times, and Reuters.
E–mail: skhalili [at] aucegypt [dot] edu
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Received 20 February 2013; accepted 20 February 2013.
Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Sara El–Khalili.
Social media as a government propaganda tool in post–revolutionary Egypt
by Sara El–Khalili
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 3 - 4 March 2013
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
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