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Opening Closed Regimes - What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?

Opening Closed Regimes - What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?

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Published by Craig Thomler
Summary
Social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. A spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground. Social media helped spread democratic ideas across international borders.
Summary
Social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. A spike in online revolutionary conversations often preceded major events on the ground. Social media helped spread democratic ideas across international borders.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Craig Thomler on Sep 26, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial No-derivs

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10/24/2013

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Opening Closed Regimes
What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?
Philip N. Howard, University of WashingtonAiden Duffy, University of WashingtonDeen Freelon, American UniversityMuzammil Hussain, University of WashingtonWill Mari, University of WashingtonMarwa Mazaid, University of WashingtonWorking Paper 2011.1
 
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.org - 2 -
Summary
Social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring. A spike in online revolutionary conversations oftenpreceded major events on the ground. Social media helped spreaddemocratic ideas across international borders.
Main Findings
No one could have predicted thatMohammed Bouazizi would play a rolein unleashing a wave of protest fordemocracy in the Arab world. Yet, after the young vegetable merchant steppedin front of a municipal building inTunisia and set himself on fire in protestof the government on December 17,2010, democratic fervor spread acrossNorth Africa and the Middle East.Governments in Tunisia and Egypt soonfell, civil war broke out in Libya, andprotestors took to the streets in Algeria,Morocco, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.The Arab Spring had many causes. Oneof these sources was social media andits power to put a human face onpolitical oppression. Bouazizi’s self immolation was one of several stories told and retold on Facebook, Twitter,and YouTube in ways that inspireddissidents to organize protests, criticize their governments, and spread ideasabout democracy. Until now, most of what we have known about the role of social media in the Arab Spring hasbeen anecdotal.Focused mainly on Tunisia and Egypt, this research included creating a uniquedatabase of information collected fromFacebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Theresearch also included creating maps of important Egyptian political Websites,examining political conversations in theTunisian blogosphere, analyzing more than 3 million Tweets based on key-words used, and tracking whichcountries thousands of individualsTweeted from during the revolutions.The result is that for the first time wehave evidence confirming socialmedia’s critical role in the Arab Spring.Our research has produced three keyfindings:
First, social media played a central rolein shaping political debates in the ArabSpring.
Our evidence shows that social mediawas used heavily to conduct politicalconversations by a key demographicgroup in the revolution – young, urban,relatively well educated individuals,many of whom were women. Bothbefore and during the revolutions, theseindividuals used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to put pressure on theirgovernments. In some cases, they usednew technologies in creative ways suchas in Tunisia where democracyadvocates embarrassed President ZineEl Abidine Ben Ali by streaming video of his wife using a government jet to makeexpensive shopping trips to Europe.Bloggers also used the Internet topublish information critical of thegovernments in Egypt and Tunisia. And
 
 www.
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.org - 3 -our evidence suggests that politicalorganizations and individuals usedWestern news sites – such as the BBCand CNN – to spread credibleinformation to their supporters through the revolutionary period. The result was that, by using digital technologies,democracy advocates created afreedom meme that took on a life of itsown and spread ideas about liberty andrevolution to a surprisingly large numberof people. Interestingly, not a singleEgyptian political Website we mappedlinked to regional news sources such asAl Jazeera and Al Arabiya before therevolution.
Second, a spike in online revolutionaryconversations often preceded majorevents on the ground.
Determining whether onlineconversations were driving streetprotests or whether the presence of alarge volume of people in the streetswas feeding an ongoing onlineconversation can be difficult. However,our evidence suggests that onlineconversations played an integral part in the revolutions that toppledgovernments in Egypt and Tunisia. Wefind that conversations about liberty,democracy, and revolution on blogs andon Twitter often immediately precededmass protests. In Tunisia, for example,20 percent of blogs were evaluating Ben Ali’s leadership on the day heresigned from office (January 14), upfrom just 5 percent the month before.Subsequently, the primary topic forTunisian blogs was “revolution” until apublic rally of at least 100,000 people took place and eventually forced the oldregime’s remaining leaders to relinquishpower.Governments themselves alsorecognized the power of oppositionmovements equipped with social media.In Tunisia, officials attempted to blockFacebook and other social media sitesand arrested bloggers and others whoused social media to spread criticalnews about the government. What theyfound is that democracy advocateswere tech-savvy and had the help of hackers and talented computerprogrammers who were able to shuttergovernment services online and provideprotestors with workarounds to censors.Likewise, Egypt attempted to choke off access to social media and found that the protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Squarewere nonetheless able to stayconnected. The Muslim Brotherhoodrelied on bloggers whose servers werelocated in London and thereforecouldn’t be taken offline.
Third, social media helped spreaddemocratic ideas across internationalborders.
Our evidence suggests that democracyadvocates in Egypt and Tunisia usedsocial media to connect with othersoutside their countries. In many cases, these connections helped informWestern news stories about events on the ground, which in turn spread newsabout ongoing events throughout theregion. In many other cases, we find that democracy advocates in Egypt andTunisia picked up followers in othercountries, where similar democraticprotests would later erupt. Ultimately,social media brought a cascade of messages about freedom anddemocracy across North Africa and theMiddle East, and helped raise

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