Social Media and the New Arab Spring

Across North Africa and the Middle East we are witnessing a rising tide of citizen-led protest against autocratic and corrupt regimes. In echoes of the Czech Spring of 1968 and the tumultuous wave of change that swept across Eastern Europe during the 1990s, there is a real feeling that change is real, can happen and can be sustained. There is a new and emergent spirit of pan-Arabism, with activists in one country following and gaining confidence (and support) from those in others. There is nothing new in this; we have seen such movements before during the 1960s. Some of the countries that are today rising up for change were the same ones who were brutally repressed 50 years ago. The difference between then and now is the rise of digital media.

Key tools for the modern revolution are digital because they achieve significant things; first, they bring together otherwise remote and disparate groups. Second, they create channels to bypass traditional state control of the media so the outside world can see what is going on. Alongside traditional activism and action, the tools of the trade today are the internet (for information dissemination and news), social media (to connect and coordinate), mobile phones (to capture what happens) and digital, particularly satellite, television to report it.

The underlying complexity of the network is an important factor too. Whilst many regimes would like to simply turn off the internet, this is very difficult to do completely. Activists on the ground and net-savvy supporters around the world are able to implement proxy techniques to evade detection and bypass the controls of states. Flows of information can be slowed but not stopped; the world is now simply too porous.

Social media is important because it is an ideal tool for connecting loose networks of association, bringing together otherwise disparate groups and individuals to support a common cause. It is no respecter of borders. What happens in Morocco and Egypt motivates and empowers protesters in Libya, Syria and Yemen. We saw digital activists from Morocco support Egyptians, teaching them how to exploit these new tools. One must be careful not to overstate the role of social media; it is only a tool. The previous example was largely done face-to-face, not online, and what social media can achieve is down to alignment with social behaviour and its effective social appropriation. That said, social media does play an important part in contemporary revolutionary movements; we are seeing around 40-45 tweets per minute from Egypt and 30-35 per minute from Syria and Libya.

Twitter receives much media attention, perhaps because it is more visible to the media. Therein lies its value, as a tool to tell your story to the world. This is reflected in the significant number of tweets in English, particularly from Egypt at the time of the Tahrir Square occupation. Equally Facebook’s role in Egypt and across North Africa is to show a growing mass public that they are not alone; suddenly made visible on their social networks is an emerging pan-Arab movement for change, from which individual citizens have quickly taken courage and then action.

Perhaps most telling is that the use of social networking sites such as Facebook to organise and promote demonstrations is now mentioned in passing, almost casually by those involved. What we are seeing in North Africa today mirrors what we saw in Germany and the UK during recent elections. First, a media wanting to portray Web 2.0 as being more important than it really is but, more importantly, clear evidence that the internet – blogs, Facebook, Twitter; citizen journalism and the consumption of these – is becoming normative: it is business as usual, at least it is amongst a significant cohort in terms of scale (UK and Germany) and influence (Egypt and Libya).

We make friends, keep in touch, shop and listen to music online, isn’t it obvious that, when democratic change happens, it happens online too?

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