How would Georgia Tech students start an uprising against the Administration or State of Georgia Board of Reagents? There may be protests, petitions, conversations between leaders of each group, or even more drastic measures like mass transfers or dropouts. But how would these get started? As a group of 18-22 year olds who are at times completely engrossed in their computer screens and smart phones, most likely by communication via texts and social media.
On a larger scale, how did a group of mostly young people communicate to protest their governments and show their dissatisfaction during the Arab Spring of 2011? Just how any of us would: through texting and social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter played integral parts in spreading the word of dissention within the countries of the Middle East and helped other people have a first-hand look at what was happening in neighboring countries or across the world. People organized protests and riots and used these sites to relay details of time and location to fellow protestors. Others posted their dissatisfaction with their current government and showed people that they weren’t the only ones that wanted a change.
For those who are not familiar with specifics of the Arab Spring, the time period denotes a time period of protests and uprising in multiple Middle East and North African countries. The rulers holding power in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya were overthrown. Civil uprisings have taken place in Syria and Bahrain. And major and minor protests have been held in multiple other Middle Eastern and African countries. The catalyst of the Arab Spring has been credited to the vast and transparent misdistribution of wealth between the small in numbers ruling classes of these nations. An educated and unemployed population of young people who are dissatisfied with the current status quo also served as an important catalyst to conflict.
These groups of motivated and educated young people have been seen as the epicenters of rebel forces and leadership. This is why scholars and media have taken particular fascination with the dissemination of information during this period of revolution. Young people in the Middle East did what young people throughout the rest of the world do best: they adjusted to technological trends and used them to their advantage. Through social media, their voices were heard and their messages communicated. This tactic had never been used before. Social media has not been credited in the past for spreading revolution in other areas of the globe as it has been in the Arab Spring. Univeristy of Washington assistant professor of communication Philip Howard said on the subject of the importance of social media:
Social media sites are also known for their behind-the-scenes data collection, and these figures have given quantifiable insight to these sites’ part in this time of protest and uprising. Statistics have shown that the number of Twitter and Facebook users in countries part of the Arab Spring rose thirty percent in 2011. 94% of Tunisians and 88% of Egyptians polled in a study said that they gathered their information from social media during the protests. Hashtag data on Twitter shows the rise in usage of Arab Spring-related subjects like “Tunisia”, “Jan25” (denoting the Egyptian “Day of Anger Revolution” on January 25, 2011), and “protest”. Twitter usage trends also show spikes in traffic around historically relevant dates of the Arab Spring including the beginning of protests in Tunisia (January 14, 2011), the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down (February 11, 2011), and at the beginning of the Bahrain protests (February 14, 2011).
One downside to the focus of social media in the Arab Spring is the increased perception of homogeneous issues being present throughout the areas of conflict. Under the surface, each country had unique reasons for people rising up against the government. Egypt’s military take-over and the repercussions were not present in any other country. Libyans were subject to a much more severe education shortfall, and Tunisia had a small upper-ruling class that were all related. Solely focusing on the revolutionary and unique spread of information almost belittles the issues that are still present almost exactly two years later. Each country has its own struggles to overcome, and a single governmental structure will not work everywhere.
Also, the data gathered for studies was only taken from social media and did not include the use of texting and its importance. The sample size of tweets and posts is significant, and texting trends are assumed to follow a similar progression as social media trends.
These limitations aside, social media’s impact on the Arab Spring is quantifiable and fascinating. It has shown people around the world how technology can be used in a new-age revolution. Information spreads quickly in the modern world, and a critical voice asking for change has a chance to be heard near and far.
– Mary Sherman