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Social Media and the Arab Spring: How new technology revolutionized a revolution

Courtesy policymic.com

Facebook and the Arab Spring: courtesy http://www.policymic.com

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:

“People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action.  Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”

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).

Social Media Revolution Tools: courtesy Government Book Tools

Revolution Tools: courtesy http://www.govbooktalk.gpo.gov

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

SOURCES: The New York Times, PolicyMic, The National, Dubai School of Government, Lisa Anderson, TPM, Wikipedia, Twitter

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16 Comments

  1. The Arab Spring was definitely social media at its best. It was youth communicating in the ways in which they know best, uniting together to take control of their lives and country. More than ever before, the possibility of change is directly in the hands of the people. And like Mary noted, it’s great for researchers that a lot of the data is easily quantifiable.

    One other point of interest to note, however, is that perhaps this isn’t as new as it would seem. The American, French, and Haitian revolutions influenced each other as well. And in more recent history, television and radio served as the instruments of change that social media did in the case of the Arab Spring. I suppose in this situation, however, with the advent of social media, events can influence each other and can progress much more quickly. This increasing connectedness between people can lead to instantaneous and even simultaneous feedback of current events.

    This could also, however, lead to fatigue. Perhaps revolutions can happen much quicker now, but also fall apart much quicker. We’ll have to see if these revolutions that are still going on have the endurance of others in the past.

  2. akranc3 says:

    Social media is a good route for getting your voice heard. It bypasses the limitations and censure of television, radio, and newspaper. It is also good at reaching out to people who are not in the “immediate” area, e.g. past where your local newspaper goes. With more people to connect to, large movements can occur much more rapidly. This was definitely the case in the Arab Spring.

  3. ojanus3 says:

    In this day and age, using Facebook and other social media seems obvious when trying to gather people- whether it be friends for a casual get together, game, tailgate, etc. Using Facebook as a tool to gain young people in protest against the government is pushing it to something its creators had never even thought of. The youth of the countries involved in Arab Spring started the protests with simple declarations of their dissatisfactions on the Internet. The success of these protests shows the power of the Internet. It was interesting to read this blog post against the one about cyber warfare because they are two different ways the internet can be used in war.

  4. kolson23 says:

    It is interesting how social media kind of had a snowball effect throughout this process. If you look at blogs in Tunisia at the time of Ben Ali’s resignation, twenty percent of them were discussing revolution or his leadership skills. A month before however, the number was about five percent. Egypt was no different, in the weeks preceding Mubarak’s resignation, tweets about revolution rose drastically. This large increase in media allowed for other countries to tune into what was going on around them and consider a similar process for themselves. The effect kind of reminds me of one of those sensational pictures that go around on Facebook, everyone sees it because for some reason literally a million people decide to like/comment it. Except this time, it was a much more significant idea that was being spread.

  5. jdowling6 says:

    Very interesting peace. Although not new to our generation, this use of technology is undoubtedly a tool that is already revolutionizing revolution. It may be easier to communicate through social media, however I feel that it can be argued that anybody can log in using a throw-away twitter account and use a proxy to hide their IP from the authorities. It is just too easy for people to blow off steam online and follow each other on Twitter, unlike before when computers didn’t exist. Yet, most definately there is no other way that can disprove why the speed at which these protests are being organized is happening. In fact it is daunting. Serious organization of serious protests, which can be scheduled through Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest can appeal to many in an instant. Being bold enough [knowing that even the opressing government in this case can see what’s going on] to use social media without going too far underground is basically saying “Think you can stop us? We’re coming right at you.” Yes, those revolutions that form quickly may be quick to disband, [in agreement to the first comment] but however on the flipside think about it like this – they wouldn’t be succeeding if not for social media. Different times, different generation of [younger] social activists who are taking action with what they know best.

  6. religion317 says:

    Great blog post. I think you point to something very important in the uniformity of social media use during the Arab Spring against the very different reasons for revolt in the region. It is a valuable caution– to be attentive to the specifics of each case. Like John, I appreciated Trisha’s observation: is this really something new? Did not newspapers, posters, pamphlets, journals, etc. achieve the same thing for generations prior who sought political change? Or is this different somehow? Something to discuss in class perhaps. I also sometimes wonder if we overvalue social media in this context. After all, twitter posts did not ultimately bring down Mubarak, millions of brave Egyptians filling the streets of Cairo did. What do you guys think?

  7. tnatoli3 says:

    It is interesting to hear social media actually used in a positive way. It seems that every time social media is mentioned in the news it is described as a waste of time, a way to bully people, or a type of advertisement. Having your view points posted in public could intimidate people so I am a bit surprised that the message was not conveyed more privately (like instant messaging) as opposed to twitter. Communication is extremely important in uprising like this and it makes you wonder if the extent of the arab springs would have happened without social media.

  8. Kaitlyn Johnson says:

    The article mentions that not many other revolutions have been credited to the rise and access of social media. I think that this is because the extent of which social media was used in the Arab Spring was one of the largest the world has seen yet. Surely, this will inspire other revolutionaries and give them hope that their voices will be heard but so far the world has not seen such a wealthy people with access to a lot of different technologies revolt like the people of the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

  9. kledbetter6 says:

    I believe the Arab Spring will prove to be a moment in history that remains in textbooks even centuries from now, particularly because of the part played by social media in the revolts. In the future, social media may be utilized more efficiently or on an even larger scale for revolts, but Arab Spring will remain the moment when the world experienced exactly what kind of potential the interconnectedness brought about by the internet can have. At the same time – similar to the topic of cyberwarfare and the implications for traditional warfare – the role of social media should not overshadow the roles of the people behind the computers. Regardless of the means of communication, bravery is required to put ones life on the line for a cause, and this bravery should receive equal credit for the revolutions.

  10. mitch7991 says:

    The Middle East has always been notorious for rebellions/revolutions, so it’s only fitting that they’d be the one to come up with a “revolutionized revolution.” Often times it seems that the Middle East has always had it’s own little world apart from the rest. And as the rest of the world observes the Middle East, it makes you wonder whether or not they’ll take suit in this new function of social media. But if that were to happen, government intervention would surely soon follow.

  11. Katelyn Hollingsworth says:

    The impact of social media in this situation is very interesting and with the quantified results should be given more credit. Could this organized revolution have come to pass prior to the advent of texting, Twitter, and Facebook? Though it is true that newspapers and pamphlets were effective at a time when those were the main modes of communication, however the speed and organization of the revolutions and the ways in which one sparked so many more lends to the idea that social media did in fact have a huge impact on the situation. Newspapers and pamphlets can be destroyed, but what goes on the internet stays there forever – even if certain websites are blocked, many people know ways around that obstacle.

  12. chai164 says:

    I think the use of social media to ‘revolutionize revolution’ as somebody said above, is fantastic.

    The only issue I have with it is the focus on the problem rather than the solution. Even after the Arab Spring has died down, Egypt still has problems to deal with that seem like there were not anticipated. I assume this is what would happen when you force a long running leader to step down – the chaos of replacing him is always more difficult to handle than people realize.

    Though it is hard to prevent the spread of these movements, I think there should be more talks about a long term solution before the current problem is dealt with and taken out of the picture.

  13. jkipp3 says:

    I like how the United States private sector provided the resources for revolution in this case, albeit passively, rather than our military (as we usually do). I would like for our foreign efforts money to shift more towards this arena, as it is more efficient and redirects federal funds from guns.

    • tdkohlbeck says:

      Fascinating point. Twitter and Facebook have gotten so big–it’s incredible that these tools, which have already helped *shape history*, were originally little projects started by a handful of twenty or thirtysomethings. The power of individuals in the information age is astounding.

  14. bentowns3nd says:

    I’d like to advance the argument that social media, used as it was in the Egyptian situation, is a ‘popular’ (in the sense of ‘of the people’) factor but not a ‘democratic’ one. While useful for generating publicity and rage, it seems that it provides for little reaching of consensus other than a consensus to act; this allows for movements to reach the critical mass necessary for regime change before being able to assemble a concrete platform. This was of course the situation for the French Revolution and many other uprisings that took place in the absence of social media technology, but I believe that the use of such assets will accelerate and increase the number of such fumbled power exchanges. This shortcoming is also partially responsible for the delegitimization of the western Occupy movement, during which the threatened parties were able to create a discourse around the movement’s perceived disorganization of priorities which would eventually bring about the end of the movement.

  15. mnicholas6 says:

    The data collection tat has been done really shows that social media is a viable organ for political change. Although not as politically driven, this reminds me of the uproar on social media when Tech decided to change the graduation ticketing policy. Rants on Twitter soon turned into online petitions and town hall meetings. Social media is great for rallying forces, but things do need to extend beyond the computer at some point.

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