At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

The Arab Revolution and Social Media

The world is watching as Arab citizens in North Africa and the Middle East gather to protest against authoritarian governments, restricted freedom, and poor economic opportunities. Twitter feeds, liveblogs, videos and photos are disseminated across the web almost instantly despite limited internet access in many participating countries.

In Western media, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are being credited with helping to propel this “Arab Revolution.” But in countries like Egypt, where only 20% of a population of 80 million people have ever used the Internet, the question is not if but how could digital and social media possibly become the conduit for tens of thousands of protesters?

Photo courtesy Essam Sharaf

Despite being one of the most connected countries in Africa, Egypt is representative of the global digital divide. Eighty-six percent of Egyptians have television (via) but Internet access and PC ownership remains almost exclusively available to the upper and upper middle classes. In other protesting nations, Internet access ranges from only 5% (Libya) to 34% (Tunisia).

Social media alone did not facilitate the Arab Revolution, but was a successful catalyst when combined with myriad methods of digital and traditional media. Technological advances like cell phones, video cameras, blog posts and Facebook, in conjunction with more traditional media outlets like Al Jazeera, created the circumstances for such effective information dissemination.

In revolutions past, dissidents formed underground groups, printed illicit newspapers and seized radio stations. These traditional media served as a way to get the word out about protests and gatherings, but were time-consuming and often headed by leaders of political opposition movements that had their own agenda.

Last week I spoke with University of Washington Professor and author of The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam Philip Howard, who said “[in the past] when activists would seize a TV station or radio station, the stuff they broadcast was usually also propaganda. Different from the state propaganda, but still propaganda.”

Digital media has provided the outlet for free expression that government monitored traditional media did not. The content shared between Arab nations and the rest of the world featured videos and images of people from all classes, not just the wealthy, and was captured by cellular phones and point and shoot cameras.

Twenty-four-hour news channel Al Jazeera—a new outlet using the old media platform of T.V.—curated and collected the raw, immediate content citizens were sharing from each and every country, and made all that content available to television viewers as fast as possible. According to the Allied Media Corporation, Al Jazeera reaches 40 million viewers in the Arab world. Their extensive coverage of the Arab Revolution and willingness to broadcast both original citizen journalism and diverse views allowed Arab citizens without computers to see the digital content being shared by their neighbors and countrymen.

In another example of traditional-meets-digital media, Facebook pages with times and dates of Cairo protests were printed out and disseminated by hand between Egyptians without Internet access.

Social media helped large groups to gather in a short amount of time. It also provided a platform for people to express their solidarity, both within the country and with others in the region and beyond. Egyptians heard about Tunisia from Tunisian citizens instead of the national news media. Instead of planning and creating a group of dissidents to follow, the word was spread quickly enough that enormous numbers were able to congregate in just days, and even hours—because someone knew someone who knew someone on Facebook, and word spread from there. Unlike traditional media, digital media allowed for a non-hierarchical, collective communication.

Of course no single Tweet or Facebook group compelled these thousands of people to march.  But digital and social media facilitated communication between and within oppressed nations, and helped the dissatisfaction that had been bubbling below the surface to became a collective struggle.

As Prof. Howard says, “You need to know that you won’t be alone if you go to the Square.”

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This post is categorized in: Events

About Elizabeth Hunter

I love to write about things that make people say WHUT! And I can officially break news, scour the Twitter/Internet, and put out some coherent information in less than a day. Ask me, dudes.

19 Responses to The Arab Revolution and Social Media

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Just a little more about social media and the Arab Revolution... #Egypt #Jan25 -- Topsy.com

  2. Appreciate n support the social awareness people have shown by using social media sites.FB support is immeasurable.

  3. karen says:

    This is truly a unique and fascinating time to be studying the dynamics of social media and social networks. It is so interesting how powerful and empowering this platform can be globally, to people of all walks of life. We are connected more than we ever have been and I am thankful that social media gives channels to keep up to date on global issues, in real-time.

    Great post and overview of how FB and Twitter gave people a platform to be heard, and spark change.

  4. Coco Tsai says:

    It’s really a good post, Liz! I agreed that social media alone is hard to make protests come true. However it is a catalyst when the protests are happening. It provides a platform for protesters to ensure they have a same goal and they are not alone.

    Also, I think you mentioned a very good point that now we don’t have to be limited by one-voice direction media via TVs and broadcasts by government or any profit organization who supporting to one party. People have their own stage by using social media and have chances to avoid some bias information from old traditional media. And I believe this freedom and progress of media is a treasure for us at this age.

  5. Thanks for your post. What’s fascinating to me in this series of political uprisings (2011) is the narrow range of activists who are dictating the narrative of the events via social media. Yes, it’s propaganda — as Philip Howard notes above — but it’s welcome for the most part, as voices not yet widely heard in the West.

    It will be interesting to see how social media consumers — including now mainstream news media — respond to this in the next phase (a year or so from now) and whether we collectively demand a greater variety of voices beyond the activists. As Internet penetration rises around the world, that will be possible.

  6. Li Li says:

    Thanks for your post. It is very interesting to know that cover of internet in Middle East is so low, just about 20%. Before, I watch a news on CNN about the upper-class teenagers calling for protest through Facebook and Twitter and printing them out. It is so fascinating to see that social media breaks government’s strict dominance toward media and propaganda and empowers individual to express their own opinions.

    I see information is a weapon, especially during war time. Who controls the media, who wins the war. However, in this era, with social media and internet, I have to say it would be a lot more challenging for any power to control information and it would be a great benefit for every individual’s right.

  7. Ting Kang says:

    Very interesting post.

    I really like the professor’s penetrating conclusion that “when activists would seize a TV station or radio station, the stuff they broadcast was usually also propaganda. Different from the state propaganda, but still propaganda.”

    Haha isn’t it! Never expect that a traditional broadcasting platform to voice in the way you wish. We awe them as “the fourth power” in the past because they had the say, they represented our voice.

    But they cannot do this today. Every one of us become the creator and distributor and can let our voice to be heard via various platforms. Social media has taken the torch and made itself sort of leading role.

    Not mature yet to say social media will suffice the resolution, but it’s a easiest access for people to communicate and unite, free of space limitations. The power of social media in nowadays resolutions can no longer be underestimated.

  8. Zanna says:

    I am so glad that Elizabeth Hunter wrote this article. In my opinion the key to understand the importance and the power of the so called “ First Social Media Revolution” is on the number that show the digital inclusion/digital divide. I am very interested in the subject of digital inclusion and it is great to see the numbers in the article. “Despite being one of the most connected countries in Africa, Egypt is representative of the global digital divide. Eighty-six percent of Egyptians have television (via) but Internet access and PC ownership remains almost exclusively available to the upper and upper middle classes. In other protesting nations, Internet access ranges from only 5% (Libya) to 34% (Tunisia)”. When you look at the numbers the First Media Revolution does not seem to fit, since many of the protesters went to the street for other reason that Social Theory explain much better than an account on Facebook or Twitter. I do think Social Media was very important, specially to connect the minority, the digitally connects, but it does not take the power of the people who went out on the street and die for the most important cause of their lives: Freedom.

  9. Nora says:

    20% of 80 million is 16 million so if tens of thousands of people were showing up to protests then I think that social media did play a major role in this revolution.

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  12. rashad says:

    Thanks for ur article its soo true but i think there are more than 20% in arab world example in my country we are only 4 million people mostly 3 million use internet here and facebook,twitter are talking a huge part of our time and the arab revulation such as syria,egypt,tunisia are in need for a revultion they are livin in a mess ..in 2005 we made the biggest revulition in the history of arabs and there was no facebook or twitter only motivation for change but yes thanks to facebook for letting other countries live this dream

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