Lentis/Social Media and the Arab Spring


Arab World Pre-Arab SpringEdit

2010-2011 Arab world protests
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Many countries in the Arab world were rife with turmoil between the government and its citizens leading up to the Arab Spring. After the post World War II French and British occupations, political power was seized by largely military and political classes. These rulers took full economic control of their respective countries, eventually leading to widespread unemployment, inflation and poverty, especially among youth and women [1]. All of these factors, along with evident corruption within the governments and supplemented by the release of Wikileaks cables, increased political tensions and sparked the revolution at the hands of educated and computer-savvy youth. [2].

Social media in the Arab WorldEdit

Social media outlets such as Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have been claimed to be catalysts in the spread of the revolution in the Arab world. Facebook and Twitter usage offers the best glimpse into the impact social media had among Arab Spring countries because they were the mostly widely used. The general Facebook participation in revolutionary Arab countries was between 1 and 37% of its population in April 2011, after all of the major protests had started [3]. This is compared to about 50% participation in the United States [4]. Twitter users in the Arab world follow a very similar trend, although participation is generally lower (from 0.1-8%) [5]. This is compared to the 12% participation in the United States [6]. This larger difference is likely because Twitter has not yet launched an Arabic interface. For both Twitter and Facebook, Bahrain and Tunisia had relatively high participation while Syria and Yemen had relatively low.

Perhaps a better indication of the importance of social media in the Arab Spring is in the Facebook growth rates. With the major exception of Libya, all Arab Spring countries displayed a clear increase in growth during the protests. The growth rates were about twice as high during the protest periods in 2011, compared to a year earlier, for Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen. Libya’s growth rate decreased from 10 to -75%, likely due to foreign workers fleeing during their civil war [7].

Arab SpringEdit

The Arab Spring is a series of ongoing revolutions and protests in Arab countries seeking to supplant long-reigning and corrupt governments with democracies. The most dramatic movements took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria. Tunisian protests began on December 18, 2010, sparked by a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi’s , burning himself to death in Sidi Bouzid to protest his mistreatment by the Tunisian government. Bouazizi served as a revolutionary symbol, whose story inspired protests in neighboring countries. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya each got rid of their long-ruling despots, Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi, respectively. Unrest persists as citizens have yet to agree on replacement governments.

Use by Social GroupsEdit

Use by the ProtestersEdit

"We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate and Youtube to tell the world" [8].

The above quote was made by a female activist in Cairo during the peak of the revolution, and highlights how important this technology was to their movement. Social media helped the Arab Spring gain momentum quickly and in some cases, led to the ousting of long time political dictatorships. There are four broad explanations for why social media has been such an effective tool for protests.

Tahrir Square protests in Cairo, Egypt

First, social media allowed the protesters to put a human face on the political regime and on the protesters on the ground. Activists uploaded videos and images of the protests as they were occurring, as well as the accompanying police brutality. This enabled them to spread their own perspective, which combated the official position that they were rebels that should be opposed by other citizens [9]. Activists also uploaded Youtube videos showing the corrupt nature of their government. For example, in Tunisia protesters uploaded a video of President Ben Ali’s wife flying a private jet to Europe for a shopping trip, highlighting the lavish lifestyle [10].

Secondly, social media websites such as Twitter and Blogspot allowed activists to post their grievances anonymously [11]. Thus, more people began to share their personal experiences with oppression [12]. This led to a cascade effect and the birth of a “freedom meme” that spread across the internet, advocating democracy and spreading the revolutionary message [13] [14].

Social media was also used extensively to organize and connect the activist networks, both domestically and internationally. Facebook groups were one of the most popular ways to schedule protests, which coordinated activists’ entire social networks [15]. A web mapping of relevant social groups such as the Society of Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party of Egypt showed that these groups were linking to specific pages of social media sites and spreading them among their members, placing social media at the epicenter of the groups communication [16].

Finally, social media allowed protesters to provide real time commentary on what was taking place on the ground. Activists could communicate with other supporters, or with protesters in other cities and countries. This fostered a sense of immediacy and community within the movement that helped propel it forward [17] [18].

Use by the MediaEdit

Throughout the Arab Spring, "citizen journalists" emerged as the new way to document and communicate the Arab Spring to the international world. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were significant means of communication due to state-imposed restrictions on traditional media sources [19].

Aljazeera, which constituted a major worldwide source of news throughout the revolutions, used social media as a way to gather news. In addition to traditional reporting, Aljazeera gathered social media content, used YouTube videos, and delivered tweets to its followers. This was especially important as the government placed restrictions on more traditional press [20][21]. In this way, these "citizen journalists" became a news network of their own and supplemented Aljazeera [22]. Social media tapped into by the traditional press, galvanized the Arab Spring and generated international support and awareness.

Arab Spring Protests in Bahrain

These citizen journalist news networks using social media to disseminate their information raise the question of credibility as reliable sources for the international media. However, these bloggers were organized in communities that would fact-check each other, and, thus could be relied on as credible sources [23] [24]. Yet, despite fact-checking, the use of social media also allowed for the falsification of some information. One of the most famous examples was the Gay Girl in Damascus blog. After months of blog activity, and subsequently capturing international interest over controversial reports, doubts arose about whether the blog was real [25]. In real author, Tom McMaster admitted that the blog posts were fictional, but falsified the blog to bring to light many of the issues faced by activists under repressive regimes, such as that of Syria, for a Western audience [26].

Use by the GovernmentEdit

A potentially unforeseen use of social media was by the government to prosecute protesters for their involvements, especially in Bahrain and Syria.

The Sunni Bahriani government put an end to the largely Shiite uprising. In the aftermath, the Bahraini government identified protesters through social media pages, such as the Facebook page "Together to Unmask the Shiite Traitors", in which pictures of protesters were posted. People were then asked to identify the protesters by listing their name and workplace in a comment and "let the government take care of the rest".[1] Rights groups have stated that over 1,000 protesters have been arrested since the crackdown began and many hesitate to use social media. Students were expelled or had their scholarships revoked for using social media, and in many cases, were turned into investigative committees by friends.[2]

It has been reported that the Syrian government has also been using social media to crack down on dissent. As opposed to Egypt's hotly criticized mass shutdown of the Internet and communication, the Syrian government has been closely monitoring social media to identify dissidents. The protesters are forced to turn over their Facebook passwords and jailed, during which time the government officials post pro-regime statuses. Many activists, as a result, create false accounts to continue the spread of information.[3]

Discrepancy between Social Media and State-sponsored MediaEdit

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the state run media was generally a very inaccurate source of information during the revolutions. Many were reluctant to discuss the protests occurring in their own countries, or ignored them altogether [27]. For example on January 26th, the day after the beginning of protests in Cairo, prominent Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram reported unrest in Lebanon but ignored the massive Egyptian protests [28].

When the protests could no longer be ignored, the government sponsored media turned to misinformation. One common tactic was to claim that the revolts were sponsored by Israel and the United States, rhetoric that had been extremely effective in the past. However, the activists were not distracted by the use of empty slogans and excuses for their government’s corruption [29]. Another popular lie spread by the state’s political arm was that the protesters were violent, armed rebels and that loyal citizens should rise up against them to protect their country. In Cairo, the military even held a press conference to urge the public to join the army on the streets [30]. This failure in state media was often more helpful to the movement than harmful. When people saw the discrepancy between what they saw occurring on their social media sites and the international news the government’s deception seemed obvious, which led them to join the movement on the ground [31].

Social Media's Place in HistoryEdit

What survives a major historical event is often a narrative shaped by the victor. In the case of the Arab Spring, the documentation of these uprisings have largely been shaped by the people [32]. While social media will provide documentation for these revolutions, its role in the revolutions is hotly debated.

Malcom Gladwell argued that the origins of the unrest in Egypt were not instigated by social media, and the medium through which the dissent was occurring, be it through books or word-of-mouth, is not what drove the revolution [33]. Ramesh Sriniviaan also dimissed social media as a direct cause of the Egyptian revolutions considering the low Internet access and the wide social variety of participants in the protests [34].

However, Mona Eltahawy argues that social media gave a voice to those those robbed of a voice under the status quo regimes [35]. The most marginalized groups have a space to dissent and this enabled the revolution. People could not only vent, but could find others with the same grievances and easily connect, organize, and inform the world. Similarly, Jose Antonio Vargas argues that it is the people that drive a movement, and in the case of social media the tools have become increasingly representative of the people. Traditional media is a "top-down" means of communication that places the power in the hands of a small group of individuals, while the Internet places the onus on the individual [36].

Implications for Other MovementsEdit

A movement that has shown many parallels to those taking place across the Arab world is the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Occupy Wall Street protests

These activists, for many of the same reasons, have also used social media. It has given them the opportunity to attach a human face to the protestors, including non-violent participants who were nevertheless pepper sprayed by police[37]. It has also been used to discuss the movement with anonymity to avoid repercussion related to their jobs or government[38]. Facebook and Twitter have been used successfully to organize the protests, including the movement Bank Transfer Day that called for citizens to switch to credit unions to attack large bank conglomerates. Finally it allowed for real time commentary so that when major changes were taking place on the ground, followers were able to track the developments and join on the ground to show their support[39].

  1. Bahrain: The social media battle continues
  2. Facebook Becomes Divisive in Bahrain
  3. Seeking to Disrupt Protesters, Syria Cracks Down on Social Media