‘Facebookers’ vs. ‘Donor Darlings’

The distortion of reality in the depiction of the Egypt revolution in 2011 by the use of social media activists as journalistic sources.

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2011

13 Pages


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Invisibility of Sources

3. Social Media as the Voice of “the People”

4. Social Media Activists as Narrators

5. The Issue of Credibility

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Appendix

1. Introduction

When the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk first published his book Hello Everybody in 2006[1], Facebook was only at the beginning of its rise to the mass-medium that it is today.[2] The same applies for Twitter. It was only at its starting point; with its launch in July 2006 (Crunchbase, 2011) it had significantly less than 12,000 users in November 2006.[3] Consequently, journalists adapted the methodology of their work to these new forms of social (mass) communication. A study by the George Washington University (USA) in cooperation with the public relations company Cision confirms this assumption. Sixty-five percent of all journalists examined said that they used social networks as sources for their daily work (Bates & Sullivan, 2010).[4] This indicates that also the way of reporting about the Middle East might have changed; that correspondents adapted to the new tools which they got and use them actively for their reporting.

One of the most prominent journalistic pieces on the revolution in Egypt[5] which used sources from the Social Media landscape in order to reconstruct the course of the Egyptian revolution[6] is the BBC documentary “How Facebook Changed the World” (Husain, 2011), first broadcasted on 5 September 2011 on BBC 2 (BBC, 2011).

This paper examines, firstly, the problems a researcher is confronted with, writing about journalist’s source mix, in order to explain the paper’s specific approach to the topic. Secondly, the paper investigates the role of Social Media in journalism, how the use of Social Media as a source is legitimized and how much credibility is given to Social Media as sources by journalists. Thirdly, the use of Social Media as sources is considered, using the example of the BBC documentary in order to lastly analyse the advantages and disadvantages of Social Media in journalist’s source mix. For this purpose the analysis of Luyendijk is taken as a basis. This paper only focuses on the part about the Egyptian revolution in the documentary; all other parts are not subjects of the analysis.

2. The Invisibility of Sources

Investigating the role of journalistic sources one is confronted with the fact that usually most of them remain hidden in the published piece. This creates problems for researchers as the use of Social Media as sources is often not obvious. A proper investigation into the topic would require empirical data. Due to time restrictions and complexity of the topic, this paper focuses on a BBC documentary, where the use of Social Media as sources is obvious. The documentary portraits different political activists; not only in their role as political activists, but also and primarily in their role as Social Media activists. The section “Social Media activists as narrators” focuses more detailed on this.

3. Social Media as the Voice of “the People”

Social Media are often regarded as the voice of the unheard, the voice of “the people”.[7] In dictatorships, traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers are mostly controlled by their governments and Social Media can be seen as means to bypass censorship (for details see section 5, part B). Some sources even suggest that “Technology Is Making Censorship Irrelevant” (Kirwan, 2010).[8] At least since the post-election protests in Iran in 2009 and 2010, this notion has gained importance. Due to censorship of traditional media by the Iranian regime, in particular Twitter was one of the few means of communication between the revolutionaries and the outside world (The Age, 2009). This idea of bypassing censorship through Social Media, is of importance later in this paper, when looking at the depiction of the interviewed activists as legitimate representatives of the Egyptian people.

Citizen journalism is one of the notions behind the idea that the voices of “ordinary people” have to play a role in the media and provide material complementary to the journalistic material produced by journalists. This idea has already been adapted by mass media. An example is the iReport platform[9] of CNN, allowing visitors to publish their own journalistic material, regardless of their professional backround. Using the so called “Assignment Desk”, CNN is strategically gathering content from users of iReport, using it for its reporting on television and online (CNN, 2011)[10].

4. Social Media Activists as Narrators

The BBC documentary (Husain, 2011) narrates the course of the Egyptian Revolution through the eyes of its protagonists. Already the choice of the protagonists sets a certain angle to the events of January and February 2011. Therefore, it is important to note that all of the interviewees are oppositional political activists and all of them have made a significant appearance in Social Media, before and during the revolution. Namely the documentary’s Egyptian protagonists are Shady Ghazali-Harb (a young Egyptian physician, blogger and leader of the “Coalition Youth Revolution”[11] ), Waleed Rasheed (a member of the “April 6 Youth Movement”[12] ), Nawara Negm (a blogger and journalist[13] ) and blogger Asmaa Mahfouz.[14]

All of these activists played an important role in political movements in Egypt, but this is not the only role in which they are shown. An even more important role, in which each of them is presented, is the role of the Social Media activist. The documentary puts its protagonists into this role by using different stylistic means:

Firstly, all of the protagonists are constantly visually connected to their appearances in Social Media. The activists Ghazali-Harb and Negm are introduced by showing their blogs and a Twitter account of their movement (@6AprilYouth). Therewith their appearance is justified by the role they played in Social Media. They were chosen, because they were "writing blogs calling for revolutionary change in Egypt" (Husain, 2011). Later, a statement of Negm is introduced by showing parts of the Facebook page of the April 6 Youth Movement and in this way the impression of a connection between Social Media and the interviewee is created. Furthermore, Husain says: ”Using their Facebook pages, the activists set the date for their protest: January, 25th”, accompanied by pictures of the Facebook page of activist Asmaa Mahfouz. The imagery of the documentary is striking: It does not show meetings or internal discussions of the political groups it is concerned with, neither does it include scenes showing the protagonists as part of the protests, instead it portraits primarily their online activism. The documentary uses repeatedly images of Social Media to create the impression that the revolution was not organized by traditional communications methods but mainly through Social Media.[15] The viewer is consequently convinced that the revolution was mainly organized through Facebook and other Social Media. Whether traditional communications methods such as word of mouth and pamphlets did play a large or even larger role than Social Media, is an important question to ask. This question remains unanswered to a large extent by the authors of the documentary.

On the contrary it is important to note that the documentary does acknowledge the significance of communication means within the real world for the success of the revolution: "only twenty percent of Egyptians had access to the internet. The activist's needed to reach out to the many Cairenes who were not online." The documentary hereby acknowledges that “How Facebook changed the World” is not the only question to ask when looking at the revolutions of the Arab spring, it is also important to look at the flow of communication outside of the internet, for example through word of mouth in Cairo’s taxis (Husain, 2011). Still, this is not changing the general perspective from which the documentary looks at the events. All activists are mainly shown in their role as Social Media activists using traditional media only as an addition to their online activities, not the other way around.

The documentary uses Social Media activists as sources. It gives voice to the persons behind the material that was spread through Social Media. Accordingly the question is how credible these sources are and if there are any advances in credibility if compared to traditional sources.

5. The Issue of Credibility

This section focuses on one of the main questions of this paper: Are sources from the Social Media landscape under any circumstances more credible as the sources that Luyendijk blames to be insufficient for balanced reporting? Regarding the credibility of journalistic sources Luyendijk mentions two major problems:

A) Human-rights activists are often backed by money that is coming from governments of Western countries and therewith cannot be regarded as advocates of their fellow citizens (Luyendijk, 2010, p. 49).

B) It is the nature of a dictatorship which hinders a journalist to gain the information he needs for sufficient and evident-based reporting. Luyendijk specifies this argument by explaining four ‘filters’ which he sees as crucial (Luyendijk, 2010, p. 87).

The following section investigates both problems and examines to what extend Social Media helps to prevent or bypass these problems.

Luyendijk regards problem A as crucial for the misrepresentation of the Middle East. How could these human-rights activists possibly speak for their own people if they are in fact fully dependent on money coming from Western countries? A German proverb can be applied to this situation: “Wes' Brot ich ess, des' Lied ich sing.” (In English: “Whose Bread I Eat — His Song I Sing”). This means that these activists will always speak in favour of the governments they get their funding from; these governments will in return secure their jobs for the future.

It seems likely that this problem could be solved by using Social Media activists as journalistic sources. Social Media provides a platform for every ordinary citizen to publish his own opinion. The people of influence in Social Media are popular because they have many “Followers” on Twitter or numerous “Fans” on Facebook. They are popular and influential because other ordinary people “like” them, not (at least not primarily) because a Western government sponsors their activities with a high amount of money. Hence, the most prominent voices in Social Media (such as those of the activist’s in the documentary) appear to be a relatively uncorrupted account of public opinion. This would be a powerful tool for every correspondent reporting about the Middle East, being confronted with the same major problem that Luyendijk describes: The lack of reliable, representative opinion polls (Luyendijk, 2010, p. 54) (This topic is examined in depth under B).a


[1] The book was at this time only published under its original Dutch title Het zijn net mensen, published by Uitgeverij Podium, Netherlands

[2] In September 2006 Facebook announced that it would allow people outside of selected universities and colleges to register (Abram, 2006).

[3] Compare Appendix, figure 1

[4] The study was not representative and examined 371 US-American journalists working in print and online media. It was conducted between 1 September and 13 October 2009.

[5] This paper uses the terms “revolution in Egypt” and “Egyptian revolution” to refer to the revolutionary protests in January/February 2011 in Egypt.

[6] The documentary is not only covering Egypt, it also reports about the situation in other countries in the Middle East where uprisings took place. This paper focuses only on the depiction of the Egypt revolution.

[7] One example is an article published by the ABC News network with the title “Social Media gives voice to Egyptian people” (Louie, 2011).

[8] This point of view is challenged by the use of software for filtering and monitoring online activity. This already resulted into punishment of internet activists (cf. section 5, part B)

[9] The platform can be found under http://ireport.cnn.com

[10] Other examples are Al Jazeera’s „Your Media“ (Al Jazeera English) or the “BILD-Leser-Reporter” (Bild.de, 2011)

[11] (Hassan, 2011)

[12] (Osman, 2011)

[13] (Al-Sadaty, 2010)

[14] (Gulfnews.com, 2011)

[15] This is important to note, as this methodology is able to distort the reality of the Egyptian revolution (This paper elaborates this on this in part 4).

Excerpt out of 13 pages


‘Facebookers’ vs. ‘Donor Darlings’
The distortion of reality in the depiction of the Egypt revolution in 2011 by the use of social media activists as journalistic sources.
Maastricht University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
488 KB
Middle, East, Joris, Luyendijk, Misrepresentation, Social, Media, Facebook, Twitter, Arab, Spring, Egypt, Revolution, Journalism, Sources
Quote paper
Maiko Schaffrath (Author), 2011, ‘Facebookers’ vs. ‘Donor Darlings’, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/181790


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