Read, Re-tweet, Revolt
An investigation into social media as agents of socio-political change.
An MA Project submitted to the University of Gloucestershire in accordance with the requirements of the degree of MA Media and Creative Enterprise in the Faculty of Media, Art and Technology
Word Count: 19,791. Department of Communications and Media Production, September 2011.
Abstract Social media are of growing importance in contemporary society. As the digital divide continues to diminish each year, an ever-increasing number of Internet users adopt social media as instruments of communication and information dissemination. In light of the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, in which social media were presumed by many to have been instrumental, this thesis investigates the potential for these tools to stimulate socio-political change. In order to accurately understand the role of social media during times of socio-political instability, relevant academic literature is reviewed and assessed. In addition to this, primary research is conducted, in which questionnaires, completed by a number of social media users located in areas affected by unrest in 2011, are analysed. This research produces a number of key findings: The vast majority of users consider social media to be effective vehicles of communication with which groups can organise themselves and coordinate with a degree of efficiency that is difficult to achieve by alternative means; Social media are conduits of information that offer users the opportunity to exert great influence over the ways in which narratives are constructed; Social media tools do not intrinsically favour citizens or authorities, and rather, they simply offer support to whomever utilises them most effectively. The main conclusions drawn from this research are that the success of citizens in shaping the narrative of the unrest has resulted in an exaggeration of the power and significance of social media’s influence. Social media are not indispensible, and while they most certainly did play important roles in the events, they were decidedly secondary. This thesis argues for further investigations into the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that render socio-political environments susceptible to change.
TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION................................................................................................................1 CHAPTER 1: EVERYTHING IS CHANGING
TECHNOLOGY, COMMUNICATION AND SOCIETY ...............................................................7
CHAPTER 2: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
COOPERATION, COLLABORATION AND COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE ...........................15
CHAPTER 3: THE OXYGEN OF THE MODERN AGE?
INFORMATION, TECHNOLOGY, AND POLITICAL ACTION ................................................22
CHAPTER 4: METHODOLOGY
4.1 - JUSTIFICATION FOR RESEARCH
4.2 - RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY ..................................................................31 4.2.1 - INTRODUCTION ...............................................................................................31 4.2.2 - RESEARCH DESIGN ..........................................................................................32 4.2.3 - PROCESS OF SAMPLE SELECTION ....................................................................37
CHAPTER 5: FINDINGS
5.1 - INTRODUCTION ............................................................................................................40 5.2 - SOCIAL MEDIA AS INFORMATION POOLS ...................................................................41
CHAPTER 6: FINDINGS
SOCIAL MEDIA AS VIRTUAL BATTLEGROUNDS ................................................................49
CHAPTER 7: CONCLUSION..........................................................................................57 BIBLIOGRAPHY ..............................................................................................................64 APPENDICES
1 - INFORMATION ABOUT STUDY AND INSTRUCTIONS FOR QUESTIONNAIRE ................73 2 - SAMPLE COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE
ORIGINAL COPIES OF QUESTIONNAIRES AS COMPLETED BY PARTICIPANTS 3 - AHMAD GHARBEIA ...............................................................................................76 4 - AHMED AL OMRAN...............................................................................................79 5 - AHMED FOUDA .....................................................................................................81 6 - AMB MONEIB ........................................................................................................84 7 - DAVID DEGNER ....................................................................................................87 8 - DINA BATSHON ....................................................................................................90 9 - FIRAS AL-ATRAQCHI ............................................................................................93 10 – ISSANDR EL AMRANI..........................................................................................96 11 – MOHAMMAD ALQAQ ..........................................................................................98 12 – ‘NASER’ ............................................................................................................100 13 – OLA ELIWAT .....................................................................................................102
14 – ROBA AL-ASSI ..................................................................................................104
ABBREVIATIONS ..........................................................................................................106 GLOSSARY OF TERMS ................................................................................................107
Introduction On the morning of December 17th, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old street vendor from a small central-Tunisian town, made a very public, desperate, and symbolic stand against the police brutality, economic volatility, government corruption and unemployment that had plagued the Tunisian citizenry for over two decades. Bouazizi, the sole breadwinner for a large family of eight, had worked at a market in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, since leaving education aged nineteen. Earning a modest income selling fruit and vegetables, he hoped to one day provide his family with the financial stability that would allow his five siblings the opportunity to attend university. However, unable to obtain an official permit to sell his produce at the market, reports suggest that Bouazizi was regularly subjected to verbal and physical abuse from local police officers (Ryan, 2011b, [online]). Infuriated by the confiscation of his weighing scales and the heavy fine he had received that morning for trading illegally, angered by a subsequent physical altercation with a female police officer (the details of which have most certainly become the subject of exaggeration and embroidery) (Day, 2011, [online]), frustrated by the refusal of officials at the local municipality offices to hear his grievances, and lacking in any means by which he could continue to support his family financially, Bouazizi proceeded to douse himself in fuel and set himself alight in front of a crowd of onlookers, outside the provincial building. Unbeknownst to Bouazizi and his family, the Tunisian authorities, or the millions who would hear of his defiance over the following weeks and months, the protest would prove to be deeply symbolic, as it would ignite the passions of the Tunisian population, and, in turn, spark the unrest that would engulf the Middle East and North Africa throughout 2011. Bouazizi was by no means the first person so deeply dissatisfied with the socio-political and economic status quo as to resort to self-immolation as a form of protest (Biggs, 2005, [pdf]), nor was he the only person to do so in the region in 2011 (Hendawi, 2011, [online]).
However, past instances have not sparked uproar on the scale that we have seen in the Arab world this year. The sheer magnitude of the events that followed, but were not necessarily directly catalysed by Bouazizi’s expression of discontent, require a thorough investigation into how, and why, such a state of unrest could proliferate throughout the region to such an incredible degree, and at such rapid speed. Reports suggest that in the days immediately following Bouazizi’s dramatic demonstration against the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Reuters, 2010, [online]), hundreds of youths engaged in violent clashes with police and security forces in Sidi Bouzid. Perhaps inspired by the way that members of the April 6 Youth movement of Egypt had used Facebook to organise industrial strike action and demonstrations in 2008 (Wolman, 2008, [online]), thousands of Tunisian citizens joined a Facebook group entitled Progressive Youth of Tunisia, pledging their commitment to an anti-regime resistance movement. As huge crowds descended upon the streets of Tunisia in protest, and similar instances of unrest subsequently swept across Egypt, protesters paid tribute to online tools of communication (BBC Newsbeat, 2011, [video online]) for helping them to organise the events, with one Egyptian couple going as far as to name their newborn daughter ‘Facebook’ (Sobotka, 2011, [online]) in homage to the social networking giant. Events such as this certainly suggested to some that social media were playing a role in the events that should not, and arguably could not, be ignored (Hartley Parkinson, 2011, [online]; Macmillan, 2011, [online]). As both President Ben Ali of Tunisia, and President Mubarak of Egypt were eventually overthrown, it seemed logical to accredit their removal to social media, as their widespread use was the most obvious common factor in both countries at the time that this changed occurred. Such judgments were considered all the more reasonable as the events continued to unfold. As unrest spread from country to country, and marches, demonstrations and protests took
place in Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Morocco amongst others, social networking websites were awash with news updates, rumours, discussions and debates, and calls for support from those involved. As each day passed, citizens and professional journalists alike, uploaded photographs and videos to media-sharing platforms, and avid bloggers throughout the world reported on the events, and speculated about what their social, political, economic and cultural implications may be. Such extensive use of social media gave rise to the assumption that it was not only the very reason the unrest had taken place, but also that their existence had allowed it to spread almost unhindered (Cafferty, 2011, [online]). A common narrative emerged from both traditional media institutions and social media communities that hailed social media as trump cards in the hands of repressed citizens. Many claimed that social media allowed groups to organise themselves and arrange collective action with such ease and efficiency, and at such a great pace, that authorities could not possibly mount a defensive response quick enough to effectively restore order (Rhoads, 2011, [online]; Boyd, 2011, [online]). With these issues in mind, this academic investigation clarifies the relationship between social media and socio-political instability. As is necessary when conducting any academic exploration, presumptions should be treated with great caution. It is all too easy to presume that the role that social media has played in the recent unrest is significant simply because it makes sense. However, thus far, there has been very little convincing evidence to suggest that social media has performed any considerable roles in the recent unrest, or that protests and other dissident activities have achieved discernable changes in the socio-political atmosphere. In this respect, it is necessary to approach this issue objectively. At the time of writing, the end is most certainly not in sight for many pro-reform activist movements in the Middle East and North Africa. Whilst, as mentioned above, anti-regime activists in Egypt and Tunisia appear to have been relatively successful in their efforts at
achieving some kind of socio-political reform, there is certainly good reason to doubt the success of their counterparts elsewhere in the region. Harsh government crackdowns in Syria suggest that far from being powerless to the might of the net-connected public, authorities are capable of exploiting the transparency of social media communication to accurately anticipate when and where instances of unrest are set to take place, so as to efficiently disrupt such events. Instances of police brutality in Syria, as well as in many other Arab nations, remind us that we must not neglect the bloody conflicts that rage on in the streets throughout the region, in favour of turning to the battles that take place online between citizens and authorities. As technology has developed both in its sophistication and its pervasion into everyday life, scholars have become increasingly concerned with its affect and influence on societal affairs, political policy, the global economy, and culture. Leading academics remain collectively undecided as to whether our interaction with technology has thus far had positive repercussions for socio-political development. Notions proposed by Clay Shirky and Evgeny Morozov epitomise this debate. In his seminal publication Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008), Shirky asks his readers to turn to history for evidence of how, with each major technological development, there has been a profound alteration not only in the way that information is interpreted and disseminated, but how society, politics, and the economy function, to which Shirky claims the Internet is no exception. Shirky makes the case that Internet technologies and social media tools support group coordination and collaboration, and allow groups to organise themselves and succeed in their objectives with a degree of efficiency that was previously unattainable outside of structured institutions. The wider implications of this, Shirky argues, are that the decentralised, highly motivated and efficiently self-organised groups that emerge from
Internet communications, possess the ability to fundamentally threaten the authority of political leaders and policy-makers, which in turn encourages democratic progress. In contrast to Shirky’s position on the democratising potential of social media, Morozov takes an altogether more critical view in his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011). At the very core of Morozov’s argument lies the belief that those who praise social media as technologies of freedom are blind to - or choose not to acknowledge - the reality that rather than emancipating citizens from repressive dictatorial rule, such tools are in fact counter-productive to pro-democracy activist movements, allowing autocratic and authoritarian regimes to remain firmly entrenched in power. While Morozov does not explicitly refute Shirky’s claim that Internet technologies facilitate group coordination, he implies that the proficiency with which authorities have turned Internet communication devices into instruments of surveillance, renders the aptitude of groups to work together and cooperate with one another in order to wield political force, as somewhat optimistic and academic. The unrest in the Middle East and North Africa presents us with the opportunity to test the hypotheses put forward by Shirky and Morozov, and those of many other academic authors, against recent and relevant events. The objectives of this piece are to identify the roles played by social media tools in the recent unrest; to understand to what extent these technologies have influenced and transformed the socio-political environments within the countries affected; to reach wider conclusions regarding the significance of social media in contemporary society; and to understand what the future implications of these tools may be for socio-political progress. A thorough review of the existing relevant literature directly follows this introduction. In this examination, academic materials concerning the relationship between technology, communication and society, the potential intelligence and power of groups and networks, and the influence of information and technology on political action are critiqued, so as to
identify and assess the strengths and inadequacies of research that has been conducted up until this point. Subsequently, the methodology chapter details the objectives and procedures of the primary research that was conducted as part of this project. This chapter contains reasons as to why it was necessary to conduct e-mail-administered questionnaire-based research with individuals located in the Middle East and North Africa, as well discussions regarding the benefits and limitations of this approach. In chapters five and six, based upon qualitative data obtained from the aforementioned primary research, and with reference to academic sources, the findings of this study are discussed at length. Finally, in addition to identifying particular areas that are in need of further academic investigation, the closing chapter of this thesis sets out a comprehensive set of conclusions. This thesis will greatly contribute to academic knowledge regarding the online tools that are becoming increasingly prevalent in a number of aspects of human interaction. Unlike many academic papers written about social media, this thesis foregrounds research results over theoretical debate and assertion. The complexity of the events that have taken place in the ME and NA has given rise to a wide range of contradicting theories and conflicting opinions regarding the significance of social media in contemporary society. This thesis untangles this web of confusion, and draws clear conclusions based upon firm evidence.
CHAPTER ONE: EVERYTHING IS CHANGING TECHNOLOGY, COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY
Everything is changing - you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to "the others." And they're changing dramatically (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967, p.8).
The alphabet, the newspaper, the printing press, the telephone, the radio, the motion picture camera, the television, the computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web. The invention of each of these communication tools, and many more besides, mark distinct periods of transformation in the ways that information is disseminated, and language is constructed and understood. One needs attend to just a brief overview of the history of communications for it to become apparent that with each major technological development, there has been an equally significant shift in the processes through which human beings interact with one another, and develop information and knowledge. Historically, these transformations have led to the reshaping of the societal landscapes to which the technologies were introduced. Internet communications consultant Clay Shirky affirms the co-evolutionary nature of technology, communications, and society, declaring, “Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring” (Shirky, 2008, p.105). This is to say that only as a communication tool permeates the lives of the majority of the population, does its societal influence become truly evident. The propensity for technological and scientific discovery to profoundly alter and affect society was anticipated approximately thirty years before the emergence of what we can now refer to as the information revolution (Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p.15). In 1973, Daniel Bell accurately foresaw major technological innovations eventually resulting in the development of the service-based economy, and the growth of professional and technical occupations (Bell, 1973 cited in Dyer-Witheford, 1999, p.17).
The disparity between the introduction of a major new technology and the onset of its societal influence, however, appears to be decreasing. The exponential rate at which the price-performance of Internet technologies - arguably the innovations that have most markedly altered human interaction in the 21st century - continues to increase, indicates that progressively more complex and powerful technologies are becoming evermore accessible (Kurzweil, 2005, p.76), and thus the degree of their societal influence, and the speed at which these effects become evident, continues to increase and accelerate. Moreover, as the digital divide continues to diminish (Sunstein, 2001), it is likely that these social transformations will become more widespread. For this reason, it is imperative that we address both the social transformations that have already occurred, and those that are likely to arise in the future as a result of the growing pervasiveness of modern Internet communication devices, and the ever-changing architecture of the Internet. In the interest of clarity, it is at this point helpful to mark the difference between the Internet (the global network of electronically interconnected computers) and the World Wide Web (WWW) (the hypertext-based documents that can be accessed by web browser applications). The terms cyberspace and WWW are, however, used interchangeably throughout this piece. With this distinction in mind, the web is, according to some, an essentially free society (Eisley, 2003 cited in Samuel, 2004, p.206), beyond the reach of regulation, affording virtually every user worldwide the ability to consume an almost infinite amount of information, to contribute and express themselves without fear of repercussions, and to communicate with others, free of temporal and spatial bounds (Harvey, 1989, p.240). However, the degree of freedom experienced by Internet users varies greatly worldwide (Kelly and Cook, 2011, [pdf]; Reporters Sans Frontiers, 1999 cited in Denning, 2001, p.244). As the Western world witnessed the rise of the publicly available Internet throughout the 1990s and 2000s, cyber-utopians heralded the dawn of a new era in social relations,
envisaging cyberspace as an online society that would transcend real-world limitations, a society of “freedom without anarchy, control without government, consensus without power” (Lessig, 2006, p.2), all of which appear unachievable in the offline world, as governments exercise, and in some cases exploit, the power they possess. The web of today enables discussion and communication on a global scale, allowing “people… to share a basis of understanding as common ground from which to mediate consensus… using communicative action” (Lamber, 1995 cited in Samuel, 2004, p.202), in a sphere that is distinct from government jurisdiction. This being said, both the Internet and the web are synthetic virtual environments, and public access to them is granted, and maintained by a number of international, privately owned, corporate organisations. This may hinder government attempts at restricting communication at the level of the web, but it does, to an extent, leave users at the whim of Internet service providers and the creators of web browser applications. Multiple reports suggest that in efforts to stem the flow of information during times of socio-political instability, several authorities have opted to temporarily block Internet access on a national scale (Arthur, 2011, [online]; Beasley, 2011, [online]; Bryant, 2011, [online]). Such instances serve as harsh reminders that the aforementioned freedom currently enjoyed by Internet users may in fact be a privilege that is benevolently granted to them, but can be revoked at any time, by political authorities or those that facilitate web access. What is more, in light of these reports, Google engineer Tim Bray noted that just as the Internet and the web are tools for communication, they serve as windows through which the international community can observe events, to ensure that citizens are not mistreated, stating that “as soon as the world can’t use the net to watch, awful things will start happening” (Bray, 2011 cited in Toor, 2011, [online]). The web is far from static in nature, and whilst effective methods of censorship, control and surveillance are yet to be successfully implemented into its architectural code, it is
unlikely that this will forever remain the case, and instead “much of the “liberty” present at cyberspace’s founding will be removed in its future” (Lessig, 2006, p.5). Lessig addresses a major flaw in the argument held by many that it is the nature of Internet technologies to resist regulatory restrictions, to point out that both the net and cyberspace are entirely constructed virtual spaces, and thus do not inherently possess immunity to regulation of any kind (Lessig, 2006, p.31). Recent considerations made by the Chinese and Australian governments could potentially result in the implementation of real-name registration systems, which would require all Internet users to register their details with the government, and thus surrender their online anonymity (Kelly and Cook, 2011, [online]). These developments certainly cast doubt upon the romantic view held by many that the online sphere should, and will, remain the “last frontier for truly free speech,… a kind of generalized libertarian haven” (Samuel, 2004, p.224). Whilst the online anonymity currently enjoyed by users arguably “encourages the free flow of ideas” (Amis, 2001 cited in Samuel, 2004, pp.214-215), which by Habermasian logic is undoubtedly good for democratic development (Habermas, 1989), arguments for the detrimental social effects of Internet anonymity are equally convincing. Based upon the supposition that accountability for one’s actions ensures civil and responsible behaviour, Alexandra Samuel declares:
Anonymity brings out the worst in people by allowing them to evade the consequences of their speech or actions. Anonymity precludes meaningful speech because it makes it impossible to judge the interests or motives of the speaker (Samuel, 2004, pp.214-215).
Issues regarding the authenticity of information also arise when considering the context in which communication takes place via new media technologies. Just as Internet users can participate in net-mediated activities anonymously, they can adopt fictional online identities, or masquerade as real-world individuals, with great ease. As it is all but impossible to verify the identities of many of those with whom one communicates on the
Internet, the extent to which “trustworthy and accurate information can be distinguished and screened from misleading, false, missourced information” (Rheingold, 2008, p.237) is questionable. The inability for users to determine the veracity of others became evident in June 2011, when the author of A Gay Girl in Damascus, a popular blog purportedly written by Amina Abdallah Araff al Omari, a lesbian peace activist from Syria who had allegedly been kidnapped by authorities, was identified as Tom MacMaster, an forty-year-old American PhD student residing in Edinburgh, Scotland. The potential dubiousness of the information propagated in cyberspace, coupled with the ability for users to exercise a great deal of control over the information that they access, along with advancements made by search engines such as Google that enable personalised search results, is perhaps resulting in many web users being exposed to only a limited scope of information and sources. This is in many ways tantamount to a form of selfcensorship. Eli Pariser (2011) asserts that the filter bubbles in which many Internet users find themselves are harmful to society for a multitude of reasons:
Personalization ﬁlters serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown (Pariser, 2011, pp.14-15).
Pariser goes on to claim filter bubbles impede the creativity and innovation that often arise from the collision of “ideas from different disciplines and cultures” (Pariser, 2011, p.15). What is more, he contends that the complexity and enormity of the global problems that currently face humanity have surpassed the comprehension of individuals, and require collaboration amongst members of large and diverse networks. The diversity of these networks is, by Pariser’s logic, greatly threatened by the emergence of filter bubbles, as the ability for users to build bridging capital (Putnam, 2000 cited in Pariser, 2011, pp.16-17) is severely limited. The extent that some believe a minor search engine feature such as information filtering can be damaging to social development and social cohesion is rather surprising, and
highlights a number of issues that should not be ignored. As online experiences become evermore personalised, the number of common experiences shared by citizens could potentially decrease dramatically. This, in turn, could have drastic social consequences:
Common experiences,… including [those] made possible by the media, provide a form of social glue. A system of communications that radically diminishes the number of such experiences will create a number of problems, not least because of the increase in social fragmentation (Sunstein, 2001, p.9).
It should be noted, however, that Sunstein falls short of addressing any specific social problems that he believes are likely to arise as a result of the fragmentation to which he refers. Whilst many academics concerned with the changes in interpersonal communication that have resulted from major technological developments tend towards techno-centric utopian predictions for the future (Shirky 2008; 2010a; 2011; Price, 2011, [pdf]; William, 1995 cited in Briggs and Burke, 2005, p.246), closer inspection reveals a surprising lack of consensus. Jaron Lanier (2010) notes that group coordination, which it is fair to suggest is likely to become increasingly net-mediated as human interaction becomes evermore dependent upon Internet technologies, is greatly hindered by the transparency of online communication. Drawing upon Surowiecki’s (2004) principles of group dynamics, Lanier remarks that the success of cooperative behaviour is somewhat dependent upon limitations in the ability of members to see the decisions made by other group players. From Lanier’s assertion we can see that, rather paradoxically, independence is vital to ensure successful cooperation, and serves to protect the group against mob mentality and the poor collective decisions that could ensue. It appears that a gentle balance exists between an individualistic and fragmented society on the one hand, and a collectivist society possessing a pernicious tendency towards mob-like behaviour on the other; a balance over which modern online communications have a great deal of influence. Lanier continues on, to argue that many predictions for the future of netmediated communications are idealistic, and that whilst the web can positively enhance
human communication, it also has the potential to “accentuate negative patterns of behavior or even bring about unforeseen social pathology” (Lanier, 2010, pp.45-46). Moreover, he highlights the possible dangers of pervasiveness Internet technologies:
With millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation… Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age? (Lanier, 2010, pp.45-46)
According to Lanier, history tells us that economic instability, when coupled with a rise in collectivist ideologies, can lead to “large-scale social disasters” (Ibid., p.46). The digital environment in which collectivist ideologies are now transmitted, at great speed and free from limitation, combined with the current vulnerability of the world economy, is, by Lanier’s logic, the recipe for a major social catastrophe in the future. Lanier’s projection is exemplar of the view held by many academics that the value of new media technologies can be found in their ability to directly influence and drastically affect human communication, whilst these effects are variably deemed both positive and negative. Whilst this view is true in part, it devalues the power and importance of traditional media forms as conduits of information. Net-mediated communication certainly wields more influence over organisational practices today than it did just fifteen years ago, but it is important that as part of our assessment of the relationship between humans and technology we consider the belief held by some that in order for any self-organising collective action group to be successful in their attempt at influencing any form of social change, regardless of how minor it may be, they must first gain support and exposure, by way of the mainstream press. As Dieter Rucht so succinctly, yet hyperbolically put it, “a movement that does not make it into the media is non-existent” (Rucht, et al., 2002 cited in Bennett, 2003, p.17). Whilst Rucht’s assertion should not be taken literally, it stresses a significant issue regarding net-mediated group action: can communication that takes place in cyberspace
have direct consequence in the offline world or is cyber-chatter devoid of the ability to influence society, culture, the economy or political policy in the real world?
CHAPTER TWO: STRENGTH IN NUMBERS COOPERATION, COLLABORATION AND COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE
Tools are just tools and without us… humans being social, sharing, listening and creating new information, then they are just tools (Ramsey Tesdell, founder of 7iber.com cited in Al-Zubaidi, et al., 2011, p.84).
To objectively describe the recent unrest in the ME and NA, free of ideological and political bias or presupposition is no simple task, but it is a necessary one nonetheless. The events are extremely complex and difficult to comprehend for a number of reasons: the unrest that continues to unfold can be attributed to a seemingly limitless multiplicity of social, political and economic factors; the degree of the unrest varies greatly from country to country; an abundance of ongoing organisational processes aid both public coordination and the government responses that have followed, and, at the time of writing, many of the conflicts remain unresolved. After careful deliberation, and making every effort to avoid the use of loaded or rhetorical terms, it is sufficient to define the ongoing events as the destabilisation of social, economic and political structures resulting from large-scale public expressions of dissatisfaction at disharmonious citizen-authority relationships and other perceived injustices. At the very core of the unrest are the tens of thousands of civilians that have taken to the streets of several countries throughout the ME and NA in protest, to publicly express their discontent at political corruption, growing unemployment, dictatorial repression, censorship of information and communication, and financial imbalances, amongst other factors. As the quotation at the beginning of this chapter implies, before discussing SM tools in terms of their ability to act as agents of socio-political change, it is important to first address the potential intelligence and power of the individuals and groups that utilise these modern communication technologies.
Two illustrative examples stand at the forefront of all investigations into the collective intelligence of groups. The first is taken from James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (2004). Whilst his theory has been criticised as only being practically applicable to groups in which each player acts independently (Lanier, 2010), Surowiecki beautifully demonstrates the potential for the intelligence of a group to transcend the intelligence of the individuals that comprise it, by re-telling an anecdote from Sir Francis Galton (18221911), a multidisciplinary scientist and anthropologist. Surowiecki writes of Galton’s astonishment when, during a visit to country fair, a crowd of people accurately guessed the weight of an ox. Whilst many individuals involved offered wildly inaccurate estimations, the median average of the combined approximations of the group, produced an astoundingly precise collective estimate:
Galton stumbled on… the simple, but powerful, truth that… groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them… Even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision (Surowiecki, 2004, pp.xiii-xiv).
Secondly, an experiment conducted by computer research scientist Loren Carpenter in 1991, in which a group of nearly five hundred participants were required to self-organise and cooperate with one another in order to successfully complete the ground-breaking video game Pong, further exemplified the aptitude of groups to efficiently coordinate, so as to complete complex tasks and make reasoned and rational judgments (Kelly, 1994, [pdf], pp.11-12). To offer a more recent example, we shall refer to the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia as a practical illustration of collective intelligence in the contemporary technological environment. While it has attracted much criticism for its nonhierarchical editing processes, and the potential for inaccurate and invalid information that its structure arguably encourages (Waldman, 2004, [online]; Read, 2006; Soylu, 2009, [online]), a recent academic study suggests that as the number of contributors to Wikipedia continues to grow, articles undergo increasingly rigourous review-and-edit procedures, which in turn
lead to an average increase in article quality (Wilkinson, and Huberman, 2011, [online]). Equally, as the number of players in a group increases, so does the accuracy and value of the informational-output they produce. Much like the other examples offered above, the decentralised structure of Wikipedia, and the quality of the information its contributors collaboratively produce, is testament to the multifaceted capabilities of the self-organising collective. At least part of the success achieved by groups when they are presented with a task or opportunity can be ascribed to the unmanaged division of labour (Shirky, 2008, p.117). In the case of Wikipedia, this system is highly efficient, as contributors are researchers, writers, editors and proofreaders, and can shift between these roles with great ease and absolute freedom. However, the tasks faced by political activist groups are arguably far more complex than those faced in Galton and Carpenter’s anecdotes, or by the users of Wikipedia. A significant criticism of theories of collective intelligence and networked cooperation is that when they are applied to contemporary society, with regards to political action, their flaws become apparent. Whilst collective cooperation is in theory a powerful force, it would be careless to ignore the issues that arise when government intervention, censorship of information, and disruption to the channels of communication utilised by the groups, threaten to disturb, or derail altogether the success of the group in completing their objective (discussed in chapter three). Highlighting this criticism, however, is not to suggest that groups are unable to overcome obstacles that are placed before them, but we must remember that many external factors must be taken into account before we assume that any given task can be completed efficiently and without issue, by way of collaboration and cooperation. Throughout 1989, for example, a series of small marches in the East German city of Leipzig blossomed into large-scale demonstrations against government heavy-handedness and corruption in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). By the time authorities chose to intervene, tens of
thousands of civilians were regularly taking part in the marches, calling for the end of the GDR. As the year drew to a close, their wishes were granted, as the entire government resigned from power, and the Berlin Wall began to be disassembled. Whilst Shirky’s somewhat starry-eyed depiction of these events (Shirky, 2008, pp.161-164) is evidence of a highly motivated and intelligently self-organised group influencing major socio-political reform, numerous events both preceding and following the dissolution of the GDR suggest that many other factors play important roles in facilitating this change. A damning assessment of the current socio-political condition of Egypt, has been offered by Brownlee and Stacher (2011), who propose that whilst the change that has occurred in the country appears drastic at first glance, it is largely cosmetic and for the most part, irrelevant. Whether the results of mass collaboration are as the participants intended (which in itself calls to mind issues regarding whether the intentions of individuals within the group are harmonious with the group objective), an important question remains: what drives people to join together and collaborate in the first place? The perceived injustices mentioned at the beginning of this chapter certainly account for some of the motivation we see evident in political activist groups, but it has been argued that, contrary to what competition-based models of biological evolution suggest, the tendency for individuals to assemble into groups is innate in human beings (Rheingold, 2005, [video]). By this logic, group collaboration and cooperation are vital components of social development, and cooperation is the most logical approach for any individual working towards achieving a particular goal or hoping to obtain a potential reward. To illustrate this point, Howard Rheingold (2002) draws upon the notion of the ultimatum game. As part of the ultimatum game, participants are presented with a sum of money. Participant one must propose how the reward should be divided between themselves and another participant (participant two), whom they do not know, and cannot see. Only if participant two accepts the offer proposed by participant one, does either player receive a
share of the stakes. Numerous cross-cultural economic studies found that the majority of individuals studied opted to punish others whose proposals they deemed to be unfair, despite incurring a personal cost (Henrich, 2000; Henrich, et al., 2006). Anthropologist Joseph Henrich (Ibid.) refers to this behaviour as costly punishment. Despite the blind nature of many of the studies conducted into costly punishment, the majority of participants demonstrated an innate awareness that unfair proposals were likely to be rejected, and that this would ultimately result in neither participant receiving the reward. As a result, the majority of participants proposed fair divisions of the stakes, and thus their offers were accepted. Clear conclusions can be drawn from the results of these studies, as they suggest that it is not only an innate human quality to work with others with whom individuals share common goals or potential reward, but it is also, to some extent, necessary if these rewards are to be obtained. Online open-source communities are evident examples of the innate human drive to collaborate and cooperate, and the success of such behaviour when it is fostered in an environment that is free of a top-down hierarchical structure. What is more, the edit-andshare nature of these communities suggests that the potential reward offered to the individuals involved, and thus the group (including both developers and users), need not be monetary, and instead may be the improved quality or increased future value of the product created (Lessig, 2001, p.56; Lessig, 2006, p.148). Even though any improvements an individual software developer makes to the product may serve to satisfy his or her own requirements, these improvements in turn benefit the group as a whole, who are given access to the updated software, and have the ability to undo any changes that they do not deem to be positive (Zittrain, 2008, p.94). Whilst the motivation to participate in open-source communities, or any other form of group, may differ for each player, it has been proposed that mutuality and reciprocity in the
relationships of the players in any given network are the cohesive qualities that bind groups together, and motivate them to engage in cooperative behaviours:
A network is a group of individual agents who share informal norms or values... The norms and values encompassed under this definition can extend from the simple norm of reciprocity shared between two friends to the complex value systems created by organized religions (Fukuyama, 1999 cited in Arquilla, and Ronfeldt, 2001, p.321).
According to leading political scientist and advocate of non-violent resistance, Gene Sharp, a motivated, informed, intelligent citizenry, with a degree of self-awareness of their own capabilities, possess all of the qualities necessary to curtail or dissolve governmental power (Sharp, 1980, p.26). Sharp elaborates upon this point, however, to stress that socio-political change cannot be achieved by lone individuals, and instead “the sources of the ruler’s power are… only threatened significantly when assistance, cooperation, and obedience are withheld by large numbers of subject at the same time” (Ibid.), evidence of the necessity for individuals to assemble together in order to effectively exercise socio-political power. Whilst Sharp’s assertion that a public assemblage are capable of rendering unfavourable government institutions - and others in positions of authority that the citizenry deem ideologically illegitimate - utterly politically impotent (Sharp, 1980, p.342) is convincing, it ignores the heterogeneity of contemporary society, and the equally powerful potential of large countercurrent groups. Nevertheless, by Sharp’s logic, it is reasonable to propose that in order for social institutions and groups of citizens to coordinate themselves and withhold power from political elites, communication must occur at some level. The importance of communication amongst groups becomes evident when we refer to Jurgen Habermas’ seminal notion of the public sphere (Habermas, 1989). Nancy Fraser defines the public sphere as, “A theater in modern societies in… which citizens deliberate about their common affairs[;]… [An] arena [that] is conceptually distinct from the state” (Fraser, 1990, p.57). While the social environment has arguably changed markedly in the years since Habermas put forward the notion of the public sphere, his theory remains central to any discussions concerning societal change and interpersonal interaction.
Even though Habermas’ belief that public deliberation is a central element of social development is important, the medium through which this communication occurs, holds perhaps as much worth as the content it carries. To broadly define all forms of human interaction as communication does not adequately recognise the “personal and social consequences [that] result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (McLuhan, 1964, p.7). It is now clear that groups, brought together by the innate human instinct to cooperate, maintained by mutual values and personal motivations, and empowered by collective intelligence, are potentially powerful and dynamic forces. The following chapter will look closely at how the socio-political environment may be transformed by the modern communication devices that lie in the hands of the always-connected, technoliterate, and incredibly potent public.
CHAPTER THREE: THE OXYGEN OF THE MODERN AGE? INFORMATION, TECHNOLOGY AND POLITICAL ACTION
[In] the quintessential 21st-century conflict… on one side are government thugs firing bullets… [and] on the other side are young protesters firing ‘tweets’ (Morozov, 2011, p.2). Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders (Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States of America, 1989 cited in Wang, 2003, p.237).
Rhetoric is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. Throughout history, political forces and influential figures have employed rhetorical devices, for reasons too innumerable to list. Nonetheless, President Reagan’s inspirational pronouncement of the potential of information to catalyse democratic development, made whilst the Internet was still in its infancy, and long before the World Wide Web as it is commonly recognised today had even been conceived, was by some interpretations of historical events, as much prophetic as it was rhetorical. A brief assessment of 20th century social history reveals that efficient information management and manipulation can go some way to aiding the efforts of political forces to exert power and control over the citizenry, as was egregiously demonstrated by the propensity of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party of Nazi Germany and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, for propaganda. By this reasoning, it is not surprising that many techno-triumphalists proclaim the Internet, as a virtual passage through which an ever-increasing wealth of information travels relatively unimpeded between its users, to be the proverbial nail in the coffin of totalitarian regimes (Rhoads, 2011, [online]). Traditional - and arguably inaccurate - Western discourses regarding the downfall of the Soviet Union, bestow great worth upon clandestine information-based dissident activities. The Samizdat movement, with its proficient use of typewriters and fax machines to create and distribute information, is often praised for having played an instrumental role in
bringing about the end of Communist rule in the country (Morozov, 2011, pp.xi-xii). Evgeny Morozov suggests that the fallacy in this logic lies in its failure to acknowledge the role of “structural conditions and the inherent contradictions” (Ibid., p.xii) that undermine the sustainability of closed societies and authoritarian regimes. Though often academically opposed to Morozov, Clay Shirky supports his notion that freer access to information alone is not sufficient to topple dictatorial regimes, but suggests that the communicative opportunities presented by the Internet and SM in particular, can stimulate democratic progress:
As opposed to the self-aggrandizing view that the West holds the source code for democracy - and if it were only made accessible, the remaining autocratic states would crumble -… [it appears that] little political change happens without the dissemination and adoption of ideas and opinions in the public sphere. Access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation (Shirky, 2011, pp.6-7).
Intent on censoring, or at least monitoring communications, repressive regimes are presented with a set of complex challenges when faced with civic interaction by way of SM. Not unlike the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church in the 16th century in defending itself against Protestant heretics and other religious dissidents, dictatorial administrations are often forced to respond to disobedient behaviour or communications with one of two courses of action, neither of which are decidedly beneficial (Briggs and Burke, 2005, pp.66-68). In the instance of a ruling force opting to ignore public disorder, it is possible that support for the cause of the opposition will increase. However, if ruling elites engage in discussions with their opponents or resort to physical force in an effort to silence them, it is equally likely that the results will be harmful to their authority, as this response may encourage the public to compare the opposing forces and to question the discourses disseminated by the dominant political power:
For defenders of old regimes, who rely on habits of obedience, the right response at the level of message might… be the wrong response at the level of medium (Briggs and Burke, 2005, pp.66-68).
The difficulties faced by dictatorial authorities became evident in practice when Jordanian officials attempted to remove an article from forty print copies of The Economist
magazine. When an online subscriber printed, photocopied and faxed the article to over a thousand other citizens, they not only emphasised the efforts of the government to manage the flow of information, but also highlighted its futility in doing so. The results would have been somewhat less damaging had the Jordanian authorities opted to leave the print article in circulation (Denning, 2001, pp.243-244). This problem is typically referred to as the conservative dilemma (Briggs and Burke, 2005, pp.66-68), a problem that can not only incite disastrous political consequences for repressive regimes, but also have significant repercussions on the economic structures that support them. In an article written for the Foreign Affairs journal, Shirky draws upon Ethan Zuckerman’s cute cat theory of digital activism (Zuckerman, 2008 cited in Shirky, 2011, [online]), in which Zuckerman suggests that the tools with which Internet users share photographs of their pets and discuss popular culture, are the same ones employed by both corporations and political authorities for their economic and political uses, and thus any attempts to disrupt these channels of communication could severely damage the economic well-being of the state, and thus destabilise political structures too (Morozov, 2011, p.93). Zuckerman’s notion, however, undermines the importance of information that may appear politically irrelevant. The sharing of mundane information, forms the basis of the collective cognition of society (Agre, 2002, p.320), a component that encourages social solidarity, ensuring community members are “on the same page when a political issue emerges” (Ibid.). The potential repercussions of this are beneficial for political forces if the populace sits in support of them, but are likely to fortify activist movements if the citizenry and the authorities are opposed. Conversely, it has been acknowledged that the “distracting noise of the Internet… can act as a de-politicising factor… [allowing Internet users] plenty of autonomy online - just so long as they don’t venture into politics” (Morozov, 2009, [online]). In a recent online discussion between White House representatives and United States citizens, users were
encouraged to voice their concerns regarding economic instability, before government members made the unusual decision to turn the topic of the debate to “something more fun” (BBC News, 2011a, [online]), directing users to an online clip of the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 song Never Gonna Give You Up. To some this is nothing more than harmless fun, but the act of “Rickrolling”1 can also be interpreted as an attempt by authorities to distract users from asking awkward or difficult questions regarding economic and political issues. As social development and economic sustainability become increasingly dependent upon international information transference, it is crucial that its flow is not inhibited:
The dictator finds himself in a dilemma… Citizens - whether doctors, businessmen, or inventors - [must] have access to the latest sources and forms of information in order to compete in the global marketplace (Danitz and Strobel, 2001, p.133).
Whilst the notion of the dictator’s dilemma addresses the threat that Internet communication devices pose to authoritarian regimes, it should be noted that attempts to prove a direct, irrefutable correlation between Internet censorship and economic growth have produced questionable results (Morozov, 2011, p.93). Just as the Internet allows for direct communication amongst members of the public, it facilitates correspondence between constituents and their political representatives. Termed “direct democracy by its promoters and plebiscitary democracy by its detractors” (Agre, 2002, p.312, italics added by author), it is not unreasonable to say that the increasing ubiquity of digital technologies that afford users the ability to both produce and consume materials, goes some way to weaken the gatekeeping capabilities of political elites (Ibid.) and encourage improved communication between citizens and government representatives. Even so, whilst this concept is valuable in theory, it is heavily reliant upon some degree of democracy already existing within the political structure of the society in question, so that it is unlikely that citizens will be punished for expressing political discontent.
A virally circulated online activity in which an Internet user misleads another by presenting them with a hyperlink to seemingly relevant website, which will in fact direct the recipient of the link to a website containing the music video mentioned above. 25
The extent to which the success of SM tools as instruments of socio-political change is dependent upon the social context in which they are used, is an issue that is absent from many discussions concerning the influential power of Internet technologies. Before the idea that any Internet tool can stimulate social change can even be entertained, the “degree to which a political system is open or vulnerable to political change” must first be understood (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, 1996 cited in Samuel, 2004, p.162). Heretofore, it would have been possible to identify Clay Shirky as guilty of showering SM with praise, without adequately addressing their drawbacks, and the barriers that may stand between SM usage and political change. However, a recent statement in which he concedes, “the use of social media tools… does not have a single preordained outcome” (Shirky, 2011, [online]), goes some way to redeem him from this failure. One must be careful not to fall under “the spell of the rhetoric of the technological sublime” (Rheingold, 2000, pp.320-321) and build any assessment of the democratising power of SM upon the assumptive foundation that SM will continue to favour the citizenry over the political elite (Danitz and Strobel, 2001, p.133). Rather, by Danitz and Strobel’s (Ibid.) logic, we are in the midst of a transitory period in which Internet technologies afford citizens a marginal advantage, as political forces have not yet developed sufficient mechanisms with which to instill cyberspace with any sense of order. Nevertheless, as these technologies develop in the future, we will likely see the balance - to use this word loosely - of power between politicians and constituents, return. To the net-libertarian, hacktivism and cyberterrorism may be the most appropriate responses to the efforts of authorities to impose control over the online sphere or conceal information from citizens, or attempts by large international corporations to increase the size of their slice of the economic pie (Kahn and Kellner, 2004, p.90), as recent instances of cyberterrorism involving the Antisec and Anonymous movements, and the phonehacking scandal surrounding the News of the World newspaper, indicate.
When online attacks are carried out alongside real-world protests, the net is hailed as a somewhat unstoppable force (Denning, 2001, p.257). In spite of this, such activities may in fact be counter-productive:
The main effect is likely to be a strengthening of cyberdefense policies, both nationally and internationally, rather than accommodation to the demands of the actors (Denning 2001, p.242).
With the Iranian government announcing in February of 2011 that it plans to install a parallel, internal Internet network - similar to that which is currently in operation in Cuba in all Iranian homes by 2013 (Rhoads and Fassihi, 2011, [online]), and North Korean authorities experimenting with a similar system, it is logical to presume that many other closed society will soon follow suit. As it appears simply “banning things is no longer a solution” (Al-Khalifa, 2011 cited in Rhoads, 2011, [online]) to civil disorder, a radical redevelopment of the architecture of the online environment seems to be a more appealing alternative for dictatorial regimes. With this increasingly “skillful exploitation of… new technologies” (Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001, p.314) in mind, the idea that society may eventually descend into a dystopian state of technopoly (Postman, 1992, p.20) seems an evermore-realistic possibility. Orwellian depictions of a totalitarian state, in which instruments of surveillance pervade every aspect of human existence, rendering any attempt at insurrection absolutely ineffective, become all the more terrifying when we consider that the very technologies that may eventually bind the citizenry to complete obedience are enthusiastically adopted, largely without consideration for their potentially disastrous effects (Rheingold, 2002, pp.185-186; Tapscott, 2008, p.7). Social media allow - and in many ways encourage - users to surrender a large amount of personal information, including their name, age, location, likes, dislikes, political views, recent purchases, sexual orientation, and more. Whilst this gives users an enriched SM experience, giving them a deep understanding of the identities of those with whom they
communicate, this information forms the foundation of the digital trails (Rheingold, 2000, pp.299) that aid the online surveillance of citizens:
On the basis of the “information revolution,” not just the prison or factory, but the social totality, comes to function as the hierarchical and disciplinary Panoptic machine (Robins and Wester, 1988 cited in Rheingold, 2000, p.310).
The issues concerning the privacy policies of social networking giant Facebook (see: Kirkpatrick, 2010) further articulate the difficulties of coordinating political action by way of SM. Morozov warns that “even a tiny security flaw in the settings of one Facebook profile can compromise the security of many others” (Morozov, 2009, [online]). On the other hand, the relative transparency of SM communication increases the likelihood of “information cascades” (Morozov, 2011, p.53), as users can see the intentions of their peers, and therefore join political movements that they may not otherwise have participated in. Of course, whilst this can be advantageous for pro-democracy movements, it is equally beneficial for those motivated to disseminate ideals that may be harmful to democratic progress. Upon considering the Pareto principle, or to refer to it more appropriately in this case as the law of the few (Gladwell, 2000, p.19), the true extent to which social media apparatus have the potential to propagate political ideologies - whether democratic or otherwise - alarmingly fast, becomes clear. Furthermore, Gladwell’s notion that connectors (Ibid., p.38) are critical components of social phenomena is somewhat irrelevant in the online environment, as by way of social media, every Internet user is essentially capable of amassing large, diverse networks with relative ease, thus increasing the speed at which ideas, concepts and ideologies are circulated. Nevertheless, cyber grasstops (Price (2011, [pdf], p.9) - those in positions of high social status, who can exert greater influence in the online environment than the average Internet user - are arguably extremely valuable in aiding a political movement in legitimising itself amongst the public. By this logic, rather than being an entirely level playing field on which
all citizens enjoy the same opportunities, the online sphere reflects the inequalities that exist within the offline world. Social status and reputation, the size of ones network, the ability of the individual to effectively employ rhetorical and persuasive language, and the connections one holds with individuals in key positions of power, are, as in the real world (Sharp, 1980, p.26), fundamental factors to consider when assessing one’s capacity to motivate political movements online. It is all too apparent that Internet technologies, and SM tools in particular, are not inherently advantageous for either citizens or political authorities when considering their uses in coordinating or impeding political activism. On this basis, it is reasonable to maintain that, “the Internet has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, and is only one of the arrows in an activist’s quiver” (Danitz and Strobel, 2001, p.167, quotation marks removed by author), and in any academic attempt to assess the uses of SM tools, it is important to remember that “the intrinsic characteristics of the medium are less important than who uses it and how” (Ellul, 1990 cited in Danitz and Strobel, 2001, p.133).
CHAPTER FOUR: METHODOLOGY 4.1 Justification for Research
The astonishing rate at which Internet technologies have advanced in the last twenty-five years goes some way to justifying any investigation into their social and political effects. The indeterminable point at which the World Web Web evolved into a read/write platform - commonly referred to as the stage at which Web 2.0 came to be - empowered users with the ability to produce as well as consume information-based materials, and marked a turning point in the history of the creation and circulation of data and information. To further articulate the magnitude of this development, we shall refer to a statement from Google CEO Eric Schmidt in which he claims that, “Every two days… we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003” (Eric Schmidt, 2010 cited in Siegler, 2010, [online]). As the financial barriers to entry for prospective net adopters continue to fall, and the power of Internet technologies increase, we can predict that Internet-based tools will permeate the lives of more individuals and to a greater extent in the future, which in turn, is likely to amplify their societal effects. To refer to the recent events by the appellation given to them by many traditional Western media institutions, the Arab spring (Hardy, 2011, [online]; Ashley, 2011, [online]; The Economist, 2011, [online] Abouzeid, 2011a, [online]) is an occurrence unlike to any other in human memory. What I would term an unrest epidemic, spread throughout the Arab world at a speed that no one - not the political elites, the protesters on the streets, the global media, or the international community - could have predicted. To suggest that the events merely coincidentally coincided with one another, without thoroughly investigating the organisational practices of those involved, is to gravely underestimate the tools that lie in the hands and at the fingertips of those at the centre of the unrest.
Whilst statistics show that Internet penetration is greatest - in terms of the percentage of the population that have access to the Internet - in North America, followed closely by Oceania, Australia and Europe, the percentage growth of Internet users in the ME between 2000 and 2011 is estimated to be around 1,987%, the second-highest growth of any continent in that period (Internet World Stats, 2011a, [online]). What is more, statistics regarding the penetration of the SM application Facebook in the ME reveal that whilst its usage across the continent is rather limited in comparison with Europe, Latin America and North America, there was a 37.8% increase in the number of Facebook users in the region in the ten months between August 2010 and June 2011 (Internet World Stats, 2011b, [online]). If it is the obligation of academic study to investigate and try to make sense of the world in which we live, then it is imperative that every effort is made to comprehend the effects that evermore pervasive technologies can have on human interaction, progress and communication. 4.2 4.2.1 Research Design and Methodology Introduction
In an attempt to understand the extent of SM’s influence over socio-political development, qualitative questionnaires were sent to, and completed by, a number of individuals who have either participated in, witnessed first-hand, or been directly affected by the recent events in the ME. Furthermore, these participants regularly use SM to express their opinions by way of blog posts, discuss the events with others, or disseminate news reports. In this chapter, we will review the benefits and limitations of this method of research, and justify why this approach was chosen as the most effective process through which to obtain valid and meaningful results. For more information regarding how the participants in this study were located and selected, please see section 4.2.3.
One of the initial challenges that any researcher will face when embarking upon an investigative endeavour is identifying the type of data they hope to obtain from their research. Whether the data required is qualitative or quantitative, or a combination of both, is largely contingent upon what is being studied. As this paper is an investigation into the influence of social media tools, it was necessary to try and understand the attitudes and intentions of those who use them. The purpose of qualitative research is not to merely tally the number of individuals that hold a particular point of view or engage in a specific behaviour or activity - as do quantitative measures (Gaskell, 2000, p.41) - but rather, to explore “the range of opinions… [and] representations of the issue” (Ibid.) in question, and to discover “what underlies and justifies these different viewpoints” (Ibid.). For these reasons, it was determined that a qualitative mode of research would be the most suitable approach for this investigation. Whilst long-term observation allows us to understand the past-activities of the participants, and the context of these actions (Berger, 2000, p.113), this was highly impractical, given that the participants reside in various locations across the ME and NA. As such, a questionnaire was selected as the most appropriate alternative, as it enables the researcher to obtain this contextual information, and more besides, including their “ideas[,]… thoughts[,]… opinions[,]… attitudes[,] and motivations” (Berger, 2000, p.113). Moreover, qualitative data-collection methods such as questionnaires and interviews are useful, as they have proved to be relatively economical in terms of the time and resources they require (Silverman, 2006, p.113). At this point, we must note that whilst a questionnaire - a set of questions delivered to the respondent in written or text format for them to complete - formed the foundation of this primary research, subsequent questions, not included in the standardised list of questions given to all participants, were posed to some respondents. As questionnaires fundamentally
adhere to a strict structure, they ensure that, to some extent, respondents’ opinions or thoughts on specific issues are obtained. What is more, their standardised nature maximises the degree to which responses can be compared (Selltiz, et al, 1964 cited in Silverman, 2001, p.89). However, this approach does not allow for elaboration upon unforeseen points of interest, or clarification of ambiguous remarks. As such, additional questions were both necessary and remedial. As this is not the standard protocol for questionnaire-based research, this method is, in many ways, coterminous with an interview-based approach. The subjectivity of responses, and the manner in which they are analysed, are both benefits and inadequacies of questionnaires. The tendency of human beings to distort, misremember and fabricate details and events (Berger, 2000, pp.124-125) can be of great hindrance to any qualitative researcher, and it arguably devalues the information obtained from qualitative research methods of investigation. Berger reminds us of the inconsistencies of language, stating that “the meaning received or gained by the [researcher] may be different from the meaning intended by the [respondent]” (Ibid.). In an effort to overcome these issues and avoid interpreting the results in a way that the respondents did not intend, each participant was asked to offer their own definition of the events to which their answers correspond. A number of fundamental skills were required in order to ensure the questionnaire would produce valid results. Firstly, it was important to make certain that the questions possessed the highest possible degree of neutrality and did not favour the views of some participants over others (Noaks and Wincup, 2004 cited in Silverman, 2006, p.110). Furthermore, as questionnaires do not allow improvisation or prompting on the part of the researcher, questions are open-ended. This encourages participants to offer “a more considered response” (Byrne, 2004 cited in Silverman, 2006, p.114), and therefore provides better access to the views, experiences and opinions (Ibid.) of the participants.
The internal validity of qualitative research is seriously threatened if the investigator is not consciously aware of demand characteristics (Davies and Mosdell, 2006, p.28). However, the desire of the investigator to point the participants towards particular answers or responses (Ibid.) - which may be, to varying degrees, unconscious - is mostly immaterial in this study, by virtue of the structured nature of the questionnaire and the efforts made to ensure the questions posed are not leading in any way. As the sample of participants chosen for this study was somewhat dictated by the topic of the investigation (as is later discussed in chapter 4.2.3), it was necessary to communicate with individuals located abroad. However, geographical, financial and time restraints meant that it was not practical to deliver and collect the questionnaires in person. It was, therefore, necessary to consider possible alternatives, of which e-mail was the most appealing. E-mail brings with it an additional set of advantages and drawbacks, which are discussed below. Firstly, as many of the participants involved in this study are bloggers or members of social networking websites and online communities, it is not unusual for them to refrain from disclosing their real name, telephone number or contact address on their website. As such, the Internet was the medium through which they were most accessible. Secondly, considering the potential dangers involved in discussing issues of government censorship and repression in countries that are experiencing unrest, it was necessary to acknowledge the possibility that some participants may wish to consider their answers before submitting them. This is partly accommodated by the questionnaire method, as participants can revise their answers before revealing them to the researcher, however e-mail allows them to deliberate over every aspect of their communication. Just as e-mail communication alleviates some of the pressures placed upon respondents, it assists the researcher in the difficult task of archiving and organising materials. As e-mail essentially automates the transcription and archiving procedures that must otherwise be
manually completed, this method allows the investigator to be free of “routine note-taking or transcription concerns” (Kozinets, 2010, p.111), so as “to concentrate fully upon the body” of the research (Ibid.). This method may have significant advantages in terms of its practicalities, but it also creates many other challenges for the researcher, such as issues regarding anonymity, which it was imperative to address before beginning this research. Annette Markham notes that the many non-verbal modes of communication - such as body language, facial expressions, and general mannerisms - that serve to enrich the information exchanged in qualitative investigations, are absent from the view of the researcher when research is conducted by way of online media (Markham, 1998 cited in Kozinets, 2010, p.111). Moreover, a fundamental flaw of net-mediated communication is that whilst “many aspects of the Internet as social space are now interconnected” (Kozinets, 2010, p.111), allowing researchers to cross-reference information from a wide range of sources, so as to verify the identity of the individual with whom they are communicating, it is rare that these practices produces definitive, irrefutable results (Ibid.). In addition to employing the crossreferencing strategy to which Kozinets refers, correspondence with participants was restricted to one or two channels of online communication: initial contact was made directly through the personal blogs, Twitter pages, or e-mails of potential participants. Identity verification is a fundamental requirement when conducting online research, but it is equally important to guarantee all participants the option to remain anonymous (Berger, 2000, p.114). E-mail may not guarantee participants absolute anonymity, as the e-mail address of an individual is often obtained from a source where other personal information can be found, but it does afford the user the ability to use a pseudonym. This is vital, given the sensitive nature of the topics discussed. At this point, we must note that all respondents waived their right to anonymity, but one participant wished to be referred to by his online pseudonym, an abbreviation of his real name.
Markham observes another notable disadvantage of net-mediated research, stating that “because writing takes much longer than talking” (Markham, 1998 cited in Kozinets, 2010, p.111) the time taken for respondents to transmit the same amount of information as they would in a verbal exchange is comparatively greater when communicated through an online medium. Kozinets supports a similar idea, noting that it is more difficult for researchers to establish rapport with, and gain the trust of participants, when communication is limited to brief text-based exchanges (Kozinets, 2010, pp.112-113) in chat rooms and on instant-messaging programs. He does, however, suggest that “coupled with researcher genuineness, trust-building and heartfelt confession, e-mail
[correspondence]… can provide interesting disclosure and enlightenment” (Kozinets, 2010, p.113). Furthermore, e-mail is favourable over other modes of Internet communication such as instant chat programs or chat rooms, as such mediums “tend to offer… thin[,]… rushed[,] and superficial interaction” (Kozinets, 2010, p.46). The practicality of engaging in extensive communications with participants through these mediums is also questionable:
Long interviews might also be difficult to obtain in certain sites, such as social networking sites or virtual worlds, where culture members are too busy to stop for the one or two hours that are required (Kozinets, 2010, p.112).
Respondents of online questionnaires are required to surrender only a brief moment of their time, and as they assumed to already spend some of their time using the Internet, this method of research is unlikely to inconvenience them to any great extent. Even so, a number of individuals who had agreed to take part in this study were unable to find the time to answer the questionnaire, citing demanding work schedules, and travel commitments that would preclude them from accessing the Internet, as the reasons for their withdrawal. Whilst e-mail communication is in some ways more time-consuming than face-to-face or telephonic interaction, this additional time is compensated for by the increased speed at
which the transcription and archiving processes are completed, as mentioned above, and the great validity of the results it can produce, in comparison with other forms of online communication. 4.2.3 Process of Sample Selection
In order for this research to produce meaningful results, it was fundamental that all participants had a sound knowledge and understanding of what SM tools are, and how to use them. As such, this requirement dictated that all participants were, to some degree, users of one or more social medium. It must be conceded, however, that this limits the application of the findings of this research to those with great SM literacy, as those who do not use SM tools are not accounted for. The consequences of this are that we may not gain a clear understanding of the roles SM tools play in the lives of those that do not use them. Moreover, it was important for the sample to have experienced, been involved in, or have been directly affected by some form of socio-political change. Whilst individuals who devote only a small portion of the time they spend using SM to activities related to the recent unrest are useful in some ways, it is reasonable to assume that authors of blogs that are dedicated to the events, and users of other SM who almost exclusively engage in activities related to politics whilst online, will possess a more thorough understanding of both the events in question, and the capabilities of the tools they use. These requirements go some way to justifying the selection of a sample of this kind, rather than a larger, more representative sample. As the events that have unfolded in the ME and NA are the most recent instances of civil unrest and socio-political change, it was necessary to approach those affected by them, as it is presumed their recollections are likely to be more accurate than those of individuals who may have experienced similar events some time ago. Individuals located throughout the Arab world were contacted, requesting their participation, however, only those in
Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria agreed to take part. For this reason, the findings of this study cannot be applied to the entire region. In order to identify relevant blogs and users of social networking websites, searches were made of the websites of numerous mainstream British news institutions and newspapers, including the BBC, the Telegraph and the Guardian amongst others. Early e-mail conversations and Twitter exchanges with various blog authors and SM users within countries that have witnessed unrest yielded large numbers of links to the websites of other blogs and SM users that were recommended as being potentially valuable. The reputation of these sources amongst the political blogging community was an effective measurement of how useful each blog, or individual, was likely to be. Blogs were selected based upon a number of factors: the regularity of updates; the number of external links found that direct Internet users to the blog from other sources; the length, and relevance of each post; and the number of views received. The same principles were applied to users of social networks, with one additional factor - the amount of followers or friends the user had on their profile page. This certainly provides us with some kind of measurement of how popular the individual or the blog they represent is, and how valuable a source of information they are considered to be by others. Of course, it is by no means guaranteed that a blog with a large, international readership is more reliable than one with very few readers. Rather, we can assume that a blog that attracts many subscribers does so because the blogging community deems it to be interesting, insightful, thought provoking or contentious, and for this reason it was believed that the authors of such blogs would provide fascinating and valuable answers. In total, thirty-four individuals were contacted as potential participants. Of those, eighteen responded, agreeing to take part in the study. However, only twelve of those who had initially agreed to participate returned the completed questionnaire form. A small sample
such as this makes for interesting and meaningful results, but a larger sample would most certainly have been more beneficial. The following twelve individuals participated in this study: Amr Moneib, an Egyptian blogger, and author of AmrMoneib.com; Issandr El Amrani, the author of Arab politics and culture blog The Arabist; David Degner, an American photographer and blogger living and working in Cairo, Egypt, a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and author of Indendiary Image, a portfolio-blog covering events in Libya and Egypt; Firas Al-Atraqchi, a leading political blogger for the Huffington Post and associate professor of practice in Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Cairo; Ahmed Al Omran, the blogger behind Saudi Jeans; Ola Eliwat, creator and author of the Cinnamon Zone blog; ‘Naser’, Jordanian author of the Naser K blog; Ahmed Fouda, author of 2amwaj; Mohammad AlQaq, a Jordanian visual artist and Art Director at 7iber.com; and Ahmad Gharbeia, Roba Al-Assi and Dina Batshon, all of whom are avid social media users. Analyses of the responses given by these twelve participants form the basis of the discussions in chapters five and six. To read the completed questionnaires in full, please see the appendices.
CHAPTER FIVE: FINDINGS 5.1 Introduction
The complexity of the social, political, cultural and economic factors that preceded and underlie the events of this year should not be understated. Even so, there is general agreement amongst the participants in this study that SM has performed various critical functions in the events of late. This is not to suggest that public access to social media tools was the central motivating factor behind the events, but rather that these tools were and continue to be - employed by both citizens and authorities for a variety of uses, which shall be discussed in the following two chapters. The definitions of the events that have occurred in the ME and NA, as put forward by the participants in this study, are telling of the discrepancies that exist amongst those directly affected by the events, with regards to how they - are interpreted. As evidence of this, we shall draw upon the definitions given by two bloggers within Egypt. Ahmed Fouda refers to the events as “an awakening” (Fouda, 2011, [e-mail]), but states that he “would not go as far as to call it a revolution” (Ibid.). In contrast, Amr Moneib boldly affords one specific social networking website great value, describing the events as “a Facebook organized revolution” (Moneib, 2011, [e-mail]). The aforementioned interpretive disparities appear greater when we concentrate upon the focal point of each definition. In her definition, Dina Batshon, a Jordanian citizen who participated in demonstrations in the country, focuses upon particular acts of insurrection within her home country of Jordan, rather than their consequences, referring to them as “demonstrations… demanding ‘reform’ of the government” (Batshon, 2011, [e-mail]). Conversely, ‘Naser’s’ statement that the events mark “the beginning of a new era… of the Arab nations who had been under tyranny for the past 50-60 years” (‘Naser’, 2011, [e-
mail]) implies that the outcome of the events are of greater importance to some, than the events themselves. This issue will be discussed at greater length in the following section. 5.2 Social Media as Information Pools
As the term social media encompasses a broad range of technologies, tools, and platforms, employed by millions of people worldwide for an incalculable number of reasons and uses, it is only natural that the great wealth of information that is created and shared by way of SM is, too, multifarious. It is apparent that the plethora of SM forms at the disposal of Internet users, and the variety of forms of information they can communicate through them, go some way to justifying allusions that SM were vital components in the organisation and realisation of the recent events, and that they have proved to be significant in helping to construct clear, rich narratives of the events. Ahmad Gharbeia, whose participation in the unrest was mostly limited to online discussions with others on social networking websites, suggests that online tools facilitated the initial communication among citizens that eventually led to the formation of the large groups at the centre of the unrest. This collective dialogue (Gharbeia, 2011, [e-mail]), or collective cognition (Agre, 2002, p.320) was, according to Gharbeia, a precursor to the unrest, as citizens could converse with one another and decide upon the most appropriate way to go about expressing their concerns or frustrations. In addition to this, he remarks that a number of social mediums played other such noteworthy roles:
Blogging was the medium where various activist networks got established… Youtube contributed to the dissemination of inciting messages and showed people, many of them for the first time, the brutality of the police… Later on Facebook was the platform activists organised [themselves on]. Livecasting has recently [begun] to be used in covering protests (Gharbeia, 2011, [e-mail]).
In addition to this, Gharbeia stresses that many citizens who would not have ordinarily participated in dissident activities, and “traditionally [dismissed]… such events as destructive actions by a minority of trouble-makers” (Gharbeia, 2011, [e-mail]), were motivated to take part in protests and street demonstrations because they became aware
that authorities were mistreating citizens, by way of video-sharing websites and other social mediums. This implies that as citizens exercise greater jurisdiction over the flow of information today than they did in the past, and can therefore direct the construction of the narratives that surround events with greater success, events unfold with a degree of transparency that was not achievable prior to the introduction of SM tools. This is largely based upon the supposition that authorities impede the circulation of information that portrays them in a negative light (discussed further in the following chapter). Ola Eliwat echoes this view, and suggests that whilst SM may not have been the key driving forces behind the events, they serve to “mobilize the public” (Eliwat, 2011, [e-mail]), and accelerate the speed at which collective action can be organised and carried out. As such, it is necessary to explore the role of SM in terms of their importance and effectiveness before, during, and after events like those we have seen in recent months. To do so, we must look at the four most distinct stages of socio-political unrest: the informational stage, when common attitudes and opinions form amongst the citizenry, and thus lead to the formation of groups and networks; the interpersonal stage, at which point attitudes are negotiated and discussed, and events are organised through group communication; the realisation (either virtual or physical) of the events; and finally, the stage of narrative development, at which point narratives are constructed that contextualise what has taken place, and why. The activities that take place during each of these stages are by no means exclusively restricted to SM, but rather the features of SM merely assist such deeds. Furthermore, these stages are not essentially distinct from one another, and rather, groups may pass through a number of these stages concurrently. The necessity of investigating SM’s place during each of these stages becomes all the more great when we consider that SM were criticised by many Western news organisations as having fostered and assisted mob-like behaviour in England, a view that greatly contradicts that of those that considered SM to be harbingers of democracy in the Arab world. Such a
disparity highlights the importance of the stage of narrative development. To propose the notion of social media as information pools is to suggest that, users of SM interpret them as virtual environments where an ever-increasing wealth of information is produced by - and mutually available to - those who utilise these tools, which in turn can be useful during each of the stages mentioned above. The utility and importance of these tools is both dependent upon the features of the medium, and the ways in which users make use of them. While not all respondents are in absolute agreement about the extent of SM’s role in the events, many suggest that SM tools enrich the information available by enabling it to be accessible through a variety of multimedia formats. David Degner states that he believes:
Sites like Facebook and YouTube spread a lot of information after… and as the events were occurring. Videos shared from cell-phone to cell-phone… were important and created surprisingly efficient informal networks (Degner, 2011, [e-mail]).
Numerous respondents claim that citizen usage of SM in times of socio-political instability reveals the apparent inadequacies of traditional media forms and mainstream news institutions (Batshon, 2011, [e-mail]; AlQaq, 2011, [e-mail]). Practical limitations may obstruct professional journalists in their efforts at accessing potentially dangerous scenes of conflict or unrest. However, witnesses to the events, and those involved, can use SM to offer up-to-date delineations, elaborate analyses, or visual representations of the events, almost instantaneously. By doing so, they are essentially contributing to the pool of information, attending to multiple perspectives, and thus helping to convey a fuller picture of the events. Batshon states that she believes SM have all but eclipsed traditional news institutions as the primary sources of information for many citizens (Batshon, 2011, [online]). It is apparent, however, that this view is somewhat romantic, as in many countries financial constraints restrict access to the Internet and SM tools to those who can afford them. To illustrate this point, blogger and academic Firas Al-Atraqchi claims that approximately
seventy percent of the Egyptian population are currently living on, or below the poverty line, and thus do not have access to these tools (Al-Atraqchi, 2011, [e-mail]). The significance of this, is that those without Internet access are largely dependent upon traditional news sources, and along with those who do not engage in any political activities or discussions by way of SM, they are, for the most part, excluded from the public discourse of the events, the potential political implications of which are discussed in the subsequent chapter. Whilst the full extent of SM’s ability to encourage and facilitate socio-political change is unlikely to become clear until the digital divide substantially decreases and SM tools become universally accessible, we can at this point draw some reasonable conclusions and predictions for the future. To do so, we must consider the ways that the contemporary technological environment supports collective action and assess the degree to which SM is an essential component of modern activist movements. Both Issandr El Amrani and Mohammad AlQaq note that the aptitude for SM users to transcend the spatial and temporal constraints that otherwise limit the speed at which communication can occur, has the potential to enable activist movements to produce substantial results in terms of their socio-political influence (El Amrani, 2011, [e-mail]; AlQaq, 2011, [e-mail]). El Amrani implies that the accelerated speed at which ideas are disseminated throughout online networks is an active ingredient in modern day netmediated activist networks, which encourages efficiency and unity within the group. Access to the information pool, coupled with the instantaneous nature of SM communication, is vital in maintaining morale, momentum and group solidarity within activist networks. A key vulnerability of collective activism lies in the ability of the group to sustain confidence in the cause for which they fight. Instances of politically motivated collective action should not be acclaimed as having been successful merely because they have
materialised. Rather, their success is measurable by the social, political, economic and cultural accomplishments of the group, compared with the objectives of those involved. As occurrences of political action are often met with resistance from authorities, it is necessary for dissident groups to actively work to maintain the momentum of the movement, in order to overcome these obstacles. The respondents were largely in agreement with one another that SM enabled the groups involved in the Arab Spring to build, maintain and increase momentum in a way that dissidents in the pre-Internet age could have only achieved with great difficulty, and thus descriptions of SM as the “fuel” (Al Omran, 2011, [e-mail]) of dissident movements, are certainly permissible. It is only logical to suggest that in order for an activist movement to pass through the stages mentioned earlier in this chapter, momentum must be sustained, or the objectives of the group cannot possibly be achieved. Evidence of SM’s ability to strengthen international support for activist movements - and thus bolster the momentum of the movement - can be found when we acknowledge the remarkable speed at which successive protests occurred across the ME and NA after the initial demonstrations in Tunisia. It is reasonable to attribute this to SM, as the circulation of information that takes place on these platforms is not restricted by national boundaries, and therefore this information is, for the most part, as accessible to those in one country as it is to individuals in another:
Changes in communication technology made the current events different [as]… what happens in one country does not stay limited to that one country. The [I]nternet indeed made the world one village in which we all… watch each other in real time (Al Omran, 2011, [e-mail]).
Al-Atraqchi elaborates upon this, suggesting that notions that credit SM as having performed pivotal roles in the organisational processes that preceded the events, and those that recognise SM use as a by-product of the unrest “are mutually inclusive” (Al-Atraqchi, 2011, [e-mail]). In concurrence with Al-Atraqchi, Eliwat articulately describes the relationship between the events and SM as a “two-way road” (Eliwat, 2011, [e-mail]),
declaring that “social media helped accelerate the events and the events got more people interested in social media” (Ibid.). The reciprocity between these two factors is evident when we consider Gharbeia’s assertion that prior to the Egyptian demonstrations in January 2011, approximately 800,000 Facebook users had joined a group on the social networking site, indicating that they intended to participate in anti-regime protests. Gharbeia continues on, to claim:
In the two month[s] following the sit-in of 18 days which ended [with] the stepping down of Mubarak, another million Egyptians joined Facebook [,] which already had around [four million Egyptian users]… the network effect is obvious here (Gharbeia, 2011, [e-mail]).
The notion of the network effect assumes that as the number of SM users - as contributors to the information pool - increases, so too does the quality of the information found within the pool, thus enhancing the value of SM tools and the extent to which they aid the group in its efforts at maintaining its momentum. We must, however, recognise that as these instruments become more valuable to activist groups as the number of SM users grows, it becomes increasingly essential that access to them is not obstructed to any great degree. In this regard, SM serve as crutches upon which modern day activist movements lean. Prior to taking to the streets, several of the citizen groups that participated in real world demonstrations, existed - to variable extents - in the virtual realm. This being said, we must not assume that all of the groups involved in the unrest initially congregated online, but rather, for many, it was the simplest way to communicate and organise events, before assembling in the real world. Equally, we must note that for many groups, real world manifestation of the collective was not deemed to be necessary, as online tools gave them a degree of power they considered to be sufficient. Many respondents stress that the organisational structure of the activist groups involved in the recent events differs greatly to that of similar groups in the past. As SM applications are essentially open publishing platforms for which the only prerequisites are an Internet connection and some degree of literacy, they do not intrinsically favour one member over
another. In theory, members of online groups are of equal status within the collective, and therefore a decentralised organisational structure is a natural progression. According to many respondents, this structure is of great benefit to the activist groups in the ME and NA as, combined with multi-platform communication, it presents government authorities the great practical challenge of identifying a central source from which the momentum of the group action is derived and information is disseminated. However, this view is rather idealistic, as it is clear by referring to the selection process through which respondents were chosen for this study that some form of hierarchical structure is present. The fact that respondents were selected based upon their reputation and status within the SM community, is clear evidence that cyber grasstops (Price (2011, [pdf], p.9) exist and can be easily identified. The Internet and SM facilitate communication, discussion, and debate, on a scale that was infeasible in the time before these technologies were created. As politically oriented discussions developed into demonstrations and other such acts of dissent, it appears a cultural shift has occurred in the countries where the unrest has been most evident. Whilst there is disagreement amongst respondents as to whether the unrest has resulted in major social, political or economic change, almost all participants point to clear changes in the attitudes of citizens regarding the authorities that govern over them, as the most noticeable result of the events, aside from the few major political transformations they suggest have occurred. Al-Atraqchi states, “People [now] feel they have the right to complain and protest” (Al-Atraqchi, 2011, [e-mail]), an observation corroborated by Mohammad AlQaq, who claims that “people… discuss… sensitive topics, much more openly and freely, with much less fear of getting hunted down” (AlQaq, 2011, [e-mail]). The newfound confidence of citizens across the ME and NA to express discontent is also evident, according to AlAtraqchi, in the recent “outburst of “revolutionary” street art” (Al-Atraqchi, 2011, e-mail]) in the region. A logical explanation for this cultural progression is that the events have instilled a sense of solidarity and self-belief in the citizenry that drives their efforts at
rectifying the discrepancies that exist in freedom of expression between the virtual realm and the offline environment. To put it succinctly: “People now seem to be more aware, more persistent and less fearful” (Eliwat, 2011, [e-mail]). Whilst pro-reformists may have hoped for more drastic re-shapings of the socio-politic environment when they first took to the streets, relatively minor cultural transformations such as those mentioned above, indicate that the “wheel towards reform” (‘Naser’, 2011, [e-mail]) has begun to turn. As long as information pools exist, and citizens continue to contribute towards them and make use of them for their benefits, there is little reason to think that socio-political change of greater significance will not occur in the future.
CHAPTER SIX: FINDINGS Social Media as Virtual Battlegrounds Social media have come to serve as what I shall term virtual battlegrounds, upon which an incessant tug of war takes place between numerous opposing forces. Valuable conduits of information and efficient vehicles of communication, they offer great potential to those that use them. The ultimate success of each party is not absolutely dependent upon the skill with which they exploit the capabilities afforded to them by SM, but when used effectively, these tools can lend considerable support to any given cause, political or otherwise. Nevertheless, we must avoid the common techno-centric fallacy of implying that SM are silver bullets in the arsenal of whoever best employs them. Danitz and Strobel remind us that while “the role of the Internet is important, it is not a replacement for other forms of interaction and communication” (2001, p.133). At the present time, pro-change activist movements that operate exclusively within the online sphere, wield some degree of influence over socio-political and cultural milieus, although it would appear that their impact is often comparatively minor, when compared to that of movements that employ both offline and online activism. As Saudi Arabian law prohibits street demonstrations of any kind from taking place, public expressions of discontent are utterly impractical. For this reason, Ahmed Al Omran claims that citizens instead turn to “social media to express their opinions and show their anger and frustration over different issues and matters” (Al Omran, 2011, [e-mail]). A view such as this offers great support to the notion that SM constitute a new kind of public sphere, that encourage the “production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the state” (Fraser, 1990, p.57). It has become patently obvious, that it is for this very reason that SM have become such conflictual arenas, in which numerous parties strive to control, or at least direct the current of information that is transmitted.
Multiple participants stress that despite facilitating communication among the citizenry, public discourse has failed to translate into effective physical action, and thus very little discernable change has occurred in the Arab world. The action taken by many governments in the region in response to the unrest is considered to be merely placatory, intended to simply pacify activists and discourage large-scale physical action. Such sentiments echo the view held by Brownlee and Stacher (2011) that changes in government do not necessarily equate to major socio-political changes:
Egypt’s popular uprising did not paralyze the security apparatus and failed to produce widespread elite defections or divisions. A mix of popular revolt and military intervention pushed Mubarak out of office but did not transform the regime (Brownlee and Stacher, 2011, p.5).
Several respondents highlight instances of cosmetic change (Al Omran, 2011 [e-mail]) that have occurred in recent months, including the general amnesty issued by King Abdallah II of Jordan, in which around four thousand non-violent prisoners were released from prison, and the Egyptian government’s public pledge to increase employment. Moreover, Roba Al-Assi claims that the online Jordanian pro-reform movement ReformJo1 is largely theoretical, and has thus far failed to provoke palpable change within the country aside from the removal of select government members. This serves to further illustrate the point that limited value can be found in online-only activism, as it lacks the socio-political influence of its offline counterpart. Minor socio-political alterations, however, should not be relegated to irrelevancy with little consideration for how they may contribute towards more radical reform in the future, à la Gladwell’s tipping point (Gladwell, 2000). This being said, if we interpret the aforementioned actions as merely tactical responses by those in authority, and infer that many activist movements are largely irrelevant if they do not manifest themselves in the offline environment (in the case of ReformJo), we find great value in the judgment that it is beyond the power of online-only activism to achieve major socio-political change.
Reform Jo is an online civil movement that aims to encourage Jordanian citizens to discuss how best to achieve reform in the country. The hashtag ‘#ReformJo’ is included in the Twitter updates of those who wish to share their attitudes, beliefs and opinions about socio-political change in the country with others. 50
It should be noted however, that one respondent expressed feelings on this issue that are diametrically opposed to those of the other participants:
We had a revolution organized on a Facebook event with a STASI like security force in charge. All we had to do was to press attending or maybe attending. AND IT WORKED (Moneib, 2011, [e-mail]).
Close examination of participant responses reveals a fascinating ambivalence towards SM. While a sense of techno-triumphalism is evident, respondents concede that the changes SM technologies have supposedly stimulated are relatively minor, or altogether superficial. Torn between the cyber-utopianism of Shirky (2008), and the scepticism of Morozov (2011), respondents make it clear that while SM are powerful forces in theory, their frailties are all too evident in practice:
While most utopians are Internet-centrists, the latter are not necessarily utopians… Many of them… have abandoned grand theorizing about utopia in the name of achieving tangible results[,].… eager to acknowledge that it takes more than bytes to foster, install, and consolidate [democracy] (Morozov, 2011, p.xvi).
This contradiction can be explained by the way in which the narratives of the recent events have been fashioned. Various participants talk of government authorities as being “one step behind” (Fouda, 2011, [e-mail]) the citizenry in a “cat and mouse game” (Al Omran, 2011, [e-mail]), in terms of their ability to obstruct or manipulate public communication. If the public is deemed to have had greater influence over the construction of the narratives surrounding these events than governments and old media institutions, then it is not unreasonable to suppose that they may have established a false sense of achievement within themselves, that is evident in the inconsistency between the remarks of those who declare SM to be indispensible to modern day activists, and the relative triviality of the changes that citizen usage of these tools is supposed to have induced. Despite the fact that citizen activists no longer “rely on the mass media to… tell their story ‘right’” (Denning 2001, p.246), the narratives they construct appear no more accurate than those shaped by old media. A loss of objectivity and perspective is evident, as the technological “haves” (Danitz and Strobel, 2001, p.133) overemphasise the might of the
tools at their disposal. As “use [of the Internet] is limited to those who have access to the technology” (Ibid., p.133), those that do not use it, or to whom it is not accessible, are unable to offer any perspective on the significance of SM as they are excluded from the net-mediated public discourses that help shape narratives. No single approach taken by authorities to disrupt SM communication proved to be definitively superior to other alternatives. Rather, many methods produced undesirable results for the political elites, as they were simply unprepared for the level of conflict that occurred, and were unsure of the most appropriate action to take in response. Ahmed Fouda remarks that whilst Egyptian authorities attempted to prohibit internal access to the social networking website Facebook and video-streaming platform Bambuser immediately following initial demonstrations, public communication was largely unaffected until general Internet connections within the country were suspended on January 28th 2011 (three days after the preliminary marches had taken place) (Fouda, 2011, [e-mail]). Several respondents emphasise the futility of these actions, stating that citizens circumvented technological restrictions with relative ease (Degner, 2011, [e-mail]; Al Omran, 2011, [email]), and continued to share information and materials by alternative means (Fouda, 2011, [e-mail]). Blogger and photographer David Degner suggests that by inhibiting access to social media, authorities may have inadvertently encouraged greater global attention:
They probably sent more of a signal [to the international community] that something major was happening than [if they had left the] websites running (Degner, 2011, [e-mail]).
Issandr El Amrani supports this position, suggesting that by shutting down online communication networks, authorities merely fuelled the fire of disdain amongst the populace, and such a move was “probably a major factor in getting people to participate in protests” (El Amrani, 2011, [e-mail]). What is more, whilst authorities may have hampered - to a relatively minor degree - the efforts of citizens to freely disseminate information, the “harm was already done” (Moneib, 2011, [e-mail]) as international mainstream news
organisations continued to report on the events and raise global awareness of what was taking place. The predicament in which authorities found themselves, and the consequences of the actions they took in response, exemplify Briggs and Burke’s (2005) concept of the conservative dilemma. A brief review of the chronology of the events makes it possible to infer that the authoritative bodies within countries that played host to demonstrations following those in Egypt and Tunisia, chose alternative means of response to the unrest as they had observed the relative inefficiency of the methods employed by the respective regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With regards to the approach taken by the Saudi authorities, Ahmed Al Omran claims that the government did not attempt to explicitly restrict net-mediated communication, and instead chose to exploit the anonymity of online communication by infiltrating SM groups in an attempt to “defend government position and change the narrative” (Al Omran, 2011, [e-mail]) to one more complimentary of the regime. These actions affirm the concerns expressed by Samuel (2004) regarding the dangers of online anonymity. In the same way that citizens exploit anonymity to incite unrest without fear of repercussions, the capacity to conceal ones identity - or to construct an entirely false one that cannot easily be exposed as inauthentic - lends itself to the possibility that authorities can manipulate the construction of narratives in a way that produces less damaging, or altogether beneficial results for those in positions of power (Morozov, 2011). However, Dina Batshon maintains that for the most part, authorities failed in their attempts at influencing the production of the narratives surrounding the recent events (Batshon, 2011, [e-mail]) and injecting disinformation into public discourses, as the information shared through SM channels proved to be “almost always true” (Ibid.). By this logic we can deduce that as users have access to an ever-increasing wealth of information, they can cross-reference details and identify inaccurate or wholly untrue information, gradually dilute its prominence within
the SM information pool by refraining from sending it to others, and thus render those who wish to devalue the information found on SM platforms, ineffective. The examples noted above are sure to enthuse and inspire the techno-centric prodemocracy advocate, but we must not forget that just like information encryption tools, anonymity and pseudonymity do not guarantee the user any exemption from the law, as “governments can outlaw [them] and arrest those who do not comply” (Denning (2001, p.258). Firas Al-Atraqchi reminds us that some of those who engaged in such illicit behaviours or activities now face grave consequences:
We saw in recent months the arrest, trial and detention of several bloggers from Egypt to Bahrain to Syria. Freedom of expression is a battle that has not yet been won, I'm afraid (Al-Atraqchi, 2011, [e-mail]).
Authorities in the ME and NA may have not have effectively imposed control over online communication to any great extent, or for any prolonged period of time, but Degner refers to the Chinese and Russian authorities as examples of how governments have the capacity to “control dialogue by heavily monitoring the internet” (Degner, 2011, [e-mail]). From this we can extrapolate that the vulnerability of many authoritative bodies in the ME lay not just in their lack of preparation for such events, but the insufficiency of their surveillance of the online environment. At the present time, the ability for citizens to circumvent government imposed restrictions and thwart the attempts of authorities to undermine citizen movements appears greater than the ability of governments to enforce them. It is unclear whether this will forever remain the case, but it is likely that as the prevalence of Internet technologies - and thus social media - increase, the level to which the public becomes “personally connected” (Gharbeia, 2011, [e-mail]) will too, increase. The implications of this, according to Ahmad Gharbeia, could be that “it will be harder for authoritarian regimes to coerce the masses” (Ibid.), as citizens can communicate, engage in debates and discussions, and share information with a degree of interconnectedness far beyond that which even McLuhan (1964) could have
anticipated when he first envisaged the formation of the global village (Ibid.). However, in concurrence with Sunstein (2001) and contrary to his previous assertion, Gharbeia states that he believes that social fragmentation could become increasingly evident “as more people will have different sources of information affecting their choices and conventions” (Ahmad Gharbeia, 2011, [e-mail]). In this respect, we can suppose that the public sphere does not necessarily encourage consensus and solidarity, and instead, it has the potential to amplify social disintegration. By Clay Shirky’s (2011) judgment, conversation is of the utmost importance during times of socio-political instability, whilst access to information is comparatively insignificant. I must contest this statement, however, as it does a great disservice to the multi-faceted capabilities of SM. In addition to encouraging discussion, deliberation and negotiation of narrative, these tools offer unprecedented access to information, which when combined with the ability to converse, share and communicate, empower citizens in a way that conversation alone does not. Conversation is important, but access to the range and depth of information that allows citizens to engage in conversation in an educated manner, make well-informed decisions, and reach consensus on key issues, is essential. The fear that cyberspace and the Internet may do anything other than remain digital public spheres, in which the citizens can freely and actively engage, is definitively that of the minority. Rather, in light of protests in Jordan, government representatives, and King Abdullah II, held forums with members of the public, in order to “encourage dialogue and discussion” (Batshon, 2011, [e-mail]) regarding socio-political reform. This is a remarkably different approach to that which was taken by the Egyptian and Libyan authorities, but is all the more extraordinary when we consider that, according to Batshon, “no attempts were made by the government in Jordan to restrict access to social media” (Ibid.), and rather, Samir Zaid Al-Rifai, the former Prime Minister of Jordan, “interacted with the Jordanian ‘elite’ on Twitter” (Ibid.). Whilst Al-Rifai was eventually removed from
his position by the King following widespread demonstrations, at the time of writing, he continues to converse with Jordanian citizens via the social networking platform. The architecture of SM tools will surely change with time, along with their uses, users, and the extent to which they pervade human existence. Issues of democratic freedom, autocratic rule, freedom of information and global communication, transparency and accountability, social solidarity, social fragmentation and political instability, remain at the forefront of discussions regarding the future of societies that become evermore dependent upon SM platforms. Whether these tools will come to serve as vehicles on which society will travel towards a brighter future of freedom, consensus and social prosperity, or if they will lead humanity on a path that ends with more effective implementation of totalitarianism, and destructive social fragmentation, is contingent, at least to some extent, upon who emerges victorious from the social media battlegrounds.
CHAPTER SEVEN: CONCLUSION The profusion of social media activity that preceded, and has continued throughout the instability in the ME and NA, has led many academics, cultural commentators, news organisations and spectators around the world, to fallaciously conclude that social media is the key that will open the door to democracy in the region. Such a narrative is fundamentally contradictory to that which has materialised since riots took place in England. As British citizens filled the streets in protest, attacking police officers, ransacking homes and looting shops across the country, social media came under fire from many traditional media institutions as having perpetrated events that profoundly threaten the Western democratic system. British Prime Minister David Cameron, recognising their tremendous power, went as far as to say that cutting access to SM was an appropriate response to civil unrest (BBC News, 2011b, [online]), measures he explicitly condemned when they were adopted by authorities in the ME and NA (Montgomerie, 2011, [online]). SM alone do not stimulate socio-political change. Rather, SM apparatus, when utilised effectively, in a socio-political environment that is open to change, can offer vital support to pro-reform activist movements. Of course this conclusion is not likely to ignite the same excitement and optimism among technophiles and libertarians as those that suggest that citizens plus social media equals major socio-political change (or other conclusions to similar effect), nor can it be packaged so succinctly. In spite of this, the conclusions drawn in this paper are perhaps more considered. As Morozov (2011) made clear, when attempting to comprehend and articulate the reasons behind the collapse of a particular political regime or instance of major socio-political reformation, we must not overlook the fatal contradictions and weaknesses that exist therein, in favour of proclaiming technology to be the principal driving factor.
This being said, we must also be sure to give credit where it is deserved. SM are undoubtedly more sophisticated that any other communication tools that have existed in the past, and as such, offer greater power to citizens and authorities than ever before. The incorporation of SM features such as Twitter feeds into television news broadcasts is in itself evidence of the great value of these tools. Nonetheless, only when the versatility of social media is explored and exploited by those that use them can they be considered active components of socio-political reform. SM are by no means essential, and must not be considered so, but rather, proficient use of these tools offers great support to their users. At the very core of any activist movement lies the willingness to inspire change, whether it is social, political, economic or cultural. Knowledge and convictions pertaining to the environment the movement hopes to affect, are, arguably, pre-requisites for the formation of an activist movement, as we can presume that the group consider their objectives to be remedial of particular imperfections or weaknesses within the abovementioned milieus. Social media are beneficial in this regard, as is discussed in chapter five, as users can access a wealth of information concerning the environment in which they are situated, as well as that of others, with which they can measure and assess the functionality of these environments, form attitudes and opinions towards them, and discuss them with others. Following the informational and interpersonal stages described earlier in this paper, SM assume somewhat secondary roles, as, during the stage of realisation, it is essential for the activist movement to manifest itself in the offline environment if any discernable sociopolitical change is to be achieved. Additionally, at this point, SM have the potential to help maintain motivation and focus within the group when they are met with resistance from opposing forces. While SM tools do not intrinsically favour citizens or authorities, we must recognise that thus far, citizens have utilised them with a greater level of efficiency than political elites. Citizens have exercised a great degree of influence over the construction of narratives, and exploited the instantaneous nature of SM communication to its fullest
potential, bolstering Ellul’s (1990 cited in Danitz and Strobel, p.133) assertion that the features of a medium are of significantly less importance than how well users make use of them. Just as Wilkinson and Huberman (2011, [online]) found that as the number of authors of any given Wikipedia article increases, so too does the merit of the informational-output produced, this study reveals that, as the number of users of social media - as contributors to the information pool - increases, so too does the value of the information found within the pool. In theory, as the number of SM users rises, the worth of these apparatus will increase, along with their influence in the socio-political arena. This notion is founded upon the supposition that rather than becoming the subject of drastic architectural re-developments in the future, the structural design of SM in the future will amplify their current features. SM have certainly assumed active roles in sustaining activist campaigns in the ME and NA throughout 2011, but it is perhaps fair to suggest that a lack of preparation for such widespread insurrection and civil conflict on the part of government authorities in the region, allowed citizens to seize the opportunities made available to them. In this respect, SM did not directly bring about socio-political change, and are most certainly not the allpowerful and unstoppable forces they are often portrayed as being. Rather, they served as arenas in which citizens could identify, discuss and exploit the already-present vulnerabilities of the socio-political environment (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, 1996 cited in Samuel, 2004). Further investigations are required to obtain a clearer understanding of the weaknesses that existed in the socio-political environments of the ME and NA prior to the unrest, that rendered them susceptible to change. The civil disorder that has spread through the Arab world is but one chapter in an ongoing story, for which the end is yet to be written. Use of SM was certainly instrumental in helping to organise the events, and sustaining the momentum of the groups involved, but we must not apply this judgment to all future instances of socio-political instability, as we
simply do not have the sufficient foresight to predict whether such unrest will be organised in a similar fashion in the future, or whether it will in fact be possible at all. Rather than stimulating socio-political development, the newfound degree of freedom of communication enjoyed by users of SM has certainly brought about some discernable cultural changes in countries where communication is heavily monitored or regulated. Cyberspace presents citizens with the opportunity to communicate with others in a way that is for the most part, unhindered. Whilst the societal affects of this communication may be debatable, it has certainly helped to establish a sense of confidence within citizens that encourages them to express their thoughts, opinions and beliefs and participate in public discourses. By the judgment expressed by Malcolm Gladwell (2000), we must recognise these minor cultural changes as elements of a much wider picture. The supposed increased prevalence of anti-regime street art in Cairo (Al-Atraqchi, 2011, [e-mail]) and the newfound determination of citizens in the ME and NA to make their voices heard (Moneib, 2011, [e-mail]; Eliwat, 2011, [e-mail]) may appear trivial, but they have the potential to contribute towards more considerable change in the future. It is clear that - just as Lessig (2006) and Denning (2001) predict - governments will most certainly strive to implement greater methods of communication censorship and curtailment in the near future. If ever motivation was needed for governments to re-design the Internet “to reveal who someone is, where they are, and what they’re doing” (Lessig, 2006, p.38), widespread civil unrest is it. Likewise, we can expect motivated citizens and activists to continue to seek to circumvent restrictions. If authorities cannot successfully apply such measures, with equal rapidity to that of citizens and in a way that is not detrimental to their rule, then it is indeed possible to envisage a world in which, rather paradoxically, authorities must pander to the masses. Even so, as it stands today, cyberspace and social media are most certainly not the free societies that Eisley (2003 cited in Samuel, 2004) proclaims them to be. Cyberspace and
the Internet are virtual environments, to which access is granted by a multiplicity of corporate bodies, with which considerable power lies. Just as a major decrease in the digital divide may allow for the full extent of SM’s power to stimulate democratic reform to become evident, the propagation of sophisticated tools of communication could quite conceivably usher in a new era of panoptic surveillance:
New communication and information technologies… permit a massive extension… of… Bentham’s Panoptic principle… What these technologies support… is the same dissemination of power and control, but freed from the architectural constraints of Bentham’s stone and brick prototype (Robins and Webster, 1988 cited in Rheingold, pp.309-310).
The formation of affiliative relationships between corporate institutions and government bodies would severely threaten online privacy and anonymity in the future, as the personal information of citizens would become both a commodity for advertisers and a tool for surveillance. Furthermore, any official associations between authorities and Internet service providers would certainly serve to intensify the power of governments over the virtual environment, their ability to monitor the interactions of the citizenry, and their capacity to disrupt attempts to organise actions of dissent online. Such developments would make coercion of the masses a relatively simple task:
To induce in the [citizen] a state of conscious and permanent visibility… assures the automatic functioning of power… The surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in action… The perfection of power [renders] its actual exercise unnecessary (Foucault, 1995 cited in Rheingold, p.189).
An altogether more hopeful possibility for the future is that SM may develop in a way that enables them to be widely used as bridging utilities between citizens and authorities, as they have arguably been in Jordan in recent months, as was discussed in the previous chapter. Direct communication between those in positions of authority and the general public present both groups with the opportunity to reach a compromise on a given issue:
The Internet… [could] bring about a condition of unmediated intimacy often known as political community… The Internet is often held to make intermediaries redundant, and this… [suggests] that the future of politics lies in referenda (Agre, 2002, pp.312-313).
Nevertheless, it is debatable as to whether the socio-political changes that have transpired in Jordan and elsewhere in the region are of great enough significance to be considered
relevant, whether they are merely cosmetic (Brownlee and Stacher, 2011), or if they were indeed as a result of direct communication with authoritative figures at all. The overwhelming consensus amongst the participants in this study that social media was an important factor in organising the events, and that it instilled a sense of solidarity within the populace, greatly undermines the proclamations of both Pariser (2011) and Sunstein (2001) that the personalisation of online experiences gives rise to social fragmentation. Whilst it is necessary to ponder the future of the Internet and its societal effects, as it is as yet so uncertain, a major flaw in the arguments of both Sunstein and Pariser is their overeagerness to do so. Both writers fail to adequately recognise the great deal of control that the SM users of today exercise over the information they are exposed to, and instead overemphasise the importance of looking to the future. Users can accept or deny Facebook friend requests, hide the updates of ‘friends’ they consider dull or objectionable, subscribe to the RSS feeds of blogs they find interesting and ignore the ones that they do not, yet such a great degree of filtering has in fact led to the polar opposite of the fragmentation both Pariser and Sunstein predicted. Contrary to Pariser’s belief that such tools encourage users to communicate only with those with whom they share common attitudes and values, SM encourage the formation of diverse networks consisting of individuals from a variety of social demographics, socio-economic groups and social institutions. By Sharp’s (1980) logic, this enables the masses to communicate and cooperate with one another, in order to remove the pillars of consent, obedience and assistance that authorities depend upon to uphold governance. This study has shown that whilst such a view is tremendously idealistic, and an almost innumerable wealth of additional factors must be considered when assessing the influence of SM on sociopolitical change, the properties of SM enable citizens to access and share information, and organise themselves in a way that places a great deal of pressure upon the shoulders of those in authority, to make decisions for which they are prepared to be held accountable:
The Internet draws power back into the public sphere, away from other systems... Emerging technologies will enable new types of Internet-based discourses that generate the “communicative power”… needed to educate and mobilize citizens to demand that their governments make better and more legitimate decisions (Froomkin 2004 cited in Samuel, 2004, p.202).
It must, however, be noted that at the present time, many members of society are excluded from the public discourses that take place through SM. Further investigations must be carried out in order to understand the significance of this with regards to socio-political change. As a key component of democratic development, the public sphere must be accessible to all citizens, or it may come serve as an instrument with which technological “haves” (Danitz and Strobel, 2001, p.133) exert greater influence over socio-political development than the “have-nots” (Ibid.). As technology evolves, social media may remain pertinent tools of communication, information dissemination and public discourse, or, like many of their technological predecessors, they may fade into obsolescence and redundancy, superseded by exponentially more powerful devices that can achieve success where the instruments of today fail, and capacitate users to bring about radical socio-political changes as they please. Whilst this remains to be seen, this study has revealed that the social media tools of today are most certainly not indispensible, and rather, the roles of these instruments in the recent unrest were decidedly secondary.
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APPENDICES: APPENDIX ONE: INFORMATION ABOUT STUDY AND INSTRUCTIONS FOR QUESTIONNAIRE NB: The following information was sent to all participants along with the questionnaire that they were asked to complete. This research is being conducted for an academic study, as part of the Postgraduate Masters Degree (MA) course at the University of Gloucestershire in the United Kingdom. The answers to the following questions are to be used as evidence in an investigation into the role of social media in the recent events that have taken place across the Middle East and North Africa. Please answer all questions as fully as you can. Please note: Answer boxes will automatically re-size to accommodate longer answers.
APPENDIX TWO: SAMPLE COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE
1. Name: 2. Age: 3. Occupation (if applicable):
4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to?
5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). 7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events?
8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media?
9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene?
10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change?
12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority?
APPENDIX THREE: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY AHMAD GHARBEIA NB: Answers to subsequent questions immediately follow the standardised questions Participant Information Name: Ahmad Gharbeia Age: 35 Sex: Male Location: Egypt E-mail address: email@example.com Date received: 22 July 2011 1. Name: Ahmad Gharbeia 2. Age: 35 3. Occupation (if applicable): ICT consultant 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Egypt 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? A revolution which is still in progress. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). I have been involved in political and human rights activism in the years leading to the revolution. I have also participated in what I like to call the collective dialogue which took place among the young generations of the society, over the Internet and social media, thus setting up the stage for what later exploded as the revolution.
7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Certainly. Not only in the events themselves, but most importantly in the years leading to them. Blogging was the medium where various activist networks got established. YouTube contributed to the dissemination of inciting messages and showed people, many of them for the first time, the brutality of the police and other state aparti. Later on Facebook was the platform activists organised. Livecasting has recently began to be used in covering protests (example 2nd of May 2010). Photographs and videos published on the web of protests and the rough handling of the police of peaceful protesters certainly has brought on the sympathy of many people who otherwise were traditionally dismissing of such events as destructive actions by a minority of trouble-makers. The covering of Mahalla, and before that of the protests proIntifada in 2000 and anti-invasion of Iraq in 2003 has created a heritage for many later activists to behold. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? Both. For example the actions of the 25th of January where advertised on Facebook as an event which on the eve of the event had more than 800K people signaling their intent to participate. In the two month following the sit-in of 18 days which ended by the stepping down of Mubarak, another million Egyptians joined Facebook which already had around 4M. “The network effect” is obvious here. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? Twitter and Facebook suffered sporadic blocking on the day of the 25th. The Internet was completely shutdown from the country; starting from the evening of the 27th. Before that there was virtually no censorship on the Internet in Egypt, with very few exception for limited periods of time. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? Calling for marches on the 25th of January has been repeated over the past few years, mainly as a protest to the brutality of the police. Naturally none of the previous years ' events was as extensive. In 2008, the 6th of April group called for a general, national strike which resulted in a fierce confrontations in the industrial city of Mahalla, the detention of hundreds of protesters and activists, a besieging of the city for several days. These are the major events in recent years. In longer spas of history, the rising of 1977 and the CSF revolt of 1986 are comparable in the sense that major dissent took place affecting the capital, bringing the army in the streets, etc.
11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? Hosni Mubarak, head of the state of Egypt for 30 years has been outsted. (Daniel, I really believe the research question should be more targeted than this) 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? As people get more personally connected it will be harder for authoritarian regimes to coerce the masses. However, making consensus will also become more difficult, as more people will have different sources of information affecting their choices and conventions.
Subsequent Questions, Answers and Discussion Investigator: I welcome your criticism of question number 11 and I thank you for that. As I have been interviewing a number of individuals from different countries where the changes that have occurred vary from minor changes in attitudes, to major political transformations, it was necessary for me to keep the questions rather broad, and to be conscious of not leading any participants towards particular responses. I find your answer to question 7 very interesting as you say that Livecasting has helped to change the attitudes of many citizens that may have discarded the protests as 'troublemakers' if they had not had access to the amount of information that they can obtain through the Internet. Participant: Well, what changed the attitude of many citizens towards political activism was all of the flow of information in various media, not only livecasting. Actually, due to its nature livecasting has the least viewership of all other achievable media. It was also the latest comer to the plethora of tools used by activists, starting with blogs in 2005.
APPENDIX FOUR: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY AHMED AL OMRAN Participant Information Name: Ahmed Al Omran Age: 27 Sex: Male Location: Saudi Arabia E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org Date received: 12 July 2011 1. Name: Ahmed Al Omran 2. Age: 27 3. Occupation (if applicable): No answer given by participant. 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Saudi Arabia 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? Minor street protests, a lot of online activity. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). Reporting, blogging and tweeting. 7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Since street demonstrations are banned, most of the protests happen online. People use social media to express their opinions and show their anger and frustration over different issues and matters. Without social media we will have very little information about such frustrations because the local media will ignore it and the international media will have difficulty covering it. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? The wave of revolutions across the Arab world was fueled and facilitated by social media. These revolutions would not have happened without social media, which played an essential role in building the activists community, help them communicate and organize, and make sure that their message come out to the world to witness it.
9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? Instead of restricting access, the government is trying to engage social media by planting their agents in these networks in attempt to defend government position and change the narrative to one that is more friendly to them. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? There are some similarities but over all the changes in communication technology made the current events different in the sense that what happens in one country does not stay limited to that one country. The internet indeed made the world one village in which we all live and watch each other in real time. 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? There have been some changes, including the government push to create more jobs, especially for women. But most of these changes are cosmetic and try to deal with the symptoms without actually curing the disease. Real change means the transfer of power from the hands of a small elite to a larger number of people, and this is not happening yet. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? As we move on it will become extremely hard for any government to fully control the free flow of information. As we have seen, even when Egypt government tried to shut down the internet the videos and photos from Tahrir square were still coming out for the world to see. It's a cat and mouse game, and I think that in this game these old, bureaucratic regimes will always be behind their young populations, who are more creative and tech savvy.
APPENDIX FIVE: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY AHMED FOUDA Participant Information Name: Ahmed Fouda Age: 21 Sex: Male Location: Egypt E-mail address: email@example.com Date received: 4 August 4 2011 1. Name: Ahmed Fouda 2. Age: 21 3. Occupation (if applicable): Student 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Egypt - January 25th uprising/revolution. 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? Definitely an awakening, I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a revolution; while the media & public opinion usually says that the last step in “jan 25” was the stepping down of Mubarak (& dissolving of his ruling party, NDP), think its only the first step; a smaller, now minority, are now fighting through the rest of the steps. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). In the beginning I participated as an command center for my friends (advising them about locations of gatherings/protests..etc), Participated in marches/protests on January 28th (Friday of Anger) and delivered some medical supplies to the sit-in in Tahrir Sq. after the attacks on the protesters there Right now, involved in human rights activism against issues such as torture by military and/or police, military trials for civilians & others.
7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Definitely; while it was the people’s will & brief positivity that is all that counts at the end, social media played a big part in keeping the disparate movements, initiatives & civil society groups connected & coordinated while keeping their De-centralization and taking advantage of it to fight the centralized strategy of the security structure. In short; it helped keep the resistance coordinated & intact and at the same time elusive to the security forces. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? Very unlikely, in my opinion, for the previously stated reason, that the events of January 25th couldn’t have taken place in that fashion without social media that relay the revolutionaries’ side of the story throughout the media black-out the regime fought to enforce & thereby disconnect the world from the uprising. I believe most citizens’ usage of social media came as a result of the events; I recognize a handful that utilized services like Twitter & video streaming to relay info & report on events, the majority, in my opinion, started using it for that purpose; to keep with the events. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? In the beginning, since it was believed “Jan 25” wouldn’t be more than a storm in a teacup, minor restrictions were in effect such as internet monitoring As the resistance picked up momentum, they started blocking websites such as Bambuser & Facebook. Eventually, cutting off all communications on January 28th. They weren’t successful until they cut off the communications (no way around that). They chose to intervene once they realized the threat of the resistance & the key role of social media in its coordination. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? I don’t think I witnessed anything similar to this in the past, even though in the past I was merely watching the updates of the activism scene every now & then. The only similar past event I can think of would be the 1977 uprising & April 6th 2006 Mahalla uprising but these were quickly cracked down. The difference I see is that these past events were more concerned with the issues of the parties involved than a general invitation to revolt against the regime (for ex: April 6th protests in Mahalla were by workers for their issues, the invitation was for general issues mostly concerning the poorer classes).
11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? The changes I see, in general, are simply that the people have grown louder & bolder in their objection to practices by the “system” and that the system learned to properly estimate or even overestimate the consequences of public dissent/dissatisfaction. Politically: So far, all I see is the change of faces with the same practices & structures of the old regime. Cultural: Everyone puts greater weight to forms of public dissent than before (strikes, protests…etc) and sometimes even too much; like believing that a protest of 30 individuals or a single speech can cause “another revolution”. Socially: Didn’t notice much change in the social state of the population as no real measures towards social justice were really carried out; if anything, I’d say that the general social status & equality deteriorated over the course of the Jan 25 events. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? I believe, especially after the media attention on the role of technology & social media in the recent events in the ME, most dictatorial & authoritarian regimes will pay more attention & exercise greater restriction over technology & social communications. The question of effectively imposing authority relies on whether we’re talking in the general sense or concerning a particular channel. Regarding a particular channel: effective imposition of authority is inevitable In the general sense: Recent events proved that “when there’s a will there’s a way” and that should a regime close a communication channel/technology, most likely the need will give rise to an alternative. The regime will usually be one step behind since it’s the one chasing.
APPENDIX SIX: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY AMR MONEIB Participant Information Name: Amr Moneib Age: 28 Sex: Male Location: Egypt E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org Date received: 4 August 2011 1. Name: Amr Moneib 2. Age: 28 3. Occupation (if applicable): Obstetrics and Gynecology specialist 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Egypt 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? Egyptian people have been silent for decades. We suffered from corruption, tyranny, loyalty to external governments and negligence. Nobody ever thought that a revolt is possible. I lived over here for 28 years and I kind of lost hope to see another president in my lifetime. I though Mubarak would never die, not to mention democratic elections. A Facebook organized revolution showed the world that we Egyptians, Muslims and also Christians are not the stereotypical picture of extremists or terrorists others think of us. I kind of give some credit for its success to Mubarak’s regime’s arrogance. See, he gave us some liberty of speech in the past ten years. We had the right to call him names and we had newspapers that attacked him personally. Of course that was not freedom. That was apathy. He didn’t care what others said and he went on bragging about his so-called freedom of speech to his Employers in the west. In fact that what brought him to where he is right now. Things went out of his hands in no time. Arrogance, stupidity and long lasting tyranny made him forget History. It made him forget God, in a country where religion and religious upbringing is almost pivotal in everyone’s life. Bottom line, we won. We ousted the tyrant. We showed the world who we really are. Now, we have to revolt against ourselves. We need to show ourselves before others we can change what he has messed up with our lives, manners and attitudes. Will we succeed in that? I am not yet sure. I hope we would.
6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). I can’t call my self a political activist. I usually was afraid to write about Mubarak on my blog or Facebook. I attended these demonstrations In January and in Tahrir square starting January 28th. I didn’t participate in sit ins due to my work schedules. Afterwards, I held fear no more. And I tried to use social media to campaign some ideas and I think to a very small extent I managed to help people join the movement. Now, the whole country speaks about politics and we’re not used to debates and free speech. Things still need time. I can describe my role as one of those dark pixels you have seen on TV in Tahrir square some time during the revolution. 7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? It played the whole part. We managed to know about the revolution through a Facebook event. We had a revolution organized on a Facebook event with a STASI like security force in charge. All we had to do was to press attending or maybe attending. AND IT WORKED. Thanks of course to these internet activists who used to talk when the rest of us were still scared. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? It would have taken place with social media. But it wouldn’t have succeeded. Demonstrations against Mubarak have been talking place in Egypt since 2003. With the Kefaya “enough” movement and 6th of April movement since 2008. But the scale and the turn out couldn’t have succeeded without social media and a little catalyst called Tunisia forcing Cowardly Ben Ali to flee with small scaled demos. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? Internet have been blocked for five days in Egypt. Facebook and Twitter were hindered. Yet, they were not successful because the harm was already done. CNN and Al Jazeerah were filming directly from Tahrir square. I think he wishes he was like Bashar Assad or Qaddafi and would have slaughtered us behind the curtains but he did this to himself. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? The revolt in Egypt doesn’t compare to any in the past. This one came out of nowhere and it was totally organized on social media with the eyes of Mubarak's intelligence wideopen. Their arrogance is what got them here today. The lack of a known leader made it harder for the forces to suppress yet made it more difficult for us right now to impose all the rev demands.
11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? The revolution made us know how Egyptians can stick together once more. In the last years and in a city of 25 million inhabitants like Cairo it is quiet impossible to have interpersonal relations like in the past. People during the revolt bridged all gaps to say their demands and to protect their places. Without police having civilians below every building was the safest time we have ever witnessed. Still lies on national TV are still the case. They used to kiss presidents' boota for sixty years they still do so with the army. We hope that would change soon. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? I think this can be answered by witnessing the manor difference between Egypt and Syria. Mubarak was a dictator but he wanted to let people talk. So criticism and even insults to him were permitted he used that to say to the US and his employers he let his people have freedom of speech when actually he practised negligence to speech. Arrogance is what brought him behind cages. Whereas other dictators like Assad have all things in iron fist so no one can talk or do anything. Internet sites are normally blocked. TV s cant picture anything. Here social media cant be a factor.
APPENDIX SEVEN: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY DAVID DEGNER Participant Information Name: David Degner Age: 27 Sex: Male Location: Egypt E-mail address: email@example.com Date received: 6 July 2011
1. Name: David Degner 2. Age: 27 3. Occupation (if applicable): Photojournalist 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Egypt 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? Street protests originally coordinated by a few liberal political groups on the 25th of January incited a government crackdown, a larger outpouring of public support on the 28th of January broke through security cordons and lead to the occupation of Tahrir Square. Then the Muslim Brotherhood's organizational structure stepped in with supplies, doctors, and protesters from around the country that spent long nights in the square. Eventually a military coup occurred replacing the president with a military council. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). I was a photojournalist working for the Wall Street Journal through the protests. Before the protests I was watching Twitter a lot, during the protests the internet was cut and I was in the streets around the country almost every day.
7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Social media played a large part in these events. I don't think their role in organizing the events have been overstated, most of the organization was done through old fashioned political and labor organizations. But they played a very important role in forming the narrative of the event and unifying demands. Facebook spread the word that a protest would occur on the 25th but it didn't gain much popular support, political and labor organizations got most people on the street that day. The protests that occurred on the 28th were incited by normal media, decades of friends complaining to each other about the government, and squads of soccer fans that were used to fighting the police. Sites like Facebook and YouTube spread a lot of information after the fact and as the events were occurring. Videos shared from cell-phone to cell-phone also were important and created surprisingly efficient informal networks inside Tahrir Square. Cell phones and internet were cut from the 28th on so they didn't organize much after the protests started. But anecdotally their being cut played an important part in organizing the events because the only way to know what was happening was to walk to Tahrir Square. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organizing of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? Social media helped lubricate the events, but they are only one of many pillars of organization that came together. Take any one of the pillars away and it would have been much harder to spark the protests. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? The government originally cut access to Twitter and Facebook on the January 25th (if I remember correctly). Then the government cut all internet and cell phone access on the morning of the 28th. The Twitter and Facebook cuts were relatively easy to circumvent, but they probably sent more of a signal that something major was happening than leaving the websites running. The Egyptian security services are used to rather heavy handed approaches. They didn't have much experience at more subtle responses. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? I haven't ever experienced a revolution in the past so it's hard for me to compare.
11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? The political trajectory of Egypt has changed drastically. A year ago the discussion was about who Mubarak would appoint as his successor with his son as the loathed but expected heir, today the discussion is completely different. But the real power has always stayed with the military and will continue to. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? Social media makes it much harder for authoritarian regimes to control the narrative and information. But, look at China and Russia and their continued ability to control dialogue by heavily monitoring the internet.
APPENDIX EIGHT: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY DINA BATSHON NB: Answers to subsequent questions immediately follow the standardised questions Participant Information Name: Dina Batshon Age: 22 Sex: Female Location: Jordan E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org Date received: 30 July 2011
1. Name: Dina Batshon 2. Age: 22 3. Occupation (if applicable): Student and part time content manager and social media manager at a news website. 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? We were all following the news in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and recently Syria. But I will be answering the questions regarding the unrest that has been taking place in Jordan even if it doesn’t compare with the events in other countries. 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? The unrest has been in the form of repeated demonstrations mostly taking part on Fridays after prayer demanding ‘reform’ of the government 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). At the beginning of the demonstrations I was active directly and when I was not able to go to demonstrations I followed them online and tried to spread the news of what is happening on social media websites. I concentrated on taking news from Twitter directly from those at demos and sharing on Facebook (where my circle of friends was generally inactive) so as to raise awareness. One big governmental forum took place at the time in order to encourage dialogue and discussion and I attended to cover that event on my blog through multiple posts.
7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Yes I strongly believe that social media websites, specifically Twitter, has played a major role. Getting direct and almost always true news from anywhere on the planet through social media websites has included all people in the events. It has also become the first source for news and information and has thrown traditional media forms out of the picture, especially for those who have a strong virtual presence and rely greatly on the internet in general. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? It’s a mix of both. I think the events could have happened without the use of social media (in Jordan specifically) but the numbers of people would have been lower. Larger numbers of people were included and informed about the events through social media. More middle class members of the society got involved as well and used the platforms they usually use in their lives and so the usage of social media to update people came naturally and was a by-product of the large numbers and varied backgrounds of people at these events. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? No attempts were made by the government in Jordan to restrict access to social media. On the contrary our ex prime minister had a Twitter account and interacted with the Jordanian ‘elite’ on Twitter. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? During my lifetime I never encountered such continuous demonstrations. We have hundreds and hundreds of registered demonstrations that have happened mostly on Fridays in the past 5 months. The numbers of demonstrators and the situation in Jordan is not to be compared to anything that happened in Egypt/Tunisia or any other country. What is new this time is the continuity of the demos and the clear title of almost all of them which is demanding reform and demanding the change of our corrupt government. So far the government was changed fully once and then after that a few ministers were removed but the government as a whole remained intact. 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? Politically the government was changed. A few names have been removed and others added. No real and direct change so far other than promises of reform. His Majesty issued an amnesty order for prisoners in jails and those who fit the rules of the amnesty (the majority of prisoners) were freed. I do not see that to be a positive move at all. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? Many wrong doing by the government, general security and gendarmerie have been spreading online throughout the last few months but our government seems to not care at all and no actions have been done to prevent neither the wrong doing nor the spreading of the news/images throughout the community.
Subsequent Questions, Answers and Discussion Investigator: In your answer to question 9, you say that the ex-Prime Minister Jordanian communicates with other "elites" via Twitter. Are you referring to Mr Samir Rifai? Also, are you aware of any efforts by him to communicate with average Jordanian citizens, or was his communication largely with other politicians and individuals in positions of political power? Secondly, in your answer to question 11, you refer to the amnesty of prisoners, stating that large numbers of people were set free, but you do not view this as a positive thing? Would you care to elaborate on this just a little more. Participant: Well in question 9 i was referring to Mr Samir Rifai. Why I said 'elite' was because most of the jordanians on Twitter are not really the people who are facing problems when it comes to poverty or lack of education..etc. No citizen can ever contact a prime minister if he is facing a problem or if he has a suggestion or a complaint. But after Al Rifai got his position i think he tried to become part of this network of people who were at some point very few on Twitter. Maybe it was an attempt to look young and hip or maybe he genuinely thought that he'll be communicating with the 'people'. But he should know that Jordanians in need, the ones he should be paying attention to do not have a voice on the internet but rather on the streets. He even surprised the audience at an event called Amman TT (Tech Tuesdays) that started as an online idea and then became a fixed event on the first tuesday of each month targeting people interested in technology, the same people who are basically active on Twitter. It is easy to impress a bunch of people whose biggest problem is slow internet, not so easy to work on real demands. About question 11. In my personal opinion, and i'm not a political analyst or anything, is that this move was made to buy a little time and make the prisoners and their entire families and tribes happy and maybe take it a little easy on the demonstrations and the demands. After reading about this a little more I found out that a huge amount of money is paid on prisoners to accommodate them and feed them and all..so it might as well have nothing to do with the recent events but rather to save a little money. I think it's a bit of both. Not sure why it came directly from his Majesty, but i don't see how letting prisoners roam the streets can ever be a good thing, unless they're saying that they were imprisoned for no good reason, which they didn't. Murderers and thieves, all set free just to buy them and their tribes off and indirectly silence them. Blogger Naseem Tarawneh wrote a good post about this if my memory serves me well. A large part of Jordanians (especially from jordanian origin not palestinian origin) live, study and work off of the royal court, its money and scholarships, such moves might be done to remind them constantly that they owe the system their lives and the education of their children. Maybe there's a good reason to let prisoners free, they made a good number of people happy, but an equal or maybe a bigger number of people unhappy.
APPENDIX NINE: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY FIRAS AL-ATRAQCHI Participant Information Name: Firas Al-Atraqchi Age: 40 Sex: Male Location: Egypt E-mail address: email@example.com Date received: 17 July 2011
1. Name: Firas Al-Atraqchi 2. Age: 40 3. Occupation (if applicable): Associate Professor of Practice in Journalism at AUC 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Egypt 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? Cataclysmic. Egypt’s so-called revolutionaries and protesters started down a path with little regard to the sociopolitical history of their country, with no plan, no contingencies and apparently little understanding of the dynamics of their society. It is my opinion that most Egyptians remain marginalized, caught between official Army interpretations of the news and the protesters’ discourse. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). Helped a number of Egyptian organizations and independent newspapers with Internet access when the government shut down all networks and communications with the outside world. I have also written analysis pieces about the situation for various media and appeared on North American networks to discuss the impact of social media on events.
7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Yes, but the scope of social media’s importance is limited by the fact that some 70 percent of the country live below or on the poverty line. While Internet use has increased dramatically in the country, the question very much remains about haves and have-nots. Those with little Internet access or disinterest are removed from the public discourse on events as they unfold. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? I think the notions that social media played a part in organizing, and becoming a byproduct of events, are mutually inclusive. If we place these events in 1981, an age when there was no challenged to the official state line, we would see a very different outcome. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? Government efforts to restrict and even shut down Internet access in late January in Egypt actually backfired and produced the opposite effect. It was a short-sighted policy that misjudged the world’s interconnectivity. If anything, the shutdown brought more people out on the streets. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? What has happened in Egypt is dramatically different from say the fall of the Berlin Wall or the 1979 Iranian Revolution although some similarities do exist. I believe events in Egypt between January and July 2011 created a new paradigm for the region ... popular uprisings, or popular dissent, have not been seen in the Middle East since the 1979 Revolution. Egypt's role as the political and cultural leader of the Arabs means that what happens in Cairo will spread to other political capitals - I explain this further here, feel free to quote as needed: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/firas-alatraqchi/earthquakes-in-themiddle_b_815163.html 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? They have at the very least led to cultural change - dissent is now the jeu du jour in Egypt. People feel they have the right to complain and protest. While this has in some respects been taken to the extreme with some sectors in industry reporting a strike every day, this new-found right to protest has not yet translated into the formation of unions and advocacy groups, which I believe is a necessary ingredient to hold industry and government to account ... There has been an outburst of "revolutionary" street art, on the other hand, which is also another living form of expression. Internet use has increased dramatically throughout the Middle East. However, socio-political change is another matter. Little has change in that regard.
12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? It's going to be a tug of war and pretty soon authoritarian regimes will use social media for their own goals. On Feb 13, I believe, the Egyptian Military launched its Facebook page. A few days later, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry went on Twitter, etc. I discuss the tug of war at length here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/firas-alatraqchi/middle-east-in-2011socia_b_803037.html We saw in recent months the arrest, trial and detention of several bloggers from Egypt to Bahrain to Syria. Freedom of expression is a battle that has not yet been won, I'm afraid.
APPENDIX TEN: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY ISSANDR EL AMRANI Participant Information Name: Issandr El Amrani Age: 34 Sex: Male Location: Egypt E-mail address: Issandr@mac.com Date received: 27 June 2011
1. Name: Issandr El Amrani 2. Age: 34 3. Occupation (if applicable): Journalist 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Egypt 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? Uprising leading the toppling of most the Mubarak regime. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). Reporting and blogging on events. 7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? An important part as a forum for debate prior to the events, and in generating solidarity during the event, but a secondary role in terms of determining their outcome. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? I think this could have happened without social media, but social media (as a publishing platform) accelerated the dissemination of certain ideas and created wider solidarity networks between activists.
9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? The internet and most cellphone networks were shut down between late on January 27 and February second or third. The decision to shut these down was probably a major factor in getting people to participate in protests and showed the regime’s fear. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? Previously, protests never attained a critical mass or drew from various social classes. On January 28, when the police was defeated by hundreds of thousands of protestors, the critical mass was attained, and sustained for another two weeks, forcing the military to abandon President Mubarak and his cronies. 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? Yes – the military now rules the country , a transition to democracy has a chance to take place, the Mubarak regime’s key figures have been brought down and new parties which were previously banned (notably Islamists) are forming. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? Social media can be important in preparing for political change but remains secondary during critical events. Questions of social grievances, political organization and splits within existing regimes are much more important.
APPENDIX ELEVEN: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY MOHAMMAD ALQAQ Participant Information Name: Mohammad AlQaq Age: 35 Sex: Male Location: Jordan E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org Date received: 6 August 2011
1. Name: Mohammad alQaq 2. Age: 35 3. Occupation (if applicable): Visual Artist 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Jordan 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? They are mostly unprecedented, especially that the youth, and a big part of the society was never concerned in politics. Those who always felt marginalized politically, all of a sudden felt concerned, and wanted to learn more, and have a say in their country's politics. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). I have helped create a podium for those who became politically conscious, and gave the chance to meet with various politicians, with the team of Hiber (7iber.com) within the debates knows as "#HashtagDebates". I keep tweeting, and sometimes send indirect visual messages through still photos and videos. 7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Of course. People can document anything now, mainstream media will never convey the full image, so people became semi-journalists!
8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? Yes it would, because it happened a lot before social media. it’s all about using the right tools, but what’s special about social media tools that it made it much easier to communicate quickly through sharing. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? Jordan has very limited restrictions online, you can access almost everything, except a few sites that mock the King. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? They are unprecedented, because of the involvement of Jordanian youth. 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? People started to discuss hot and sensitive topics, much more openly and freely, with much less fear of getting hunted down, if they spoke openly about it. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? It is a new game for all rulers, and those who think the old tricks will work, will surely face problems, or will have to shed more blood from their people.
APPENDIX TWELVE: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY ‘NASER’ Participant Information Name: ‘Naser’ Age: 26 Sex: Male Location: Jordan E-mail address: email@example.com Date received: 11 July 2011
1. Name: Naser 2. Age: 26 3. Occupation (if applicable): Creative Copywriter 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Egypt, Syria, Jordan 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? The beginning of a new era, a movement and revolution of the Arab nations who had been under tyranny for the past 50-60 years. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). I shared information the whole way through, via retweeting or broadcasting news that I’ve heard on TV on the spot to Twitter. In Jordan, I was tweeting from the demonstrations and events I participated in (whether it was marches, sit-downs, March 25th event on Dakhleyyeh (interior) roundabout or the celebration in front of the Egyptian embassy in Amman the day Egypt was liberated. I also wrote a long blogpost describing what happened in Dakhleyyeh (interior) roundabout and I think it was my most shared/read/commented on post ever. 7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? It was/is the main source of information and still, It was THE tool everyone used to communicate.
8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? They might have taken place but on a much smaller scale, I also tend to believe if it wasn’t for social media these events wouldn’t have happened, because the support and rallying happened online 1st and then went offline in 99% of the events. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? Oh yea, they’ve tried it in different countries, it never worked because we’re much much much more tech-savvy than their employees who are appointed based on personal relationships a lot of the times. The only time they could limit the access is when they cut off the internet completely, but Twitter and google established the speak2tweet thingy and the cut off didn’t last long anyway. They chose to intervene because they realized that “this bloody internet” is what’s keeping things going. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? In principle, tyranny and oppression are the reasons behind nations uprisings, always! This time though, the mediums in which ppl communicated made it easier for people to share information and hear different stories and point of views. 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? Obviously yes, even in countries where the regimes managed to stay, the wheel towards reform was pushed in a speed –even though still slow- but it’s a speed which was never there before. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? Yes, and they’ll do it “legally” and here is the real problem, when they make it into a law that’s constitutionalized by a corrupt fake parliament! Then their image in front of the world isn’t shaken as much. I assume!.
APPENDIX THIRTEEN: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY OLA ELIWAT Participant Information Name: Ola Eliwat Age: 27 Sex: Female Location: Jordan E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org Date received: 14 July 2011
1. Name: Ola Eliwat 2. Age: 27 3. Occupation (if applicable): Translator 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Jordan 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? As per domino effect, Jordan though different from Egypt or Tunisia has its own problems, so the general atmosphere in the Arab world was encouraging for people to speak up. I wouldn’t say Jordanians were trying to blindly simulate the revolutions in the other countries, but they sure had an influence on people’s guts to make their voice heard. Very sadly though those calls for reform were met with hostility by the government and the “thugs” who became a fixture in any revolution of reform movement in the Arab World, and people split into two groups: reformists and loyalists, as some people considered the reformists disloyal to the throne which is completely untrue. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). Following the events and posting opinions about them as they unfolded on Facebook, Twitter and my personal blog 7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Social media was a tool to garner more attention and to mobilize the public but we can’t say social media created this, it mainly spread it faster and accelerated it
8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? I think it was a two-way road. Social media helped accelerate the events and the events got more people interested in social media 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? No I’m not 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? People now seem to be more aware, more persistent and less fearful. Also, more young people are getting involved 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? Yes, there has never been so much attention given to the issue of corruption before and someofficials are being investigated now 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? I think it’s almost impossible to control social media, it’s one thing authorities can’t handle. Sure they can spread their moles here and there but they can’t stop the gigantic flow of information being circulated everyday online, and any attempts to do so will probably be met with a very strong reaction from the people
APPENDIX FOURTEEN: ORIGINAL COPY OF QUESTIONNAIRE AS COMPLETED BY ROBA AL-ASSI Participant Information Name: Roba Al-Assi Age: 26 Sex: Female Location: Jordan E-mail address: email@example.com Date received: 17 July 2011
1. Name: Roba Al-Assi 2. Age: 26 3. Occupation (if applicable): Product Manager 4. Which country (and the recent events that have taken place there) are your answers in relation to? Jordan 5. How would you define the recent events that have taken place in the country to which your answers are related? Jordan is in a better state socially, politically, and economically than other countries in the region. The online initiative during 2011 has thus so far been “Reform Jordan”. People are concentrating on political life (i.e. Parliamentary elections methodology, educational reform, cultural reform). The #ReformJo movement has gained a lot of grounds through social media. 6. How would you describe your role in these events? (This may include anything from direct activism to opinion-based blogging). I have not been very involved in the #ReformJo movement on my blog. I have been more involved on Twitter, which has been the main medium for the #ReformJo movement online.
7. Do you believe social media (eg: social networking websites, blogging platforms, photograph and video sharing websites, livecasting websites, mobile phones, etc.) has played a part in the events? Indeed, although the role is still small and the audience is still the little percentage of Jordanians who heavily use social networks for reasons other than chatting. It appears though that the one major demonstration that happened in Jordan in the “Arab Spring” (March 24 Movement) was not mobilized through social media. The demonstration was composed of two opposing factions from the public; the pro-reform (a small group of a few hundred people) and the anti-reform (the large group of over a thousand). While many bloggers, Jordanian Twitter users and Facebook members attended these demonstration, the tweeting, status updating and blogging did not mobilize many people due to the small nature of the country. 8. Do you believe that citizen usage of social media was central to the organising of the events, or a by-product of them? Would / could the events have taken place without social media? Social media has not been important at all in local demonstrations. 9. Are you aware of any attempts made by the Government or authorities to restrict citizen access to social media? If so, how successful do you think their efforts were, and why do you believe they chose to intervene? I don't believe there were any restrictions in Jordan. 10. How would you compare the recent events to similar occasions in the past? Are there any similarities or differences? In Jordan in particular, there hasn't been much change. 11. Have the recent events, directly or indirectly, led to any minor or major social, cultural or political change? The ReformJo movement is often discussed in theory, but as of today, it doesn't appear like any changes have taken place. 12. What do you think the future implications of social media are for authoritarian and dictatorial rule? Can authoritarian regimes continue to effectively impose authority? No answer given by participant.
ABBREVIATIONS ME Middle East NA North Africa SM Social media
GLOSSARY OF TERMS Introduction In the interests of clarity and comprehension, it is necessary to define some of the more ambiguous or homonymous terms used throughout this thesis. Information The ways in which this word is commonly used in the English language can lead to assumptions that it denotes only text or audio-based materials. However, for the purposes of this thesis, this refers to the form in which any type of data is communicated. Social Media The term for which it is most essential to provide a definition, not least because of the sheer quantity of its usage throughout this thesis, is social media. Kaplan and Haenlein define social media as “Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (2010, p.61). I would however, like to extent this definition to include all Internet-based applications and mobile communication devices that allow or encourage the creation and/or the exchange of information-based materials. I must stress that whilst many discussions in this piece focus upon the uses of social networking websites in particular, it is important to remember that they are but a minor facet of social media as a whole, and for this reason I will broadly refer to them as social media, so as to acknowledge the wide array of forms of information that are exchanged in the course of their usage.
Socio-political This term, often used as a pre-fix, refers to that which pertains to the social, cultural and/or political environment. This term is used broadly, as the degree to which developments and transformations occur within these environments varies greatly. Unrest So as to preserve academic objectivity, the use of politically loaded terms is avoided throughout this piece. As such, when describing the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, evocative terms such as uprising, rebellion, revolution, revolt, civil war, intifada, coup and insurgency shall not be used. Use of the word unrest in this thesis refers to the unsettling of the social order or the destabilisation of the economic or political structures within a given society. Although disruptions to these structures vary significantly from country to country, unrest is the most appropriate expression with which to encompass all of the events mentioned throughout this paper.