Arab Spring and Social Media
In the spring of 2011, the world was shocked to witness a revolutionary tide that swept across the Middle Eastand North Africa from Egypt to Tunisia, to Syria and beyond the borders. Many communication analysts attribute the rapid spread of the Arab spring to the upsurge and advancement of information technology and in particular, the burgeoning social media> During the initial period of the upheavals linked to the Arab spring, many people captured and sent captivating and horrific images of the violence that spread across and this was viewed by millions of people across the world via channels such as Facebook, Twitter, mainstream media as well as YouTube clips online. Nevertheless, analysts including, social theorists, political theorists and security analysts are still baffled and unable to determine just how much the mainstream media especially the social media contributed to the spread of the Arab Spring. Another question that remains unanswered by the analysts concerns the distribution patterns and impacts of social media in various countries and its impacts (Cambanis 2011, p. 15).
Both the social and political theorists are of the strong opinion that the Arab Spring is heavily indebted to information technology which is growing by the day. Social media has changed the political landscape of not just the Middle East but the entire Arab world. Ahmed Naguib notes that until recently, freedom of speech and expression was not common in the Arab world. However, social media upset the status quo and as Naguib notes, provided new avenues of communication such as tweeting during protests which was observed in Tahrir square in Egypt. It is such protests that led to the overthrowing of President Mubarak and his repressive regime. The case was no different in Tunisia, where social media is said to have played an instrumental role in sensitizing and mobilizing campaigns from the onset of the protests. This widespread use of social media during the Arab Spring was an indication of the importance of social media as an alternative means of voicing the concerns and grievances of disgruntled citizens besides the traditional media outlets. The use of social media in the Arab Spring demonstrated the importance of social media in voicing people’s concerns in alternative ways apart from the traditional media outlets. The citizens and protesters updated specific locations and directions of government forces during protests (Christensen 2011, p. 235). Social media use proved that citizens can effectively speak for their rights and voice their concerns against bad governance.
In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, a social media application, as a means of communicating and connecting with his fellow students at Harvard University. Initially, the technology was gained massive popularity with college and high school students who shared their social life. adopted by college and high school students in communication and sharing of their social life. Initial public offering filing indicated that by 2012, there were 845 million registered Facebook users and out of this figure 161 were active users on monthly study in United States. These statistics make Facebook the largest premier social media platform across the world and analysts have indicated that were Facebook a country, it would be third most populous country in the world after China and India.
The growth of Facebook has been enormous considering that it is a trend that has been embraced by diverse people from different populations and classes in societies across the world. The tracker Twopcharts, compared to Facebook, Twitter which started out back in July 2006 as a micro blogging service and online social networking had only grown to over 300 million users by 2011. These two platforms allow sharing of videos, photos and massages regardless of geographic location. The efforts and services of both Facebook and Twitter have been further complemented by the launch of YouTube by Steve Chen and Chad Hurley in 2005. YouTube has since grown to become the largest social media platform where users can share and distribute all types of videos including first-run television productions to eyewitness account of any event across the world. Upon experiencing frustrations while trying to share videos, the two inventors decided to create YouTube as an exclusive video sharing platform (Cottle 2011, p. 647).
The diagram below represents the use and subscription to Twitter as a social platform across the world and it demonstrates that millions of users can access social media hence explaining the reason behind the fast spread of the Arab Spring more than any other revolution in the world history.
Source: (Riley 2011)
What makes all these three social media platforms unique is the fact that even average persons with little knowledge in information technology and computer skills can easily use them (Riley 2011, p. 9). Furthermore, content can easily be created and disseminated to other people with small devices such as smartphones. These three platforms are easily used together in that videos uploaded and shared on YouTube can easily be embedded on other platforms such as Facebook, blogs and in Twitter while a Twitter post is easily accessible on Facebook account and other pages. In conclusion, this translates to a large number of people staying connected and keeping contact through the use of varied inexpensive platforms within a short notice. Social media sites have also dissolved the traditional political, cultural and socio-economic barriers to impressive spotlight because one does not need to have certain qualifications, class or status to be able to access and use these platforms. Different regimes, both politicians and activists have actively tapped into the potential presented by social media in communicating and presenting their ideas and agendas.
For many people, especially the youth, the uses of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and internet in general have reconstituted how social relationships are constructed. In addition, they have revolutionized the modes of communication in terms of production, meditation and even reception. These platforms have also provided a channel through which visual imageries helps the screen cultures in creating spectacular events easily and in large quantities so long as they can be recorded. With the ease of access and use of such platforms, the State agencies can lose their grip on communication and technology hence creating more permeable communication media with little or no control from the governments. Widespread use of social media has also invented a reservoir of political energies that conjecturesa new relationship between politics, public life and new media technologies. Through such media, civil societies have been formed and have gone ahead to conduct advocacy and other activities. According to Carafano (2012), despite the newness of the concepts of mass protests and active role of civil society groups, digital technologies have facilitated their formation, mobilization and activities (Carafano 2012, p. 6).
Statistics show that the Middle East and North African regions host some of the demographic figures with higher youthful populations in the world. Every country in these regions have 35-45% of young people whose average age is 25 years. The Arab Advisors Group estimated that by 2011, majority of the younger generation, actively used different social media platforms with 25,000 Twitter accounts, 17 million Facebook users and 40,000 active blogs in these regions. Middle East region has some of the most active YouTube users with 24 hours of video upload every minute.In 2011, The Dubai Government School released a report which showed that there was an upward trend on the number of subscribers in social media. In 2010, there was a 78% increase of Facebook users within the Arab world with figures rising from 11.9 million users in January to 21.3 million users in December (Shirky 2011, p. 7).
Political Unrest and Social Media
In early 2001, loyalists of the then president Joseph Estrada went to vote in Congress seeking evidence to stage an impeachment trial against him but this proved unsuccessful. Following the unsuccessful vote, protests were organized across the country using forwarded text messages and within two days, Manila crossroad witnessed millions of protesters. The protests and quick organizations were mobilized using platforms such as Facebook, Text messages and Twitter, and were a success despite the lack official announcements through mainstream traditional media channels such as radio, newspapers and television. During that week following the unsuccessful impeachment of Estrada, millions of text messages were sent to mobilize protesters and this alarmed the country’s legislators who allowed a vote that permitted the re-introduction of the impeachment and fresh presentation of evidence against President Estrada. This event marked a milestone in which the use of social media have helped to force dictatorial and corrupt leaders out of office. On January 20th, 2001, within a month after the vote and countrywide protests, President Joseph Estrada handed in his resignation (Cambanis 2011, p. 16).
In 2009, Moldova became the first country to advocate for revolution against its country”s leaders and their style of ruling by intensively employing social media. The former Soviet Republic came to a standstill when activist and civil society groups took to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to sensitize, organize and mobilize protest campaigns.
Source: (Cambanis 2011)
The figure above shows the extent of demonstrations and protests against the government which worked out successfully because of the organization and proper mobilization that was carried out on social media. The digital technologies also helped the world to learn more about the magnitude of the violence that was happening in Moldova. Video uploads and tweets by citizens not only mobilized protesters but also drew the world’s attention to the events that were taking place in the country. Upon learning of the response of the government to the crisis, more citizens, especially those that were opposed to the incumbent leaders, joined the demonstrations and this exacerbated the situation. A day after the disputed presidential elections, the leaders of the opposition joined hands with the protesters and camped outside the government offices, and this made the protests spiral out of control (Castells 1997, p. 12).
In less than 24 hours, the number of protesters more than doubled from 10,000 to 30,000 and this was an attestation to the powerful influence of social media. Even though the mainstream media channels abstained from broadcasting the events, real time photos, videos and accounts in the country were uploaded, distributed and broadcasted widely through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as well as other networking platforms. In spite of the fact that these protests did not result in a repeat of the elections, the use of social media to spread news concerning it to the world showed the world that a small remote country in the Soviet Union was powerful enough to protest against bad leadership. These actions and turn of events opened the eyes of the world to the powerful influence of the social media as a political instrument that could be used to advocate for change in terms of Although the protests were unable to force for a repeat of new elections, successful publication of good governance and human rights (Shirky 2011, p. 8).
The strength of social media cannot be understated and the world has seen it clearly across different political divides. The death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009 is one such case where the influence of social media was clearly displayed. Together with some of her friends, Neda with some friends was traveling to Tehran to join and demonstrate solidarity with fellow Iranians in protests against disputed presidential elections in 2009. Unfortunately, while stuck in traffic, she got out of the car and was shot dead. The incident of her death was captured in an amateur video clip from a cell phone and posted on social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Through widespread coverage of these social sites, the incident caught the attention of mainstream media channels and grabbed the headlines of world leading media houses like New York Times and CNN. Neda Ahgha Soltan’s death thus became a pictogram of anti-government movements and protests in the entire Iran and the social media helped to amplify this event to the rest of the world (Christensen 2011, p. 237).
Notwithstanding the strict censorship of media in Iran, the video clip of Neda’s shooting made its way to the social media and within days spread across the country and the whole world. The protests of disputed presidential elections coupled with those of Neda’s death resulted in widespread crackdown by government forces. In addition, the government exploited and employed the same media channels and social media platforms that were used to disseminate information against it, to communicate to the public and the world at large concerning its responses to the crackdown.
However, the government also exploited the social media against the public by posting erroneous information concerning protest meetings, requirements and the locations. Unsuspecting citizens would turn up in their dozens only to be met by heavy weaponry of battalion-wielding militia from government forces. Through the social media, the government also planned a massive 15,000 paramilitary mobilization personnel to deal with demonstrators and protesters in the capital city, Tehran. The civil resistance in Iran represents a unique scenario because of the tight control that the government has over social media. Nevertheless, many movements have devised ways of circumventing such roadblocks and obstacles thus presenting conducive environments and circumstances for media and technology-driven protests (Amin2009, p. 8).
Social media platforms may not necessarily have been utilized in planning and mobilizing protesters in Iran due to the state control and exploits of such forms of media, however, they were the channels through which the West remained updated on events of the demonstrations. Twitter and Facebook were extensively used to upload real time events concerning such protests and they massively substituted the mainstream media channels. Although social media use and deployment was not successful in forcing out the government, it continues to be used as a means for advocating for better governance and also stating grievances, while reaching out to sympathizers of the Iranian protesters’ cause (Hulaimi 2011, p. 15).
Tunisia was not left behind in the Arab Spring and in 2010 the country experienced a fair share of protests that ran across the country. In December 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, in a desperate act of defiance set himself on fire, protesting against prohibition by the government from street vending as a means of supporting his family. This incident of self-immolation was captured on video and circulated both in mainstream media and YouTube resulting in mass protest across the country and the more it spread, the more protesters it attracted. Within days of the uploading of the YouTube video, many protesters had reached the capital city, Tunis, to demonstrate against the leadership of the country.
The threat posed by the protesters compelled the Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to order military response and impose a night-time curfew across Tunisia yet more protesters joined the demonstrations. On January 14th, 2011, three days after the protests began, the pressure of the tens of thousands of protesters forced the president to flee the country. This spontaneous uprising by tens of thousands of Tunisians forced a change in regimes by relying on the easily accessible social media platform to disseminate important information. The protests in Tunisia will go down in history as the first demonstrations in the Arab world that helped to oust a leader from office (Cambanis 2011, p. 17).
Even though there was strict censorship of internet by the government, Tunisia has a large population of internet users with 33% of its populace being online. This made it possible for the protesters to use social media in organizing, mobilizing and carrying out successful protests. The fact that 18 percent of the 10 million population in Tunisia were active Twitter users while 16 percent were on Facebook made it even easier to reach out to demonstrators. During the month of protest, Ben Ali regime blocked access to YouTube but could not shut down the internet completely and this created a loophole that allowed the seasoned cyber activists to use their skills and repost Facebook contents and videos about the ongoing protests.
This was facilitated by taking advantage of loops from private networks to online news portals, Twitter and Facebook which had far greater reach. The protests which were commonly called the “Jasmine Revolution” were a success because the cause of ousting the incumbent was achieved and a coalition government was instituted after elections. Although opposition leaders also used social media extensively to organize and mobilize protests, it would be simplistic to insinuate that it was through these channels alone that the revolution was birthed. Historical socio-economic and political aspects that were unfavorable for decades can also be linked to the causes of the revolution. Furthermore, it is also very unlikely that social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are capable of solely filling the leadership vacuums existing in any country (Christensen 2011, p. 214).
The Tunisia Spring was closely followed by Egypt in 2011 and to date this is the worst protest witnessed in the Arab Spring history. The protests were mainly sparked by a video posted on YouTube showing policemen clobbering businessman Khaled Said to death. This clip was posted by Google executive Wael Ghonim who also created a Fecabook page called ‘We Are All Khaled Said.’ The page featured photos of Said’s face in the morgue and also included other horrific photos that were shot from a cellphone. Even though the government issued official explanations concerning the death of the businessman, the cellphone photos and other features posted on social media undermined it. Within a few days, the Facebook page attracted 500,000 members and this was closely followed by protesters who flooded the Egyptian capital at the Cairo’s Tahrir Square where the military was deployed for any eventuality (Cottle 2011, p. 649).
The government took desperate measures such as blocking Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and severely restricting access to Internet as a way of curtailing the activities of the protesters. However, these efforts were quashed by insurgents who subverted the scope of censorship by seeking assistance from international communities were sympathetic to their cause. The strict control of internet also affected operations of both the government and businesses across Egypt in an adverse manner. Eventually, after 18 days of mass protests, the then Prime Minister of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, resigned on February 11th, 2011. The diagram below shows the magnitude of the demonstrations. Egypt’s protests spread country-wide with the help of social media (Shirky 2011, p. 11).
Source: (Cottle 2011)
The photo shows over one million protesters in February 2011 at Tahrir Square and this confirms the immense use of social media leading to Mubarak’s resignation. It is estimated that Egyptians increased intensive use of twitter with the number of tweets concerning the protests in the country and outside increasing from 2,300 daily to over 230,000 daily. In addition, YouTube witnessed a beehive of activities with videos about the protests going viral. In fact, the top 23 videos on YouTube posted about the protests received over 5.5 million views in a day. Facebook opposition pages and political blogs also increased dramatically.
The death of Said combined with decades of religious and political strife sparked off to the national protests in Egypt. Secondly, it is important to note that politicized groups and activists who were earlier intimidated and afraid to challenge Mubarak’s regime in the past, found favorable platforms through the social media. These include different groups and organizations such as Non-governmental Organization, Socialists, Labor Unionists and conservative religious activists. Finally the situation was exacerbated by thousands of political and angry citizens who were tired with Mubarak’s police controlled state (Cottle 2011, p. 651).
In conclusion, other Arab countries such as Libya, Lebanon and Syria have recently taken up to the social media to organize and mobilize protests. The social media have provided an easily accessible and inexpensive platforms through which organizers and activists have been able to reach more than 15,000 people daily and conduct massive protests daily. In addition, there was no need to create structures that would lead these demonstrations and some of them even grew into political parties later on. has not been any need to create structures to spearhead such demonstrations which later become political parties. The social media enabled different groupings to reconnect and fight for a common cause as was the case in the Arab Spring where people from different ethnic and religious factions worked together. This was despite the restrictions that Arab countries put on their citizens thus limiting and heavily regulating the formation of political parties and civil societies. Social media thus transcended over ethnic, religious, political and cultural aspects and facilitated he creation of groups with limited space to meet and interact freely. The use of this media has enabled people from all backgrounds and waks of life to interact freely and
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