A sounding board for Hirak, social networks have shaped and accompanied this unprecedented anti-regime protest movement in Algeria, in the face of an official speech ignoring the scale of popular mobilization.
“Social networks made it possible to follow the Hirak continuously and in real time, in different places simultaneously”, Zahra Rahmouni, a freelance journalist in Algeria, told AFP. “They showed police repression, broke prejudice and thwarted speech” who wanted to undermine this non-violent protest movement launched on February 22, 2019, said the thirty-something. For the past year, Zahra Rahmouni has been informing her subscribers live on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, while documenting herself on these platforms.
Places of expression of common discontent, social networks have been the echo chambers of calls to protest, the laboratories of the slogans of each weekly march and the guarantors of the peaceful nature of the Hirak. In this country of 42 million, 23 million are active users of social media, according to the 2019 report of the social media management platform Hootsuite and the digital agency We Are Social.
“Let them all clear! “ “Free and democratic Algeria! “ “I am a member of Hirak!” “ “You are not my president! “ (addressed to Abdelmadjid Tebboune, successor to Abdelaziz Bouteflika elected in December in a ballot massively boycotted by the population) … So many formulas become cries of rallying of the protest, launched both in the street and on the Web. Like what is happening on the ground, virtual mobilization is disparate and dispersed, without leadership, but it is stubborn, visible throughout the territory and brings generations together.
“If social networks have allowed Algerians to express a form of political engagement that is prohibited in public space, they have above all been an alternative to the information deficit left by many media”, political scientist Chérif Dris told the AFP. Social media have become one of the main sources of information in the face of the media blackout of private channels – close to the government – and public television, which has suppressed demonstrations almost all year round. By presenting the reality on the ground in different regions of the country, “They participated in forging the legitimacy of the movement and in deconstructing the official discourse”, observes Chérif Dris.
But they also fueled heated debates within the Hirak, as evidenced by the lively controversy that opposed the Franco-Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, who decreed “Temporary failure” of movement, to critics calling it “Traitor”. On Facebook and Twitter, the exchanges were intense: some constructive, others virulent.
Although polluted by a massive disinformation of the pro and anti-regime, the news shared on the networks, once sifted through, carries a collective memory. Anxious to keep track of the flow of information generated by the Hirak, a group of researchers launched an archive collection in February 2019. Photos, videos, leaflets, press releases and declarations are collected as the movement develops, mainly on social networks. A valuable database is the Facebook pages of organizations such as the National Committee for the Liberation of Prisoners (CNLD), anonymous pages or hastily created groups to keep the debate alive.
“Through photos of slogans collected, we can observe the evolution of claims”, says Sarah Adjel, doctoral student in history and co-founder of the project “Algeria: initiative of collective archives”. “The untying of speech expressed on social networks is fascinating”, she says. The collection of archives is, according to Sarah Adjel, a guarantee against any “Attempt to falsify history”. In the long term, the ambition is for the documents kept to be accessible to Algerians.
On the authorities' side, attempts to disrupt the Internet during the first Hirak marches were followed by offensive pro-regime trolls on Facebook and Twitter. Several activists have also paid the price for their freedom of tone on social networks by being prosecuted because of Facebook publications, according to the CNLD. In a press release, Human Rights Watch denounced the indictment of a young novelist, Anouar Rahmani, for “insulting the President of the Republic” and “endangering the security of the state” after he mocked M Tebboune on Facebook.