The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprising

In late of 2010 and during 2011, the Arab countries saw a series of large scale political uprisings. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other forms of social media have played a major role in the planning, acceleration, and even the preparation of some of the uprisings and revolutions that too place in the Middle East at this time. Social media was employed effectively to awaken the Arab people and to mobilize them to fight against repressive regimes in their drive for greater freedom and independence. This paper will discuss the cause of the uprisings. In addition, the role of social media in the Middle East before the revolutions and the impact it had on the uprisings and revolutions known as the Arab Springs will be examined.

The Arab Spring started because people were fed up with the authoritarian regimes that dominated their respective countries. The Arab world had been struggling to change their political system for decades; be they the leftist groups or the Islamic groups, their efforts to peacefully change the systems have failed. The protests that started in 2011 wouldn’t have evolved into such a massive phenomenon if it weren’t for the widespread discontent over unemployment, the loss of hope, corruption levels, and low living standards. The anger felt by millions of graduates who couldn’t find jobs to earn a living added to the level of resentment toward the regimes.

A death of a 26-year-old Tunisian man named Mohammad Bouazizi was the trigger that led to the uprisings. Bouazizi was a street vendor and the breadwinner for his widowed mother and siblings. On December 17, 2010, he set himself on fire in front of a municipal building after an incident during which he was humiliated by a female police officer who wouldn’t allow him to continue selling his wares. No one knows for certain why Bouazizi set himself on fire. Perhaps it was frustration and humiliation that drove him over the edge; however, his final deed led to the country’s dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, being forced out of office. Within a month of this event, hundreds of thousands of youth protestors had taken to the streets in almost every Arab country. All the protestors wanted to overthrow the regimes that were in place in the Arab world, and almost all of them waved the same banners. As stated by March Lynch in his book The Arab Uprising, “[they] fed off each other’s momentum and felt the pain of each other’s reversals” (7).

More than anything, the people in the Middle East were yearning for better lives and democratic nations. Over the next year, waves of protests left major changes in their wake: revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt culminated in the downfall of these two regimes; a civil war in Libya resulted in the fall of its regime; civil uprisings took place in Syria and Yemen; and major protests in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, Oman, Iraq, and minor protests in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In an article titled “The Arab Revolutions of 2011 are like Europe in 1848 and 1989,” author Anne Appleabaum argued that the Arab revolutions of 2011 were messy and complicated: “Each revolution must be assessed in its own context, each had a distinctive impact. The revolutions spread from one point to another. The drama of each revolution unfolded separately. Each had its own heroes, its own crisis. Each therefore demands its own narratives” (Salih, 2013).

She argues that each country had a different reason for its revolution, and the revolutions were a product of multiple changes, whether it is economic, technological, or geographical. Despite the fact that many Arab countries share the same language, culture, religion, and history, they differ in their political and ideological thinking. But for the first time in their long history, all Arabs were able to experience one world, a world with no borders, boundaries, or censorship. The internet presented the people in the region with the ability to engage in conversations regarding matters that were once forbidden.

They were able to discuss issues about religion that was taboo, women’s rights, governmental issues, and many other matters. The internet gave Arabs the opportunity to express themselves freely without boundaries, thus enhancing and stimulating social and intellectual interactions. Long before the uprisings occurred in the Middle East, social media had been lauded as one of the key factors enabling popular uprisings and social movements. This has provided further hype for new digital media, which were already being touted as tools for social change, liberation, and the representation of marginalized or oppressed voices.

Thanks to satellite television stations like Al-Jazeera and the increasing presence of the internet, the follies of the Arab leadership were on full display to a skeptical Arab public. Arab leaders could no longer go about their business in private while simultaneously crushing any signs of discontent. Their people now had access to information and the ability to express their opinions publically, far beyond anything the region had ever before known. Digital media provided important new tools that allowed social movements to accomplish political goals that had previously been unachievable. “And judging by the reactions of the dictators and other desperate political elites, digital media have become an important of a modern counterinsurgency” (Howard & Hussain, 18). Social media was effective in awakening the Arab people and giving them the power to fight against repressive regimes in their drive for greater freedom and independence. This paper will discuss the causes of the Arab Spring and how social media played a role in the Middle East before the start of the revolutions in 2011. It will further examine the impact social media had on the uprisings and revolutions known as the Arab Spring.


Root Causes of the Uprisings

If anyone asked a Middle Eastern person living in one of the Arab countries about the cause of the Revolutions, many will give the same, seemingly obvious, answer: these were revolts against repressive regimes, autocracy and corruption. A combination of factors has been identified as having led to the protests. “These include issues such as dictatorship or absolute monarchy, human rights violations, government corruption, economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and a number of demographic structural factors such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youths within the population” (Ogbonnaya, 2013).

Throughout history, revolutions have occurred as a result of similar issues-Corruption, high taxes, unemployment- which led to political and social change. In the 18th century, one of the most famous revolutions was the French Revolution; it was caused by economic difficulties, higher taxes, food shortages, and political discontent. It’s long been understood that if a group of people feels oppressed, they will one day revolt and demand their rights. That’s how the revolutions in the Arab world started: each Arab country revolted against their respective regime.

Role of Social Media in the Middle East Prior To the Revolutions

The use of social media has become the most pervasive phenomena in today’s society. Children and adolescents use social media like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace as a means for social interaction, while gaming sites, virtual worlds, and videos from YouTube have become the entertainment tools for today’s youth. “Social media and networking have come to define a new generation of communication and have created a platform that possesses limitless abilities to connect, share, and explore our world” (Bhulyn, 2011). Social media is one of the most important “global leaps forward in human history” (Omidyar, 2014). It provides human beings with the means for self-expression and mutual understanding. “It enables rapid information of networks and demonstrates our common humanity across cultural differences” (Omidyar, 2014). It’s a phenomenon that connects people and their ideas like never before. Prior to the existence of social media, the Middle East only had news media outlets, where everything was censored by the region’s governments.

No one was allowed to tell the truth, and if any organization dared to do so, the government would silence them. Before the revolutions, the Middle East had witnessed tremendous growth in digital communication technologies in a way that made it possible for people to express their frustration via social networking. “Using these sites allowed people to communicate in real-time and thereby was effective in developing democracy because social media sites gave people a voice to express their opinions about government, television, political leaders, and any other issues of concern. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allowed people in the Middle East to control communication and to have the power they’d yearned for.

The Arab youth were the primary users of social networks although during the new millennium only 10% had access to the internet. In 2000, Arab countries were filled with internet cafes that many of the youth would use as their primary internet source. They would spend hours playing video games and socializing in chat rooms with people from around the world. The internet was only one of many forms of connectivity employed by large numbers of youth. “At the beginning of 2009, a little over half of Egyptians had cell phones. By the end of 2010, nearly three-fourths had one, and there were hundreds of thousands of new connections each month” (Cole, 9). By 2009 in Tunisia, literally everyone–the rich or the poor–had a cell phone. The young people interviewed by Cole felt that “[it] was very important for them to have cell phones for their activism” (Cole, 11).

Because of the country’s filtered and one-sided news broadcasting, the youth used text messaging to spread word of their discontent. When the revolution first began in Libya, the government shut down the phone networks and the internet, but the youth and activists used text messaging via their cell phones to communicate. A 2005 article on marketing to the Arab youth in a web-based magazine in Dubai spoke of “the Arab Generation Y and how advertisers could reach its members” (Cole, 11). Cole further explained how Generation Y spent most of their time surfing the internet and reading the news on their cell phones rather than printed newspapers and magazines.

The youth of the Middle East were hooked on websites like Maktoob, which allowed them to share music, videos, and video games. “Other portal sites, such as Mazzika, concentrated on offering MP3 pop up music, and as the Web 2.0 unfolded, it became possible for Melody to offer music videos” (Cole, 11). By 2010, there were tens of millions of Arab youth on the internet. “In that same year, 15 million of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were using Facebook. 50% of them have selected English as their primary language to use Facebook, 25% chose French and just 23% selected Arabic” (Middle East & North Africa Demographics, 2010). “Youth between the ages of 15 to 29 made up three quarters of Facebook users three years later” (Cole, 11). “50% were under the age of 25 and 37% were female users” (Middle East & North Africa Demographics, 2010).

“From Morocco to Bahrain, the Arab world has witnessed the rise of an independent vibrant social media and steadily increasing citizen engagement on the Internet that is expected to attract 100 million Arab users by 2015” (Ghannam, 2011). With so many of the youth surfing the web, they turned to the internet to express their rage and dissatisfaction with the problems they faced each day, such as unemployment, rigid economic conditions and government 16 corruption. “They have utilized the internet to rally the populace to their cause” (Al-Naway & Khamis, 2012).

Prior to the Arab spring, some countries in the region had had vibrant online civil societies where open political conversations took place beyond the control of government censorship. Even before their revolutions began, Tunisia and Egypt had active bloggers. “Often the most critical government coverage of government abuse was done not by newspaper reporters, but by average citizens using their access to the internet in creative ways” (Howard & Hussain, 37). In 2007, a video of the Tunisian president using an airplane to visit one of Europe’s most prestigious shopping destinations became notorious. Once the video went viral, the Tunisian government cracked down on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other online applications. In Bahrain it was that first attacked the prime minister for corruption, and by 2010, “every country in the region had an online source for credible information about corruption and regime abuse, spaces for political conversations” (Howard & Hussain, 38).

Given all the advances that social networking offered Arab citizens, it was met by limitations and challenges from the respective regimes. Arab governments waged widespread crackdowns on journalists, bloggers, and human rights activists. “Hundreds of Arab activists, writers, and journalists have faced repercussions because of their online activities” (Ghannam, 2011). For example, in Egypt a blogger named Kareem Amer was imprisoned for more than four years, according to authorities, “insulting Islam and defaming Mubarak” (Ghannam, 2011). “In Syria, 19-year-old Tal al-Mallouhi was said to be the youngest Internet prisoner of conscience in the region and in December 2010 marked her first year in prison, mostly incommunicado, for blogging through poetry about her yearning for freedom of expression” (Ghannam, 2011). In Bahrain, a social networking blogger, Ali Abduleman, was imprisoned for“allegedly posting false news on his popular website” (Ghannam, 2011). These are just some of the people in the Arab world who were imprisoned for posting their opinions online. There were–and still are–thousands of bloggers who are punished for blogging the truth and making their voice heard. In the hands of average people, digital media became a means of documenting corruption and regime abuses.

Impact of Social Media on the Arab Revolutions of 2011

No one could have imagined that the Arab revolutions would start because of the actions of a young man named Muhammad Bouazizi. His self-immolation caused the end of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and the start of civil wars in both Libya and Syria. He inspired tens of thousands of protestors to go onto the streets chanting for freedom and democracy. The Arab spring had many aspects, but one of these was social media, which had the power to put a human face to political oppression. Bouazizi’s story was told over and over again on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, inspiring other people to organize protests and challenge their regimes. “Indeed, Facebook became the information infrastructure that supported political organizing independent not only of the state, but independent of other political parties” (Howard & Hussain, 47). The start of the revolution in Tunisia received little media attention, contrary to the 24 hour coverage of the Iranian protests that had occurred in 2009.

When the protestors swarmed the city streets of Sidi Bouzid, the US was busy with the Christmas season, and the rest of the world did not know because no news outlets covered the events. Iran had a large media-savvy diasporas, which helped to promote the protests in 2009. Furthermore, Iran had a strong outlet; the Green Movement wouldn’t have been as popular had it not been for social media. It was effective in promoting the Green Movement to a receptive online audience that followed tweets, Facebook posts, and web videos. Because of this phenomenon, the world saw everything; people were hungry for news from the frontlines of the protest. And that’s what many of the protestors in Tunis and the rest of the Middle East did. They wanted to show the world the truth, how people in many of the Arab countries had been living under corrupt authoritarian regimes. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Facebook and other social networks, the Arab spring would not have been as well known or documented.

First, social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring.

Our evidence shows that social media was used heavily to conduct political conversations by a key demographic group in the revolution – young, urban, relatively well educated individuals, many of whom were women. Both before and during the revolutions, these individuals used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to put pressure on their governments. In some cases, they used new technologies in creative ways such as in Tunisia where democracy advocates embarrassed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali by streaming video of his wife using a government jet to make expensive shopping trips to Europe. Bloggers also used the Internet to publish information critical of the governments in Egypt and Tunisia. And our evidence suggests that political organizations and individuals used Western news sites – such as the BBC and CNN .– to spread credible information to their supporters through the revolutionary period. The result was that, by using digital technologies, democracy advocates created a freedom meme that took on a life of its own and spread ideas about liberty and revolution to a surprisingly large number of people. Interestingly, not a single Egyptian political Website we mapped linked to regional news sources such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya before the revolution.

Second, a spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground.

Determining whether online conversations were driving street protests or whether the presence of a large volume of people in the streets was feeding an ongoing online conversation can be difficult. However, our evidence suggests that online conversations played an integral part in the revolutions that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia. We find that conversations about liberty, democracy, and revolution on blogs and on Twitter often immediately preceded mass protests. In Tunisia, for example, 20 percent of blogs were evaluating Ben Ali.’s leadership on the day he resigned from office (January 14), up from just 5 percent the month before.

Subsequently, the primary topic for Tunisian blogs was “revolution.” until a public rally of at least 100,000 people took place and eventually forced the old regime’s remaining leaders to relinquish power. Governments themselves also recognized the power of opposition movements equipped with social media. In Tunisia, officials attempted to block Facebook and other social media sites and arrested bloggers and others who used social media to spread critical news about the government. What they found is that democracy advocates were tech-savvy and had the help of hackers and talented computer programmers who were able to shutter government services online and provide protestors with workarounds to censors. Likewise, Egypt attempted to choke off access to social media and found that the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were nonetheless able to stay connected. The Muslim Brotherhood relied on bloggers whose servers were located in London and therefore couldn’t be taken offline.

Third, social media helped spread democratic ideas across international borders.

Our evidence suggests that democracy advocates in Egypt and Tunisia used social media to connect with others outside their countries. In many cases, these connections helped inform
Western news stories about events on the ground, which in turn spread news about ongoing events throughout the region. In many other cases, we find that democracy advocates in Egypt and Tunisia picked up followers in other countries, where similar democratic protests would later erupt. Ultimately, social media brought a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for success of political uprising. Twitter offers us the clearest evidence of where individuals engaging in democratic conversations were located during the revolutions. We find that there were over 2,200 tweets from Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen about Ben Ali’s resignation on the day he stepped aside.

Over the course of a week before Mubarak’s resignation, the total rate of tweets from Egypt.—and around the world about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day. Interestingly, the relative contribution of people not living in the region diminished significantly over this period. On the day Mubarak left office, February 11, there were more than 225,000 Tweets outside the country that spread the news of his departure. In the two weeks after Mubarak.’s resignation, there was an average of 3,400 tweets a day about the political crisis in Egypt by people living in neighboring countries.