Known to belong to a traditional society, Egyptians have for decades been well framed and politically mobilized by State media. Since its emergence, however, social media has constituted a clear challenge to routine State media practices. Although both media channels work on the mission of mobilizing citizens, the State-owned media does its utmost to unite citizens in support of the government while social media, which is substantially more appealing, can do no more than undermine the State’s efforts.
Familiarity with technology is the primary factor that sets apart the two common media outlets in Egypt. Citizens who are relatively comfortable using smart phones and tablets tend to make more use of social media channels, which offer a diversity of information and whose users are overwhelmingly young people and professionals. State media is left reaching out to an audience of illiterate, poor and elderly citizens.
The challenges faced by the State-owned media and its private affiliates lie in the extremely dull material offered generally, along with a largely obsolete political stance. No wonder; State media outcome is in keeping with the unimaginative outlook of the Egyptian bureaucrats who operate it. It has steadily lost the talent to reach the hearts and minds of its audiences – not even through the entertainment programs that Egyptians now prefer to watch on regional TV channels.
State-owned media is known to be the government’s media arm that complements its overall ruling mission. The advance or deterioration of the State’s ruling capabilities is reflected in its media outlets. Meanwhile, due to its widely fragmented nature, social media in Egypt has a single distinguishing attribute: it challenges the nonsense relayed by State media (which it is doing successfully). I beg to differ with the argument, espoused by many, that social media was behind the 25 January 2011 revolution; what mattered at the time was that citizens had reached the tipping point and wanted to change the ruling regime.
The diversity of the minds behind social media and the current precarious political role that it is playing are difficult for the State either to imitate or to challenge. Social media has a clear advantage over State-owned media that, driven by singularly outdated views, presents itself as a clear target providing good material for social media to attack on a daily basis. The result is that the Egyptian State is left with the single option of threatening to shut down social media – which I doubt it could do permanently.
The Egyptian State’s most important media challenge is the new generation of Egyptians (including people with limited education) who obviously use social media exclusively. In a few years, hardly any Egyptians will be watching State TV news programs; social media will have taken them over completely. Egypt could learn from how advanced nations that have already experienced this shift toward social media addressed this challenge; however, the political dynamics of these nations are completely different to ours.
Should Egyptians be stimulated to take part in large demonstrations again, the State media, due to its incompetence, won’t be able to help to stop, or even reduce, the impact of such an event. The Egyptian State probably knows that it is wasting its financial resources on funding State media (which has been booking annual losses of billions of Egyptian Pounds over the past years). However, it cannot boldly shut down State media channels and leave its supporters jobless – even knowing that their contribution is insignificant.
The Egyptian State needs to adopt a completely new mindset in managing its media outlets and to employ the criteria of competency and creditability as the two main pillars of media outlet reform. Applying this approach to the tens of State media channels with their thousands of cadres will probably be difficult. Nevertheless, implementing this philosophy of reform on a single channel, or even a single program, will help State media to regain some degree of true audience attention. The independence of social media cannot be thwarted – but a more competent State media arm might successfully influence its content.