Using Online Videos to Spread the Word About Police Brutality in Egypt
All the markings of a dictatorship - torture, corruption, lack of free speech - existed under the Mubarak regime in Egypt. And yet the dictator enjoyed friendly relationships with international leaders and little retribution for his repressive policies. Within Egypt, many turned a blind eye to human rights abuses, assuming that it wouldn't happen to them.
Considering the state's tight grip on information, how could anyone change public perceptions of the political system and environment in Egypt? The challenge lay in getting the word out and sparking interest beyond the usual group of activists, blogges and opposition journalists.
The internet provided a new opportunity, because although only about 10% of Egyptians were online in 2006, changes occurring online had the potential to trickle out into the offline world, either by word of mouth or by making it into the traditional press.
Aalam Waasef is a 40 year old Egyptian artist who, fed up with repression and hypocrisy in Egypt, began creating online media to slowly build awareness about the reality of life under a police state.
As he puts it:
"My main goal was to expose Egypt as a police state and a dictatorship...I was, as many others, completely fed up when I would read in the foreign press that Egypt was the only democracy in the Middle East...it was outrageous to see how blind we were - it was suspicious enough that someone was in power for (at the time ) 27 years! There was a lot of hypocrisy that needed to be exposed."
The Tools & Tactics
In order to do this, Aalam took on a pseudonym, Ahmad Sherif, and begin to create and disseminate short, often humorous videos meant to chip away at the Mubarak regime's grip on public perception. Here are a few examples:
Pushing out videos to a network of media influencers who used other mediums
Aalam developed a formula for disseminating his videos. As he says:
"I kind of built a whole network over time, three years, where once I would do something here it would go everywhere - I would describe it as a wide multimedia strategy - more like a dissemination strategy. If you really want to understand what it is you can't just take the videos alone - it's videos that come with articles of citizen journalism, blog posts, visual work, design work, campaigns on Google AdWords. My idea was: how can I impact the real world. How can a stupid video on the internet be on the printed press, which was the real word. So the effort went into how to make a song or a video but also how to combine it with the real world."
He would post a video, and then as if on cue but without having set any rules or directions for it, the entire Egyptian blogosphere would post it. It had a snowball effect.
"All of these things - blog posts, banners, etc. - did build up a revolutonary culture. it was like a little laboratory of freedom of speech. Getting the language together the chants together the slogans together."
Google AdWords to reach beyond the choir
On the Ahmad Sherif blog, Aalam asked readers to write in "letters to Mubarak:" silly but also honest opinions and emotions directed at the strongman. He then purchased Google keywords related to "Hosni Mubarak," so that when a Google user searched one of these keywords an advertisement would appear prominently. In the advertisements, Aalam included the messages to Mubarak that blog readers had written in.
These messages came in from all over the World, turned into Ads, and when an internet user saw one they could click through to the blog, where the online videos were featured. The messages were printed in Google over 150,000 times in 3 weeks, with more than 3000 clicks. But clicking wasn't necessary - as the medium (the ads) were the messages in them selves.
With Google's analytics, they could see which messages garnered the most interest in terms of clicks.
They found that "the bolder the message, the bigger the clicks... Messages like 'Hosni Mubarak, Why are you so mean?' are almost ignored. Messages like 'Hosni Mubarak: you don't represent Egypt but disgusting human instincts'" got more attention
Back then, Aalam noted:
"We are very careful to keep our messages under control in terms of boldness. No obscene or vulgar language accepted. The hard talk is focused around words like: "corrupt, failure, theft, enough, decay, disgust ...". The harshest message says in arabic: "Hosni, May your parents have enough blood in their veins to make you stop... Enough!" (original text in Arabic: يا حسنى خللى عند اهلك دم وكفاية بقى). This expression doesn't have an exact equivalent in English but: "to have blood in your veins", in Arabic, means "to be human" or "to behave with humanity."
The videos clearly had a somber purpose, but humor as a tactic for getting people to watch them was what worked. "I definitely wanted to be on the lighter side of things," says Aalam, "I think humor makes things more viral because you want to share it for the message but also for the humor."
The Stumbling Blocks
In 2006, internet penetration in Egypt was only 10%. "It's almost like we existed in our own bubble" says Aalam. The lower the level of internet acces in Egypt, the harder it was to push information out of this bubble.
By 2011 it was at a little over 20% - but it had already become clear that even with a minority of the population online it was possible to get the message out beyond the World Wide Web, provided the message was powerful enough. The stumbling blocks lay in waiting for that right message, which ended up coming in the form of a video which documented the rape and torture of a prisoner in 2007, and then in 2011 the multimedia documentation of the brutal and fatal beating by police of a young middle class man named Khaled Said for recording an incident of police corruption. Incidences of police brutality perpetrated on victims that most could identify with were what Aalam and colleagues used to galvanize fellow Egyptians.
Aalam's videos added to the community of online activists that began to find one another online in Egypt - a country where offline public assembly was illegal - and work together without necessarily ever meeting. As he puts it, he was the visual guy in the group - everyone else was writing blog posts, and he added to what they were doing with work that combined different mediums and served everybody's purposes.
The ties that developed among these people grew stronger and snowballed until they were in a position to take advantage of the opportunities provided by external events like documentation of police brutality, to engage with more Egyptians.
When a call went out to turn the national police day in 2011 into a protest against police brutality, the stage had been set for years. That day grew into an 18 day sit-in which ended with the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. "I was active before in trying to get everyone to be a part of the revolution," says Aalam, and then when it happened he put his camera own and became someone on the stret. Now he has picked up his tools again in order to expose that the miltiary council, who took over after Mubarak stepped down, are no better.
As Aalam put it, "what makes a revolution succeed is if each one of us has the impression that if he or she doesn't do something about it then it's gone - and I do wake up with this feeling every morning."blog comments powered by Disqus