University of Warsaw

The Role of Social Media in the Arab Spring Revolutions
Adrian Nikolov

The Middle Eastern Scene (Instructor: prof. Janusz Danecki) Institute of Political Science Faculty of Political Science and Journalism

Warsaw 2011

Adrian Nikolov 2011 1. Introduction

University of Warsaw

It is rather safe to say that the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa that started in the beginning of 2011 and came to be known as the “Arab spring” brought the wind of change to many of the “democratic dictatorships”, which used to be the dominant political structure in the region – many of the leaders, who used to govern the countries where the Arab spring happened for the last decades have now given up – or lost by force – power, and free, democratic elections have either delivered the rule to new, people-elected governments, or such elections are on the way. Up to that part, one can say that such “chain revolutions” happened quite a few times in the past – the most recent example being that of the dissolution of the former Eastern Block or the overthrowing of the dictatorships in Latin America. But, according to certain opinions, these revolutions have a feature, that distinguishes them from everything that happened in the past: namely the fact that they used new methods of organization, discussion and idea dissemination. These are the means provided by the modern developments of the Internet – the ones known as social media, or, in the professional spheres – Web 2.0 1. These include popular platforms used for communication by millions of people all over the world, like the networking site Facebook, video sharing platform YouTube, blogging tools like WordPress and Blogger and the microblogging platform Twitter. Some statements even go as far as to call the Arab spring “The Facebook revolution” 2. The aim of the current text is to summarize the data (statements, opinions and facts) and attempt to determine the role that social media (as defined above) played in the revolution – was it only a medium that conducted information and helped coordination between the different groups and people or was it rather the very inspiration and driving force behind the events that took place in the Middle East and North Africa at the beginning of 2011. Due to the nature of my subject (and the fact that the events in question are very recent) I'll only use web-based sources.

1 Web 2.0 is the term given to describe a second generation of the World Wide Web that is focused on the ability

for people to collaborate and share information online (Definition according to Webopedia) 2 For example Wael Ghonim, one of the key online contributors to the Arab spring (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/11/egypt-facebook-revolution-wael-ghonim_n_822078.html)

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Adrian Nikolov 2011 2. The first signs

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The phenomena of social web did not appear all at once. Historically speaking, the first webbased service, that can have political significance is blogging. An accurate and expressive comparison to a blogger is a person standing in the market square and shouting aloud his opinion. The difference – a written word in a blog on the Internet can reach a far wider audience then the man in the square, and is far better protected from any form of censorship. For that reason, blogs have been used far and wide to express opinions and put up political agendas, especially when these are opposing the official position of the authorities. The Middle East is no exception to this rule, and since the early age of blogs there were activists who used these platforms to express their position; their work was of great importance, because they existed as the only type of independent media: in the dictatorships all the other media (television, radio, newspapers etc.) were either directly state-controlled of state-funded3, which turns them into supporters of a regime and not an independent “fourth branch of power”; this put the middle eastern bloggers in a unique position, but also made them be considered enemy of the governments, which naturally wanted to remove this threat to their media and pubic opinion control. Bloggers were the only ones who dared discuss the conditions and interrogation methods in prisons, publish footage of police brutality 4 or even criticize on state policy. The existence of so many taboos in the public sphere in the Middle East gave the blogs yet another important role – these were the only places where not only political issues in its essence, but also topics like homosexuality, women rights, human rights in general, atheism and religious issues were given free tribune and discussed. Since the hubs used by bloggers are generally located in the West, individual eastern governments have no way to block bloggers from expressing their opinions freely on the Internet; the only way to achieve that goal is to physically detain them and prevent them from accessing the web, and ultimately to put them in prison as enemies of the regime. So, a lot of
3 Data on the freedom of the press, on an early basis can be found on http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?

page=16; all the Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa but Lebanon and Egypt fall in the “Category 3 – Not free”, and those two are defined as “Partially free” 4 Further reading on the topic on http://www.thenation.com/article/bloggers-against-torture

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bloggers, who wrote articles differing from the official position found themselves arrested, almost in every country in the Middle East: such were Dia Eddin, author of the Voice of Gad 5, an Egyptian blogger, arrested in 2009 for criticizing the policy of the Hosni Mubarak administration, or Saudi Fouad al-Farhan6 who disappeared in December 20077 and his whereabouts were not known till March 2008; his only crime being that he openly treated human rights issues. Had this happened twenty years ago, when, say, a political activist published an underground newspaper with similar content and then “disappeared”, only a small circle of people close to him and his readers would have known that. In the late first decade of the 21st century, when the web brings the people much closer together and the news travel around the world in just a few minutes such actions could not stay hidden and unknown. Here lays the second important role played by bloggers in the forming of the ideas and actions behind the Arab Spring uprisings – news of the repressions against them inspired reactions both in the Arab world and in the West. Bloggers became uniting figures, icons and martyrs of the revolutionary movements; campaigns supporting the cause for liberation of imprisoned bloggers8 echoed through the western blogosphere and were featured in various media. To summarize, blogs were the first signs of the formation of a liberation movement in the Middle East and North Africa, by bringing many previously censored topics to public discussion and drawing public attention, that of the western world, to them; repressions of the dictatorships managed to turn them into uniting figures and martyrs. Though sometimes not considered social media per se, forums also played a role in the development and organization of an online, including e-based, “revolutionary society” and in the spreading of ideas in the Arab world. They were of particular importance around the 2005 – before the rising of what is now known as interactive social media – when there were over 300

5 southgadeb.blogspot.com 6 Author of alfarhan.org 7 http://globalvoicesonline.org/2007/12/23/saudi-blogger-fouad-al-farhan-arrested-in-jeddah/ 8 For example the campaign for liberation of a government-critical Syrian blogger, described in Bruce Etling,

John Kelly, Robert Faris, and John Palfrey, Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere:Politics, Culture, and Dissent, Berkman center research publication, 06/2009

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forums in Arabic language9. Problem here is that only a small fraction of these are dealing with issues of politics and the civic society; most of them are concerned with religion, lifestyle or technology; sometimes, though, forums carried messages or took part in human rights campaigns10. However, such events are rather isolated, and, unlike blogging, forum activity never became of political importance in the Middle East and North Africa. I would attribute that to the fact that forums are usually (not only in the Arab world) more concerned with elements of the daily life of people than with distant topics such as politics. 3. The “Social media revolutions” We have seen so far what the most important phenomena on the Arab Internet were in the years before the revolutions. But when it comes to gathering people, fast-paced communication, and – ultimately – performing a revolution, both blogs and forums are fundamentally flawed. Here comes the unique role of modern “actual” social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc., with their widespread and mass usage, free access and equal rights. Through social networking sites, a single message – regardless if it is a manifesto, the date, time and place for a gathering or a video showing defenseless citizens killed by the army – can reach thousands of people within minutes, each and every one of them being able to express their opinion on the matter, give a suggestion or share an idea, everybody being able to become an activist and organizer. As far as it is possible – because they are in many cases very intertwined – I'll try to examine separately the role played by the different channels of the social media online ecosystem. 3.1 Facebook Facebook is, probably, the biggest site on the Internet now – it is almost as frequently visited as Google's search engine page; as of September 2011, it is confirmed to have as many as 800 million accounts (which is more the 1/10 of the entire human population). Naturally, it is the
9 Data on forums according to Marc Lynch, Blogging the New Arab Public, Arab Media & Society, 2007/02 10 As described in Toby Jones, Bahrain: It must be election season, Qahwa Sada, October 12, 2006

http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/qahwa_sada/2006/10/bahrain_must_be.html

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most popular social networking platform in the Middle East and North Africa as well 11; for example, Egypt alone has more then 7 million Facebook subscribers; in Tunisia they form a rough 1/5 of the population of the country, and that ratio is typical for most of the countries, with the exception of Libya, where there are only around 50,000 accounts (this fact can be attributed to the heavy censorship and restrictions by the country's previous regime). This figures are the main reason why Facebook was the most important communication tool in most of the Arab spring revolutions; even though it is impossible to say that the access to the social network per se has become the reason for the revolution, it is completely impossible to tell the story of events preceding and following the iconic January 25th 2011 without accepting the crucial role that Facebook played in them. The driving force of these events is much older, and it was encoded in the very nature of the Egyptian pre-revolution regime and social structure of the country. However, it is safe to say that the revolution itself was sparkled in, and with some reservations, by Facebook. That revolution revolves two “pages”, one created in protest to the murder of Khaled Said12, tortured and killed by Egyptian police for posting materials exposing corrupt officials - “We are all Khaled Said”13, which is English-speaking and for that reason has drawn to itself not only Arabs, but many western supporters of the Egyptian cause, and “The April 6 youth movement”14, which is in Arabic; the second is far older and originally emerged around a protest action in 2008, but kept its popularity. Combined, at the time of the protest, the two major groups consisted of more than half a million people, which grew literally in a few days after they were founded. Basically, there were no events that directly preceded the protest of the 25th; there was just an idea for a peaceful demonstration that circulated through the community pages; the rally itself was simply the act of moving the antigovernment protest from the online world to the physical one. That was the very role played by Facebook – it was where the protest brewed, and when it was ready to move on the streets, it
11 According to the data on Internet and social network penetration, provided by

http://www.internetworldstats.com; figures are as of May 2011
12 The full story of Khaled Said here :http://www.elshaheeed.co.uk/home-khaled-said-full-story-background-

truth-what-happened-torture-in-egypt-by-egyptian-police/ 13 https://www.facebook.com/elshaheeed.co.uk?sk=wall 14 https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=9973986703&v=wall

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managed to gather some 50,000 people on the very first day, due to the good organization and widespread information on the social network. The follow-up of that event did not differ from any other people's uprising – more and more attended every next protest, clashes with the police and the army occurred, and, ultimately, the Mubarak government was overthrown. The important and new part here are the methods of organization and spreading of information, which amplified and facilitated the process of overthrowing the regime. Egypt is the most clear example of the use of Facebook during the Arab Spring, it being the place where the ideas and organization grew; in Tunisia, for example, as the first country to start the chain of revolutions, no such simple and differentiated organization existed; of greater importance there was the online presence of the members of an informal group called “Takriz”, who have been doing their activist work online for the past 10 years, and just embraced Facebook as a new operational space, very useful when it comes to rapidly sharing information and reaching a broad audience15. Members of this group even admit that the the organizations of football club supporters were equally important to Facebook groups and “Facebook activism”. The crucial importance of Facebook is very well expressed in the words of one of the members of Takriz: "Facebook is pretty much the GPS for this revolution. Without the street there's no revolution, but add Facebook to the street and you get real potential." 16 For that reason, when the drastic event which could be used as a pretext for mass protest activity happened – in this case, the self-inflammation of Muhammad Bouazizi – the organization was already laid, the contacts were already built and the signal for the protest was given, they grew extremely fast. Here, if not on the same scale, it served exactly the same role it did in Egypt – a public sphere in which to discuss new ideas and find followers, an organizational network to coordinate common actions, as well as a source of inspiration, proof that the activist is not alone in his quest. In the Middle Eastern countries in which anti-government protests are now ongoing organization through Facebook is not such a common phenomenon: the only example is Syria,
15 More information on Takriz and their activity in John Pollock, Streetbook: How the Tunisian and Egyptian

Youth hacked the Arab Spring, Technology Review, 09/10 2011
16 Ibid., quoted words of a member of Takriz who took a pseudonym, but chose to remain anonymous.

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where the biggest protest group (in Arabic) has no less then 320.000 members 17, and it is updated hourly with information, pictures and videos from the protests. In Bahrain and Yemen the groups are negligibly small and not much visited; in these cases the fact must be kept in mind that the revolutions here are more isolated and involve much less people than those in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, and the use of Facebook is not so widespread, so the need for an online public sphere is not so acute. 3.2 Twitter Twitter is a completely different social network; where Facebook has complexity and many different ways to communicate and organize, Twitter has only one – simplified messages shared with the entire world, no preferences given. While Facebook can hold an entire manifesto, Twitter is limited by its 140 characters for a single message (called “tweet”); it has no pictures or video service by its own but is forced to use third-party applications to achieve that functionality. For these reasons, even though it is the second biggest social network in the world, it has only a fraction of Facebook's user count. The Arab countries make no exception: there are only 5 million Twitter users, and almost half of them are from the UAE 18 That is the primary reason why it was never used as a primary tool for organizing protests or gathering supporters “in the field”. Yet, Twitter played an equally important role in the uprisings. Due to its simplicity, this network is extremely well-suited to use through smartphones and mobile devices; usually the content of user profiles is updated on hourly, if not minutely basis. For that reason, while Facebook was used in the long-term planning and announcements, Twitter was the “in-the-field” tool, which allowed fine coordination between the protesters. Furthermore, an even more important role played by Twitter was bringing information on the protests outside the countries where the uprisings took place. One of the first things the regimes did when the revolutions started was to suppress all possible media channels and prevent the proper covering of the events. For example, the reporters and crew of Al-Jazeera, which is deemed to be the
17 https://www.facebook.com/Syrian.Revolution 18 Data according to http://arabcrunch.com/2011/03/infographics-digital-marketing-trends-in-the-middle-east-5-

5-million-twitter-users-in-the-arab-world.html

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biggest, and actually one of the few truly independent broadcasting media in the Arab World, were forbidden to enter the country the moment when the unrests19 started, and for that reason the television had to rely entirely on a network of “credible and reliable” people, who had previously assisted the media, tweeting and updating information from the scene of events on a minutely basis. Thus, these “twitters” turned out to be the key source of information for the covering of the protests and the development of the events; in Tunisia, for example, reporters of many media were allowed free passage only after president Bin Ali stepped down. Finally, Twitter was also the place where all the supporters of the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the world were exchanging news, opinions and analyses; #Egypt (with reached over a 1 ½ million mentions only in the first three months of 2011) was the most used hashtag 20 for 2011, which denotes the events in Egypt as the most discussed topic worldwide 21. So, Twitter was also the place where the news was spread, and keeps being spread even today. It also served as a platform of the liberation campaigns, which were previously carried mainly by blogs – a fresh example comes from October 2011 when Twitter was the main space where the campaign #FreeAlaa22 took place; it called for the liberation of an Egyptian blogger who was “held for questioning” by the temporary military rule for more than two weeks, but at the end was released under popular pressure. 3.3 YouTube There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words; if that is true, then a video is worth a thousand pictures. There is a reason why YouTube's own search engine is second only to Google's in terms of daily searches, and videos can sometimes reach over a few million views in a few days – the so-called “viral video” phenomenon. Video materials from the period before and during the Arab Spring period make no exception to this rule: they accumulated a lot of
19 For more information on these events, see Alan Fisher, The Arab Spring, Social Media and Al Jazeera 2011

(found on scribd.com, no information on publishing house)
20 A tag, categorizing the theme of a given 140-sign message on Twitter and adding it to a separate theme-based

timeline. 21 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16047918 22 More info at http://www.movements.org/case-study/entry/freealaa/

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attention. Technically, we can separate the videos from the period into two different categories. One is what I would call “propagandist” videos: usually very graphic videos, depicting actions of the regimes, like torture, murder of civilians, bribery etc., which were distributed and uploaded by activists aiming to raise awareness of both the Arab public and the world audience about these issues ; an iconic example here is the story of Khaled Said himself (see note 12), who was dragged out by the authorities from an Internet café, while he was uploading a video showing a government official taking bribe. Often, such videos were driving force powerful enough to organize mass protests, unite and focus the will of the crowds – a good example of that is Syria, where, in the end of May, a video was uploaded to YouTube showing “the corpse of a 13-year-old boy who appears to have been sexually and physically tortured by Syrian security officials”23. On the very next day, mass protests of women and children broke out in the entire country, ultimately leading to a counterattack by the Syrian army, which took 15 victims, and thus escalating the conflict. A similar example comes from Tunisia: a video from the days following the beginning of the revolution, showing “Kasserine's hospital in chaos, desperate attempts to treat the injured, and a horrifying image of a dead young man with his brains spilling out,24 filmed by a medical student working in the hospital. The footage was so graphic that according to a member of Takriz “That video made the second half of the revolution” rallying large number of people shocked both by the state of the patients and care offered in the state hospital and the brutality of the government attempts to suppress the protests. The popular videos from Egypt represent the other case, or what I call “journalistic” videos: footage from the protest itself, used as a channel of spreading information about the uprisings outside Egypt itself, which have gained relatively big popularity on YouTube; for example, a hobbyist video of the first day of protest has been watched over 600.000 times25,
23 The story in-depth on http://www.fastcompany.com/1756775/syrian-protests-sparked-by-youtube-torture-

video, original video available on http://www.nowpublic.com/world/hamza-ali-al-khatib-video-syrian-boytortured-death-2797147.html, removed form official YouTube page. 24 According to testimony, included in John Pollock, Streetbook: How the Tunisian and Egyptian Youth hacked the Arab Spring, Technology Review, 09/10 2011; a non-banned version of the video as of 18.12.2011 is available on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPwIOAfvNJs 25 Data according to the survey Opening closed regimes, conducted in the Project on Information Technology & Political Islam, published by the University of Washington

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and even simple political analyses of the current situation made inside the country have reached over 300.000 views. Such videos were also the main source of footage for many media, since those were prohibited from entering the “hot zones” or the countries whatsoever and taking any recordings of the events. That also worked the other way around – YouTube was the only way protesters could access the news coverage and analyses made by various media, which were otherwise banned in their countries, for example Al-Jazeera or BBC. 3.4 Miscellaneous The three websites discussed above are the channels with the biggest significance for the Arab Spring; it is impossible to enumerate all the various sites and connections used during the revolutions. Photographers, both media-employed and hobbyists, shared photos on sites like Flickr and 500px; discussions were carried out on boards like 4chan, and personal communication was carried out via peer-to-peer online services like Skype etc. 4. Conclusion While reviewing the role of social media in the Arab Spring, one fact is obvious – it is an overexaggeration to state that “the media is the massage”. Regardless of the amplifying effect that social media gave to all that took place, the events were invariably based on a real-world fact which reverberated in the virtual space. Still, there are at least three main functions which social media performed during the Arab revolutions26: 1.) Public sphere – it was the place where ideas were discussed, information was spread and through which public awareness was risen in the first place 2.) Organizational space – it was where the uprisings were planned, and an invaluable organizational tool during the protests; 3.) Information source – it was the only way information could “leave” the countries and reach
26 Keeping in mind that Lybia is an exception for everything that was stated in the text above: there was no
“social media revolution” there

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Adrian Nikolov 2011 the world publicity and conventional media.

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The significance of social media consolidated by the fear with which they were treated by the pre-revolution regimes. Each of them, at some point, tried to sever the access to such sites, ultimately blocking the entire Internet access or even stopping cell phone service (in the case of Egypt). The regimes were afraid of a medium which they could not control, and, in the end, their fear turned out to be well-grounded: the dictators were ousted by the wrath of their peoples, “amplified through Facebook”. My personal opinion is that the Arab Spring is not going to be the last “Social network revolution”. There is a good reason why the leading figure of the unrests now taking place in Russia after the parliamentary elections, Alexei Navalny, is a well-known oppositional blogger, and the organization of the protest took place in Facebook; so did that of the currently popular “Occupy...” movements happening all over the world. Who knows where the opposition is brewing the next uprising in their twitter personal messages...

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