Social media and Arab spring: What impact ?
The Arab Spring started in December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. A street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after being humiliated by the police, and it immediately triggered protests all over the country. This local, small-scale event then spread out to countries of the MENA region such as Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen. After roughly one month of protest, the former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted. Similar, protests in Egypt brought about the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, and the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down after 33 years in power. In other countries, protests were organized but only lead to promises of democratic reform, or harsh repression. They were striking similarities in the situations of the countries of this region, which also caused the Arab Spring to a certain extent. Moreover, they were also impacted by global economic crisis of 2008. All the countries (with exceptions of Qatar and the UAE) suffered from stagnant growth, high inflation, rising unemployment, and heavy government subsidies.
Before analyzing how social media impacted the different social movements during the Arab Spring, it is important to note that these countries were in different stages of digital development. According to the regimes, a mix of censorship and openness were combined to regulate the use of social media.
Social media and the aftermath of the Arab Spring
Social Media impacted the aftermath of the Arab Spring, to a certain extent. It helped the people choose their next candidate, as 48% of the people in Tunisia and 71% in Egypt declared that they were “more likely to vote for a candidate who uses social media to connect with citizens” (1). But social media has also been censored by a lot of government and regimes used the Internet in a strategic way. They identified how “to keep power the right way”, by analyzing “how the government can identify grievances and address them” (2). Therefore, the fact that social media was heavily controlled, or more or less open somehow led to different outcomes for the Arab spring. Some countries did not undergo a revolution or even a change of regime because they managed to control the situation before the use of social media spread information’s about the neighboring revolts. Paradoxically, some states displayed the highest levels of Internet usage (such as Bahrain with 88 percent of its population online), and other states displayed a really low level of Internet and social media exposure (like Yemen and Libya), but both experienced mass protests. One observation remains unclear and leads us to question the role of social media, ultimately. The countries of the Gulf, such as Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait “dominate the top five countries in terms of both Twitter users and volume of tweets” (1). The correlation remains unsettled; what is the role of social media in those countries? It might mean that social media doesn’t only have a political function but can be used for entertainment. The core difference in the countries that had high levels of Internet exposure and low levels of revolts and those that had high levels of revolts remains in how they dealt with the threat of social media. The Bahraini government for example, took advantage of its power at the beginning of the uprisings. They created a Facebook page called “Together to Unmask the Shia Traitors” to reveal the names and information’s about people that went to protests »(3). Facebook became a real wall of shame with the names of those arrested being publicly checked off on Facebook. Other pages served to humiliate anti-government activists. One of these was called “Against Ayat Al Qurmezi”, named after a 20-year-old girl who had participated in protests at Pearl Roundabout. These pages authorized posts and messages that were calling for her arrest, torture, and death.
Social media and its informative and organizational role
It is a fact that social media fulfilled an informative and organizational role in the protests. 9 out of 10 of Tunisians and Egyptians surveyed in the following months after the uprisings stated that they used Facebook to “organize protests or spread awareness about them” (2). It also helped linking different groups of a society that have no ties in the offline world and countries “where there was no strong civil society” (4). Moreover, the vast majority of people surveyed in Egypt and Tunisia (88 per cent for Egypt, 84 per cent for Tunisia) affirmed that they “were getting their information from social media sites” (2). Therefore, the main source of information shifted from the local traditional media, that was still linked to the old regime as they were state-owned, to social media. The main difference between traditional channels of media and alternative media is how they shape the information. Social media allowed the different actors to frame their own information and to share it with their own networks, rather than becoming aware of events without feeling part of it. Mass media, and traditional medias such as the television were all owned by companies, or specific business, therefore the information’s were framed in their advantage and through their lens. However, the role of social media remains partial. Real life networks are essential to understand the Arab Spring uprisings, especially in times where the governments decided to use censorships and shut down Facebook, and YouTube. There is an observable small Facebook penetration in countries such as Syria and Yemen. What can be argued it that Facebook was an instrumental tool for a core number of activists, while there were still social movements that were expanding for the entire population, rather than just people who used social media. In these countries, the population appealed to their own networks, through “traditional real-life networks of strong ties” (1). Egypt displayed a really low “penetration rate of 5.5%”, which represents 6 million Facebook users”. These 6 million have all a social network and contacts that can be influenced by information from those with Facebook accounts. The most important factor was how the people with a social network conveyed the information, and the extent to which they did it, as “strong interpersonal ties provide the influence upon recruitment” (3). In Yemen, the tribal and opposition groups have very solid, “dense networks of constituents” (3). They used traditional means to organize themselves rather than social media, yet managed to gather an important number of protesters. This demonstrates the importance of pre-existing organizational, or in this case, tribal, membership stipulated in social movement theory to bolster participation in social movements. The utility of social media when it comes to protests is not the only factor that has to be considered. It helps social movements flourish but does not cause them. The questions of the access to social media also remains unresolved. The “impact of those with no access”, as well as “the hyper connected elites” (2) has remained unexplored.
To conclude, it is important to state that these social movements across the regions were “rooted in a broader set of economic, social, and political factors” (3), and social media cannot be seen as the only factor causing these revolts. However, social media helped the mass to organize themselves, and to spread neutral information, to the extent of reaching a revolution in some countries. To understand the role of social media on collective action, it is safe to take a contextualist approach. Academics need to understand the impact of political and social variations on the role of the social media in collective action during the Arab Spring, to explain the various outcomes of it in the different countries.
1-Dubai School of Government (2011). Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook
and Twitter. [ebook] Arab Social Media Report. Available at:
2- Karatzogianni, A. (2013). A Cyberconflict Analysis of the 2011 Arab Spring
Uprisings. In: G. Youngs, ed., Digital World: Connectivity, Creativity and
3-Dewey, T., Kaden, J., Marks, M., Matsushima, S. and Zhu, B. (2012). The
Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring | Public Policy
Program. [online] Publicpolicy.stanford.edu. Available at:
4-Howard, P., Duffy, A., Freelon, D., Hussain, M., Mari, W. and Mazaid, M.
(2011). Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During
the Arab Spring?. SSRN Electronic Journal.