Role of Social Media in the Arab Spring

Twenty-eleven came and left, and brought with it events that will never be forgotten. From the earthquakes that hit The Pacific East, the royal wedding, the famine in Somalia, the end to the War in Iraq, and even the death of Steve Jobs, nothing has attracted as much attention as the Arab Uprising. Dubbed the Arab Spring or the Arab Awakening, this uprising has led to the expulsion of the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The Arab world has experienced an awakening of free expression that has now entered strongly influencing politics in countries that have always been run by state-sponsored media and information monopolies. We know well that revolutions always start with a popular movement by the people, but have revolutions changed in this age where technology dominates our day to day lives? Was it the ease of communication through non-conventional sources like social media that helped people come together and rise up against their oppressive leaders? This article will discuss the role of social networking, or the lack of it, in the Arab Spring.

Before discussing the role of social media in the Arab Spring, one must know what exactly the Arab Spring is and what motivated this movement towards change. For decades, countries in the Middle East have been ruled by oppressive leaders and dictators, often passing power through the family. In countries that claimed to be ruled by democracy, hereditary autocracies have formed. The injustice and corruption so prevalent in these societies has created a gap between the government and its citizens. A lack of political freedom was also a main problem the Arab Spring addressed. These regimes have been notorious for human rights violations and government corruption. By utilizing secret police and intelligence officers, governments cracked down on opposition political movements. Opposition leaders are imprisoned and anyone who speaks out against the government is severely punished. Without the freedom of being able to express their concerns, people became angry and grew to resent the regimes. Lack of growth and opportunities led to economic decline and high unemployment rates among even the most educated people. Rising living standards and the availability of higher education has created tension as the rising generations struggle to reach their aspirations of economic stability. The center of these protest movements, at least in the beginning, was a new social class that had recently emerged in the Middle East – the graduate with no future [Mason 2]. A well-educated middle class citizen who faced a gloomy future because of a lack of government reforms. This new social class did everything that was asked from it in order to live a decent life, excelling in school and earning their degrees. However, a large percentage of these people were unable to get a decent job or a job at all. By 2011, the youth unemployment rate in North Africa was 20% [Mason 2]. This very dilemma which affected a large percentage of the young populations in the Middle East was bound to cause an uprising sooner or later. They had been exposed to certain freedoms unknown of via social networks. Social networks effectively opened the eyes of the Middle Eastern youth. All it needed was a spark.

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Memorial for Mohammad Bouazizi

Tunisia was the first Arab country to rise up against its rulers this past year. Decades of economic turmoil with “feeble economies and mass unemployment in populations in which two-thirds was aged under 25” were bound to eventually snap [Cornwell]. Anyone with a brief understanding of the Arab World knew that corrupt ruling regimes that would not tolerate independent political movements had always limited the capabilities of its people. Mohamed Bouazizi, born in 1984 in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, was a street vendor. His father died of a heart attack when he was a young child, and had to tend to his six siblings. Though he fared well in school, he was unable to continue studying and had to work various jobs ever since he was ten to support his family. Bouazizi supported his mother, uncle, and younger siblings by selling produce on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, earning around $140 a month. This humble man’s dilemma began the morning of December 17, 2010, as he started his workday selling produce on his street cart. Soon later, the local police began harassing him, claiming he needed a permit. However, according to the head of Sidi Bouzid’s state office for employment, no permit is required to sell from a cart. Being in debt, Bouazizi was not able to bribe the police officials to leave him alone, nor did he have the social connections to tell the police off. Bouazizi was then publicly humiliated when a 45-year old female official slapped him in the face, spat on him, confiscated his scales, and tossed aside his cart [Cornwell]. Angry and humiliated, Bouazizi made his way to the local governor’s office to complain and get his scales back. The governor showed a lack of concern and refused to see or listen to him, even after Bouazizi threatened self-immolation. “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself.” Seeing that nobody wished to help him, he left the governor’s office and made his way to a nearby gas station. He purchased a can of gasoline, and returned to the governor’s office. Standing in the middle of oncoming traffic, he shouted “How do you expect me to make a living?” The young man then doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight. The next day, hundreds of people gathered at the spot where he had set himself alight and protested against the government. Men and women, who like him, had struggled to make ends meet without any help from the government raised their voices and spoke their minds. Protests spread through the country, and the President did everything he could to stop them. He even visited Bouazizi in the hospital, in a sort of public relations sham, and promised to send the young man to France for treatment. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and 17 days later Bouazizi died of his sustained injuries.

Mohammad Bouazizi was neither the first nor the last person to be humiliated and oppressed by the very government obligated to honor and protect its people. However, what was different was that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was the spark that lit a fire in the hearts of the general public. It stirred protests that spread to engulf Tunisia calling for the President to step down. Hashtags such as #Bouazizi and #SidiBouzid dominated popular social networking sites like Twitter. His self-immolation was in fact caught on video and went viral online, especially among audiences in the Middle East. People wanted to know what had caused this young man to go so far as to light himself on fire. Information  spread like wildfire online, and activists used this large audience to organize protests and relay information quickly and efficiently. The result was what they wanted. President Ben Ali, who had been in power for more than two decades, was swept from power less than a month later. Tunisia would be the first of many countries in the Middle East to rise against its rulers. The protests spread to Egypt, then to Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Each country was unique in the way its revolutions came about, but the common factor between all of them was a dream. People dreamed of a better life with dignity.

As a new era dawned on Tunisia and its people, following the resignation of its President, the Arab Spring spread next to Egypt. In Egypt, however, social networking would play a much more dominant role in the uprising. The Egyptian Revolution began last year, on the 25th of January. That day was a turning point in the revolution for several reasons. Social networking was used to schedule and organize the protests for that day. Activists used Facebook and Twitter along with live streaming services to give the people in the streets a voice, a voice that could be heard all over the world.  The popular hash tag #Jan25 exploded on Twitter, and became an icon for the uprising. That day, activists used Twitter to guide the protesters to avoid security forces as they made their way to Tahrir Square. However, Twitter was used to broadcast live news minute by minute. It took lots of prior planning to organize such a mass protest. Facebook, a much more laid back and simpler social network than Twitter, was there to bring about such planning.


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Tahrir Square

In 2010, nearly six months prior to the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google Executive, founded a Facebook page titled, “We Are All Khaled Said”,  in honor of a young Egyptian computer programmer who was tortured to death by police in Egypt. He had been killed under torture after using the internet to spread the truth on government corruption. The page quickly grew in popularity, with millions of followers on Facebook. Ghonim, who remained anonymous at first, created an event on Facebook entitled “Revolution against Torture, Corruption, Unemployment, and Injustice”. Facebook had five million users in Egypt at that time, and news spread quickly [eSourceVideo]. The event quickly grew and was shared using social networks leading up to the agreed date, the 25th of January. That morning, the activists that had organized the demonstrations took to the streets with their fingers crossed. They weren’t sure whether or not the public would respond to their call, or if they would reach Tahrir Square to find it empty. They were surprised to find that there were people in Tahrir Square waiting for them to arrive. As the police and security forces began to try to stem the flow of people to the square, activists and even normal street-goers used Twitter to guide people around the police checkpoints [eSourceVideo]. Whenever someone would spot a police checkpoint, or had found a safe route in, they would tweet out the location with the hashtag #Jan25. This, on its own, demonstrates the strength of social networking as not only a tool for planning and organization, but as a tool used in action.

Wael Ghonim said in his interview with CBS News that when he saw the crowds in the streets that morning, he knew that it was going to happen. He said he could already see the outcome, Mubarak would be gone. Something had changed in the minds of the Egyptian people, “the only barrier to people uprising and revolution is the psychological barrier of fear. All these regimes rely on fear. They want everyone to be scared” [Anderson 2]. Ghonim emphasizes the importance of social networking. As a computer engineer, and someone with an interest in social entrepreneurship, the social network is like a second home to him. He witnessed first-hand the strength of the social network. A network of thousands if not millions of people unified under a single goal. In Ghonim’s opinion, overpower the strongest of governments. In his interview, when asked whether or not the revolution would have started without social networks, he responded that the revolution was dependent on social networks. He claims, referring to the revolution, “If there were no social networks, it would have never been sparked” [Anderson]. He was referring to the Khaled Said Facebook page, by culminating millions of followers passionate about a common goal, organizing protests was a matter of setting a time and place. Spreading the word verbally in the streets is not as effective as doing so online, as long as the people in the streets have internet access. He claims, without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without YouTube, the revolution would have never taken place. Social networks allowed for mass organization and coordination, something face-to-face interaction couldn’t achieve. Prior to the uprisings, Malcolm Gladwell from the New Yorker argued that social media platforms are “build around weak ties” between virtual friends. Real revolutionaries have “strong ties” and are highly organized [Pontin]. However, the revolutions demonstrated that strong ties could be made even with ‘virtual’ friends. More importantly, when a government sees such an influential power working to bring it down, how does it respond?

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           When a body gets infected with an ‘illness’, it quickly moves to block it. These regimes quickly found out that social networks were a threat to their existence. In Egypt, the country whose revolution was influenced by social networks much more than any other country, decided to be blunt. On January 28, 2011, the entire country took itself offline [Reporter]. As protests went viral, with social networks fueling the uprising, authorities cut communications to an extent not even seen in China and Iran. All internet providers simultaneously went offline, and mobile phone service in most areas of Egypt was cut. Social network access was effectively shut down. Egyptian regime believed that by doing so, it would devastate any planning or organization taking place online, and would cause the opposition to fall into chaos, effectively stopping organized protests and thus ending the uprising. They were severely wrong. When there is a will, there must be a way. Activists resorted to using dialup connections provided by international organizations assisting the revolution. They knew the importance of relaying information to the outside world, and even resorted to “landline phones, fax machines, and old-fashioned radios” to get the messages out the country [Reporter]. Activists also utilized satellite phones and modems, and yes, even paper pamphlets to spread the message.

          One thing the regime in Egypt didn’t think of was how the people would react to the communications shut down. Would they just remain in their homes? “Block the whole Internet, and you’re gonna really frustrate people” [Anderson]. One of the biggest mistakes the regime made was blocking the social networks by shutting off the internet. They told four million people that the revolution was something that was really happening, and that the regime was scared of it. People who wanted to know what was happening couldn’t just open up Facebook from the comfort of their homes. If they wanted to see what was going on, they had to take to the streets and find out themselves. This is the big mistake the regime made, they told four million people to leave their homes and figure out what the story was. These people ultimately became the protesters of Tahrir Square, leaving the safety of their homes in search of answers.

Social media allows people to engage in activism and other activities that would normally get them in trouble. One way of describing social media is that it is a liminal space. Social media is neither reality, nor fantasy, but rather a grey zone between. Activists and bloggers who were writing things that could get them arrested and tortured by their governments found the internet to be safer. They could encrypt their messages, use pseudonyms, and their identities were protected by companies such as Facebook and Twitter that refused to give up names of account owners to governments. Living in America, it’s sometimes hard to grasp how important this new-found freedom is. The ability to speak your mind without fear of injury or worse is something we take for granted, yet in some countries of the Middle East, people spend their entire lives mute.

While Ghonim was adamant about the revolution not succeeding at all without social networking, ultimately, “People protested before there was Internet, and people protest when there is no internet” [Reporter]. It wasn’t Facebook that took to the streets. It wasn’t Facebook holding up signs and chanting for freedom. It wasn’t Facebook that had to withstand the tear gas and the rubber bullets. It wasn’t Twitter that was shot, shelled, and tortured in Syria. It’s important we realize that social media wasn’t the dominating power that overthrew oppressive governments. It was a means to an end. In an era where mobile-phone users walk around with a video camera in their pockets, it was natural that people would utilize these tools to document their struggles, and voice their cause. People who were motivated to overturn their governments had to find a non-conventional source of media to come together and unite. Tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube made broadcasting news quick and simple, allowing for both educated and non-educated citizens to engage in activism. The popularity and security of these sites allowed for news to go viral in minutes.

Like we said before, in the end, it was the willpower and passion of the people that fueled the revolution. As long as we have thinkers, intellectuals, philosophers, and a dream, revolutions can succeed. However, when you have a tool such as social media available at your fingertips, not using it would be a crime. Simply put, Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed. People demanded a change, and by utilizing tools available to them, they accomplished their goals. Without a doubt, social media played an enormous role in the Arab Uprising; however, it was just a tool, albeit an important one.

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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3 thoughts on “Role of Social Media in the Arab Spring

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