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Revolution on a Laptop: YouTube Journeys through the Arab Spring

An overcast road on the outskirts of a town somewhere in Syria. Strained, panting breath and blurred views of the crabgrass on the highway divider and to the right, maybe 500 yards away, I hear the guttural whuppwhuppwhuppwhupp of automatic gunfire, punctuated by the occasional snap of a sniper rifle. Over the median, a slick river pools into a ditch, oil maybe, no, blood. I see a boy, maybe 16-years-old, crumpled over the road median, one leg folded calmly over the other. I catch a quick look at his head and wonder if there is life in his half-closed eyes. Then I notice the bullet wound in his neck, jagged pink tissue under his chin. The panting voice begins to chant hurried phrases. The only word that I can understand is “Allah.”

I chose to be here and now I want to leave. But I’m actually already at home, sitting in my living room. Yet what I saw was real. I just saw a Syrian protester moments after he’d been shot in the neck. I’d heard the shots that might be delivering the same fate to others. I’d felt the adrenaline of the survivors running over to do what they could for a boy whose blood trailed thirty feet into a ditch. Thanks to YouTube, the Syrian Uprising is real for me and I check just as I would my emails or stock portfolio. The day before I saw a mother and son’s motionless bodies after they were shot off the back of a motorbike.

The mother fell into an alley and was quickly dragged onto a patio, blood pouring out of her mouth until it trailed at her slippered feet. The son, however, fell into the road, his blood creating a deep brown mud puddle on the dusty Hama street.

Exposed to sniper fire, nobody dared pull him out of the street. Life-saving minutes passed until a man in a tank-top crouched on the sidewalk with a hooked rebar wire. He frantically swiped at the body, until finally the wire caught the man’s belt. The body began to move and flopped over the curb to safety.

Again, I caught just a bit of what the panting voice behind the camera-phone was saying—“Allah.” There are hundreds, maybe thousands of these videos. Some are dramatic—such as a pile of twisted corpses, whose bloated bellies have pushed up their shirts.

Occasionally I watch from a Damascus balcony, as a gang of riot police beat an old man with batons, and then carry away his body, the limp head hanging grotesquely, like a dead goose. Many videos are less crisp—jerky, fleeting images of crowds chanting, of people darting to safety as shots ring out. But always, the excited, frightened, panting voice of the camera-phone filmaker.

In Syria, as with the uprisings in far off despotisms, the news and the violence is being “covered.” But there’s something missing in a newspaper article, datelined in Beirut, about Bashar al-Assad’s latest “concession” proclamations, ended with a mention that “six protesters were killed in Homs.” Very few journalists have the skill or willingness to impart what it means when “six protesters were killed.” The reader glosses over the statement, really a passing statistic, without, making the morbid discovery, as I did on YouTube, that when security forces fire from rooftops onto a dense crowd, most of the wounds are to the head. Nor do they adequately describe what a rifle can do to a man’s cranium, or that death by gunfire isn’t always like the clean chest wounds found on Hollywood sets.

On YouTube I can jump right into the uprising. There’s old stuff, videos from the heady days of March or April. But I can also see breaking news. Once I tuned in to see what was happening now that Ramadan had started and the protests were expected to escalate. So I filtered by “Uploaded Today” and found a short, chaotic clip from Hama, where a bloodied man was lifted onto a motorbike. I looked at the view count—“0.” I may have been the first person, the first foreigner at least, to see this video.

Just 29 years ago, Hama was filled with these same scenes, only many more of them, as Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, brutally crushed an uprising, killing an estimated 25,000 residents. That time there were perhaps one hundred times more bloodied men stuffed onto scooters. Yet this event only emerged slowly and incompletely through murky reports trickling out by dazed survivors. There are scarcely any photographs, let alone dramatic videos, of the event, the mechanized sacking of a major city. Journalists and cameramen (with the possible exception of the Independent’s Robert Fisk, who snuck within a mile of the city), were physically prevented from approaching the city, making it very difficult to produce reliable reports in real time.

This time, in the 2011 and 2012 redux, anyone can watch the repression from their living rooms. Revolutions have come a long way since 1982. In the late 1980s, Eastern European and Tiananmen Square protesters used fax machines to organize and disseminate pamphlets. Then cell phones and the web made the job of revolutionaries easier. Email helped Jakarta activists overthrow Indonesia’s President Suharto in 1998. In 2002, text messaging was credited with hastening the demise of Philippines strongman President Estrada. And more recently, Facebook and Twitter have catalyzed popular dissent in the Middle East, creating flash mobs of millions of people within hours.

But when it comes to bringing events into outsider’s living rooms, nothing can yet beat the grainy, usually unscripted, YouTube upload of a camera-phone video. The videos are not a perfect source of news—most come out of context and some are uploaded by rebel groups or repressive governments with a propaganda objective in mind. And there’s always the possibility of doctoring and selective editing. But on the whole the sheer volume and diversity of the footage ensures that something close to reality emerges from the YouTube pages.

This is a recent phenomenon, for with little fanfare, mankind has reached a remarkable milestone—we have achieved nearly universal access to the video camera. Once an expensive luxury, video cameras are now commonplace in mobile phones and are so cheap that they come standard with many models. They now abound in places prone to upheaval. In poor, repressive Syria, around half of all residents own mobile phones. In Iran and Pakistan the figure is closer to two thirds. Even in Africa, the least developed continent, mobile phone penetration is breaching 50%. We are fast arriving at an era when nearly all the world’s people have the ability to create and publish video newscasts to the world.

We don’t know what will happen in Syria, nor for that matter in other heavily videoed uprisings in Libya, Iran and elsewhere. For all the vividness of the dead 16-year-old, we have no way of knowing if his actions will help bring Syria into a new era, or if the bullet that tore through his neck will help keep Assad in power. But we do know for certain that there will be future injustice and protests and revolutions. And the revolutions will be YouTubed.