The Arab Spring is a revolutionary movement in North Africa and the Middle East, which began in December 2010 with the Tunisian Revolution – before spreading to other Arab countries, such as Egypt, Syria, and Libya, amongst others. While the Arab Spring was not predicted by political commentators and the media, in retrospect, there are a number of reasons with regard to why it occurred, such as longstanding oppressive regimes and difficult economic conditions. However, despite all of this, the catalyst for the Arab Spring came from a twenty-something fruit vendor in Tunisia who, frustrated and angry about the treatment he was receiving from local officials, set himself on fire in protest – and subsequently died (Haas & Lesch, 2013). In years gone by, such an event might have been largely covered up by an autocratic regime that was able to control the mass media – but nowadays, in the age of the Internet and social media, such a task is more difficult. Indeed, Adi (2014) has suggested that the use of social media platforms (such as Facebook and Twitter) did play an integral part in the Arab Spring uprisings – but reiterates that social media was used as a tool to gather increasing support for the cause, rather than being the catalyst in itself. Therefore, this paper shall discuss the impact of social media during the Arab Spring, and try to ascertain the extent to which it facilitated the growth of the movement.
2. Social Media and the Arab Spring
To begin with, Howard & Hussain (2013)state that:
“Social protests in the Arab world have spread across North Africa and the Middle East, largely because digital media allowed communities to realize that they shared grievances and because they nurtured transportable strategies for mobilizing against directors” (p. 3).
Moreover, Howard & Hussain (2013)go on to unequivocally state that the Internet, mobiles phones, and social networking have transformed politics in North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, in light of the Arab Spring movement that began in late 2010, it would be difficult to argue against such a notion. Furthermore, Bebawi & Bossio (2014) also point out that the mass media has labelled the Arab Spring as a ‘social media revolution’, with citizen journalism and social media reporting helping to sustain the wave of protests in North Africa and the Middle East from 2010. Thus, there are two ways in which social media has been used during the Arab Spring, these being: (1) by helping to coordinate protests on a mass scale, and (2) by reporting on the events without any media bias. This then, is something that was also used to great effect during the 2011 riots in England, when social media was used to coordinate riots in various English cities (Briggs, 2011) – and it is perhaps no coincidence that these riots coincided with the Arab Spring movement and the successful use of social media in North Africa and the Middle East at that time. However, in oppressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, unlike in the UK, such technologies are a revelation in communication – as these are countries that have traditionally had their media manipulated by despotic rulers and regimes, and have been subjected to extreme censorship and manipulation.
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Gismondi (2014) notes that a study in Washington found that social media helped to shape and lead the debate with regard to the politics of the Arab Spring, and that young and educated people tended to lead this discourse, with women also being highly involved with social media participation (and the riots and protests themselves). For example, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali discovered the power of social media when revolutionaries posted a video of him and his wife using a government-funded jet to travel to Europe on lavish shopping trips – something that angered locals, who were struggling with economic conditions; and ultimately contributed to his downfall. Moreover, the Washington study cited by Gismondi (2014) also found that social media was instrumental in sharing democratic ideas internationally, and this no doubt also helped to fuel the Arab Spring, and to make people in the region dream of living in a free and democratic society.
In addition, Khondker (2011) also notes that social media played a vital role in the Arab Spring in the absence of an open media and civil society. Indeed, in Syria, for example, the regime there is notorious for controlling the mass media – and remains a very dangerous place for journalists to ply their trade; with there being very few press freedoms, and with Internet activity also being monitored by the government, and being highly censored. However, it is very difficult to monitor and control all Internet activity, and in this respect, social media likely played a vital role in the uprisings there too. Therefore, as a result of the threat that social media now poses to autocratic regimes, places such as the United Arab Emirates now have laws in place that have the power to punish people if they discuss or post photos of other people (which of course includes politicians or people in positions of power), which is causing some concern amongst human rights groups (Tovey, 2015).
Thus, while food shortages as a result of the 2008 global economic crisis, global warming, and poverty may all have been factors that led to the mass uprising in the region, it could be said that it was social media that help to sustain this discontent, and this is something that autocratic leaders are now well aware of – and as in the UAE, are attempting to mitigate through laws that prohibit people from disseminating information about other people without their consent. However, ironically, it is such violations of human rights and individual liberties that are perhaps causing discontent in the first place – and the flexing of such political muscles might only serve to further distance the people from the regime that they are being oppressed by. Indeed, Beaumont (2011) has noted that due to the volume of people now using the Internet and social media in North Africa and the Middle East, that blocking such activity might actually cause more problems, and even more discontent. Moreover, it is also highlighted how social media was crucial in covering the initial news of the man who set himself on fire in Tunisia (which could be seen as the catalyst for the whole Arab Spring movement), as a similar event had taken place three month before, but nobody really knew about it because it had not been filmed and posted on social media. As a result of this, in Egypt, the government even went as far as pulling the plug on Internet services and 3G networks so that the public could not organise protests and riots. However, this was responded to with the analogue equivalent of Twitter: via handheld signs that were held aloft at demonstrations, which contained information about the next protest (Beaumont, 2011).
Perhaps then, the power of social media comes from its unedited and uncensored format, which allows people to get closer to the truth than traditional media in the region has allowed. Moreover, it is also a tool that allows people to organise, to quickly gather support for a cause, to disseminate information, and to galvanise people into action before momentum is lost. In addition, Wolfsfel, Segev & Sheafer (2013) note that the role of social media in collective action cannot be understood without first examining the political environment in which it operates, and that a significant increase in the use of new media is much more likely to follow a significant amount of protest activity than to precede it – and this was also the case in the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, while some might play down the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings, others – such as Eltantawy & Wiest (2011) – suggest that more research is needed in order to ascertain the true extent to which social media influenced the direction of the Arab Spring movement.
In hindsight, it seems axiomatic that social media had a big part to play in the Arab Spring uprisings, and helped to maintain the momentum of the movement by continually updating the public with news of oppression and violations of human rights – that would, under past regimes, have been covered up. However, it seems that it would be a mistake to suggest that social media caused the uprisings, as the protests continued in Egypt – as mentioned – even after the government pulled the plug on Internet services and 3G connections. Social media then, is merely a tool for disseminating information in a quick and efficient manner – in much the same way as leaflets and written manifestos have been in the past (although this is obviously a much slower process). Moreover, the multimedia nature of social media also allows people to instantly post photographs or videos, which can potentially be seen by millions of people – which is an unprecedented innovation; and one that could have a big effect on world politics for many years to come. Nevertheless, while the use of social media led to many successful campaigns and the overthrowing of dictators in some countries (such as Tunisia), elsewhere, civil wars are still raging; as in Syria.
Kassim (2012) states that: “In Arab countries, many activists who played crucial roles in the Arab Spring used social networking as a key tool in expressing their thoughts concerning unjust acts committed by the government” (n.p.). This then, is something that seems to be fairly clear in a subjective sense. However, this sentiment is also backed up with empirical data, such as the study done by Howard, Duffy, Freelon, Hussain, Mari & Mazaid (2011), which analysed over three million tweets, gigabytes of You Tube content, and thousands of blog posts, to find that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. Thus, they note that: “Conversations about revolution often preceded major events on the ground, and social media carried inspiring stories of protest across international borders” (Howard, Duffy, Freelon, Hussain, Mari & Mazaid, 2011, n.p.). Indeed, this is a study that is also commented on by O’Donnell (2011), who notes that in the week before Egyptian president Hosni Mubaraks resigned, tweets from Egypt – and around the world – that talk about political change in Egypt proliferated from around 2,300 per day, to around 230,000 per day. Thus: “Online activists created a virtual ecology of civil society, debating contentious issues that could not be discussed in public” (O’Donnell, 2011, n.p.). As such, in the absence of a civil society and an elected government in places in the Middle East and North Africa, a virtual and comparable environment was created in cyberspace where political discourses could be relatively safely held.
While this relatively brief discourse has shown that social media had a major role to play in the Arab Spring uprisings, it has also demonstrated that there is still a lack of consensus on the extent of its impact. Thus, while Wolfsfel, Segev & Sheafer (2013) suggest that social media discussions tended to increase in volume after a major revolutionary event during the Arab Spring, Howard, Duffy, Freelon, Hussain, Mari & Mazai (2011) suggests the opposite: that social media content increased before a major revolutionary event during the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, what can be said without any doubt is that social media was used during the Arab Spring to great effect, and that it had some degree of influence on its outcome. Indeed, without people posting images and videos of events in the Arab Spring, and commenting on what they saw, then the revolution may have never gained the momentum that it needed to topple the long-standing regimes that activists opposed. However, with laws being formulated – in places such as the UAE – that curb social media use by making it illegal to comment on and post photos and videos of people without their consent; autocratic leaders are now clearly afraid of the power of social media and the impact that it can have.
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