|Arab Spring Infographic #1|
It’s almost impossible to have a conversation about social media’s impact on activism without mentioning the Arab Spring. The term Arab Spring refers to the revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protests, and wars that began on December 18, 2010. Since then, Arab Spring protests have occurred in Western Sahara, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mauritania, Lebanon, Sudan, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, and more famously in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt (10). In Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt the protests even lead to regime change (2). The extent to which social media played a role in the Arab Spring uprisings continues to be debated by experts who disagree about whether social media was key to enabling the protests or if it simply accelerated them. Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that social media was an important tool for the protesters (3).
In particular, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were used by tech-savvy protesters to coordinate activities locally and to share the uprisings with the world. These social media platforms were effective because they enabled diffuse conversations making tracking down leaders or hubs nearly impossible (1). Researchers have begun sifting through all of the Tweets and Facebook messages surrounding the uprisings and have discovered that revolutionary conversations were occurring on social media before major events took place on the ground. They also found that the majority of demonstrations that were planned using social media actually took place(1). According to the Arab Social Media Report released by the Dubai School of Government, nearly 9 in 10 of the Egyptians and Tunisians they surveyed said they were using Facebook to organize protests or spread awareness about them (4). Additionally, social media sites were used as platforms from which to share photos and videos of events on the ground, raising awareness of what was happening on the ground and providing a tool for protesters to share their personal stories. As one columnist noted, uprisings in the Middle East have occurred before, but – thanks, in part, to social media -this was the first time that the whole world was aware of them.
|Arab Spring Infographic #2|
Despite these celebrations of the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings, some scholars including author Hisham Matar, believe the role of social media has been overstated. He argues that working class people in the Middle East and North Africa, the majority of whom do not have access to social media, were the drivers of the Arab Spring uprisings (1). While social media may have played some role, these scholars argue that social injustice, economic hardship, and repression were the real drivers drivers of the uprisings. As a writer for Mashable stated: “Social media cannot substitute for the incredible bravery and resilience of the people who stood up to oppressive regimes, at the risk and cost of their own lives. It was the passionate desire for change and human determination that drove the spirit of the uprisings, and what ultimately achieved success in overthrowing powerful military dictatorships.”(9)
This hesitance to place too much credit in the effects of social media on the Arab Spring uprisings, is indicative of another issue that concerns activists about relying too heavily on social media – the digital divide (5). If too much organizing and communication shift on-line, activists worry that those who do not have access to technology – often those who stand to gain or loose the most from activism – will be left out.
Many have also highlighted the way social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter were used during the Arab Spring to circumvent government censors. Some scholars worry about the wisdom of activists becoming too dependent on these US-based services (6). While the United States was for the most part supportive of Arab Spring uprisings, will social media tools developed by American companies be as accommodating of activists whose messages conflict with American geopolitical interests, they wonder. Additional issues stem from the for-profit nature of these tools. In January of this year Twitter joined Facebook and Google in announcing that it would block Tweets in countries where the Tweet content is deemed illegal (ie a critique of the monarchy in Thailand, where such speech is punishable by law, would be blocked for Twitter users in that country). Scholars including Columbia Law professor Tim Wu responded to these changes to Twitter’s policy by indicating that they could undermine the site’s usefulness in authoritarian countries and that they suggest that, “someone or something needs to take Twitter’s place as a political tool” (7).
Despite the disagreements that persist around the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings and whether the reliance on social media is good or bad, it’s clear that the Arab Spring has changed the discussion about the role of social media in activism. As Sheldon Himelfarb from the United States Institute of Peace states: “A year ago, the big social media debate was between the polar opposites of cyber-utopian and cyber-skeptic — where one side hailed social media and the internet as liberators, and the other as tools used increasingly by authoritarian regimes to track down and intimidate dissident voices. Now the debate has shifted, giving way — thanks to events in the Middle East — to a general acknowledgment of social media’s organizing power and a more nuanced discussion around the characteristics of this organizing power: enabler or accelerator” (3).
1. Albanyadmin. 2012. ”The Arab Spring and the Impact of Social Media.” Retrieved from http://www.albanyassociates.com/notebook/2012/03/the-arab-spring-and-the-impact-of-social-media/
2. “Arab Spring.” Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring
3. Himelfarb, Sheldon. 2011. ”Social Media in the Middle East.” Retrieved from http://www.usip.org/publications/social-media-in-the-middle-east
4. Huang, Carol. 2011. ”Facebook and Twitter Key to Arab Spring Uprisings: report.” The National. Retrieved from http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/facebook-and-twitter-key-to-arab-spring-uprisings-report
5. Nielsen, Jakob. 2006. ”Digital Divide: The Three Stages.” Retrieved from http://www.useit.com/alertbox/digital-divide.html
6. Schillinger, Raymond. 2011. ”Social Media and the Arab Spring: What Have We Learned?” The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/raymond-schillinger/arab-spring-social-media_b_970165.html
7. Sengupta, Somini. 2012. ”Censoring of Tweets Sets off #Outrage.” The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/28/technology/when-twitter-blocks-tweets-its-outrage.html
8. Srinivasan, Ramesh. 2012. ”Taking Power through Technology in the Arab Spring.” Aljazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/09/2012919115344299848.html
9. Walter, Ekaterina. 2011. ”Why 2011 will be Defined by Social Media Democracy.” Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/12/01/social-media-democracy/
10. Wikipedia. ”Arab Spring.” Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring