Social Networks and the Arab Spring

Last Updated: 14 Apr 2020
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“An Examination of the Role of Online Social Networks in the Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-11” In the academic research and journalism about the Arab Spring, there are contrasting views surrounding the importance of the Internet and online social networks in the success of the uprisings. Did the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt give validity to Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim’s claim that “if you want to liberate a society, just give them Internet” (Ghonim CNN), or was the function of online social networks greatly exaggerated by international media to highlight Western ideals of democracy?

This research paper will closely analyze the extent to which these online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, mobile phone networks, and YouTube were used as tools for the organization and mobilization of civil disobedience in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-11. It will examine the role and impact of online social networks and will assess whether they were merely extensions of offline communities or if they played an integral and mandatory role in these uprisings.

Though this paper will investigate the range of opinion on the impact of digital media in the Arab Spring, it will argue that online social networks played an integral role for Tunisian and Egyptian citizens in their rapid and successful uprisings. Online social networks blur geographical boundaries, which create opportunities for widespread communication, effective organization, mobilization of citizens, and the sharing of videos locally and internationally.

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Before the proliferation of digital media in the Middle East, these opportunities were not available to citizens and communication was limited to individual communities or offline networks. The combination and collaboration of already established offline networks, various digital technologies, and online social networks lead to the success of the civilians in overthrowing their governments.

Despite the years of civil discontent and corruption in both the Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak governments, revolution did not occur until digital media provided the opportunity for different communities and individuals to unite around their shared upsets and create mobilization strategies online. In Tunisia and Egypt, “social media have become the scaffolding upon which civil society can build, and new information technologies give activists things that they did not have before: information networks not easily controlled by the state and coordination tools that are already embedded in trusted networks of family and friends” (Howard 2011).

It will be shown that although online social networks act as an extension of the offline public sphere, their role in these uprisings was integral in creating an organizational infrastructure and to generate international awareness and aid against the corrupt governments. Discontent had been brewing in Tunisia for years during President Zine El Ben Ali’s rule. In 2009 he was reelected for a fifth term with an overwhelmingly fraudulent 89% of voters (Chrisafis, 2011).

Despite years of suffering from an oppressive regime, rising unemployment rates, and censorship, it was not until the self-immolation of a vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, was documented and transmitted online that the revolution gained the awareness and support it needed to make a difference. There had been previous acts of protest, but “what made a difference this time is that the images of Bouazizi were put on Facebook” (Beaumont, 2011).

A relative of Bouazizi, Rochdi Horchani, went so far as to state, “we could protest for years here, but without videos no one would take any notice of us” (Chrisafis, 2011). The revolutions in Tunisia inspired Egyptian activists to use similar tactics to evoke change in their own corrupt government. Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak ruled over Egypt from 1981 to 2011, when he was overthrown by the organized and effective protests of Egyptian citizens.

Although social media and digital technologies had little to do with the underlying sociopolitical and socioeconomic factors behind the civil discontent, they played a rapid role in the disintegration of these two regimes. In addition, even though corruption had been occuring for many years in the governments, “all inciting incidents of the Arab Spring were digitally mediated in some way” (Hussain, 2012) whether it was documented and disseminated online or discussed on an online social network.

The corruption and discontent of the citizens may have inevitably lead to protests in both countries, but “social media was crucial” (Khondker, 2011) due to it’s communication and organizational abilities. The cruciality of online social networks and digital technologies is contested by theorists who argue that “other sociological factors such as widespread poverty and governmental ineptitude had created the conditions for extensive public anger” (Hussain, 2011) and that these preexisting conditions caused the revolutions.

Several pundits including Gladwell and Friedman argue, “that while Facebook and Twitter may have had their place in social change, the real revolutions take place in the street” (Hussain, 2011). Though these theorists are correct in their attribution to the already existing political discontent for the preconditions to the revolution, online social networks acted as a necessary extension of offline social networks and action. It is likely the successes of the protests in the streets would not have been as large without the communication potential of digital media.

One pundit attributed the lack of violence in the revolutions to the digital media stating that the use of online social networks “may have less to do with fostering Western-style democracy than in encouraging relatively less violent forms of mass protest” (Stepanova, 2011). Now that citizens had other vessels to communicate internationally and were no longer censored and controlled by their state regulated media, the governments could not be so open about their brutality.

Pundits such as Gladwell and Friedman overlook the fact that “digital media allowed local citizens access to international broadcast networks, networks which were then used by online civil society organizations to lobby advocacy campaigns” (Hussain, 2012). It was these social networks that aided Tunisian and Egyptian citizens with their success in the streets. The Arab Spring has also been attributed the nickname of “The Twitter Revolution” (Stepanova, 2011) due to the large role Twitter and Facebook played in the uprisings.

This nickname gives light to another contrasting perspective about the importance of online social networks being highlighted by international media to emphasize the role of Western ideals of democracy. Due to the fact that digital technologies and online social networks proliferated the West before the Middle East, the U. S claims credit for the democratizing effects they had on the Middle East during the Arab Spring (Stepanova, 2011). By emphasizing the power of new technologies in spreading

Western democratic values, this approach ignores the socioeconomic and social equality dimensions of the massive protests in the Arab world. Ekaterina Stepanova states that “the automatic connection [The United States] makes between social media and a Western-style democracy agenda” (Stepanova, 2011) is a weak link in U. S policy. Social media tools with identical functions can operate differently in developed versus developing countries.

It was not just the Western media which stressed the role of online social networks in the Arab Spring, but also local media and the civilians themselves. The role of Twitter and Facebook may have been emphasized in Western media due to their nationalistic attitude, but this should not downplay the actual importance that these technologies held in the uprising. During the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, social networks were the key factor in the communication, mobilization, and organization of civilians.

Civilians used their mobile phones or computers to access online social networks where they could discuss and plan tactics for the revolution, and disseminate messages and photos of what was occurring. During the anti-Mubarak protests, an Egyptian activist put it succinctly in a tweet: “we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world” (Hussain, 2012). In the ‘Jasmine Revolution’, the role of mobile phones was integral in both sharing and receiving information. The phone acted as a tool which aided in the extension of offline networks into online.

Now, civilians did not need to be face to face to communicate messages of discontent or plans for rebellion as they had mobile networks. The ability to message many people at one time of access their Facebook or Twitter from their phone was invaluable to the rebels. Reporters without Borders stated that “the role of cell phones also proved crucial [in Tunisia]. Citizen journalists kept file-sharing websites supplied with photos and videos, and fed images to streaming websites” (Reporters without Borders, 2011).

It was not just the vast communication abilities that aided citizens in the revolt, but by putting cameras in the hands of a plethora of Tunisians they became citizen journalists with the ability to show what was happening to them to the world. The ability for citizens to take part in news is very valuable as this was a time where all media broadcast institutions were state run. The great difference between what was being reported about through the citizens versus the state allowed those uprisings to share their side of the story.

Government censorship was a huge problem in both Tunisia and Egypt, but censorship “made the new media more relevant” (Khondker, 2011). Social media was very useful for the citizens as it “brought the narrative of successful social protest across multiple, previously closed, media regimes” (Hussain, 2012). It was due to the mobile phone and heavy proliferation of online social networks that citizens could show proof of the injustices that were occurring through photo and video documentation on an international scale.

In addition, communicating online was very effective for civilians since they could plan out offline protests with a mass audience. As stated, the internet blurs geographical boundaries, which allows revolutionary leaders and advocates to find each other and communicate online. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter provided citizens with a platform to discuss plans of action and reach mass audiences. The ability to reach so many people online was essential since “information and communication networks can serve as powerful accelerators of social transformation” (Stepanova, 2011).

Facebook groups such as “We Are All Khaled Said” enlisted 350,000 members before the 14th of January (Khondker, 2011). This group provided the members with an incomparable medium of communication to anything offline social networks could provide. In addition, other than attempted media blackouts by the governments, communication was rather unlimited online. Activists posted relatively freely, which indicated that “new information technology has clearly the transformative potential to open up spaces of freedom” (Khondker, 2011).

The idea of online spaces as democratic and free draw upon Jurgen Habermas‘ concept of the public sphere. There are integral benefits of the internet in relation to Habermas’ public sphere, such as the vast library of easily accessible information, a new platform for critical political discussion, the blurring of spacial boundaries, and the embracing of new technology. In the Arab Spring, the usage of the internet empowered Habermas’ concept of deliberative democracy, which highlights “the role of open discussion, the importance of citizen participation, and the existence of a well-functioning public sphere” (Gimmler, 23).

Habermas holds that deliberative democracy is based “on a foundation that enables the legitimacy of the constitutional state and civil society to be justified” (Gimmler, 23). He separates the “constitutional democratic state and its parliamentary and legal institutions, on one side, and the public sphere of civil society and its more direct communication and discursive foundations, on the other” (Gimmler 24). The opposition between the corrupt governments and civilians was represented on online social networks.

Civilians used social networks as spaces of deliberative democracy, which acted as an online public sphere. Henry Brady states that “meaningful democratic participation requires that the voices of citizens in politics be clear, loud, and equal” (Hindeman, 6), online social networks give power to those voices that are silenced by state regulations. The fact that “information technologies have opened up new paths to democratization and the entrenchment of civil society in many Arab countries” (Hussain, 2012) attests to their function as a public sphere.

Though there were effective offline social networks such as the Church, family, and friends, “the networks of people who did mobilize, did so with the direct application, initiation, and coordination, of digital media tools” (Hussain, 2012). Online social networks acted as extensions of offline networks that were already present, but also provided the opportunity to reach a much larger amount of people. The plans and decisions made on the online networks made the offline protests so successful. Virtual networks materialized before street protest networks” (Hussain, 2012), which shows the importance of online social networks. In the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, there was no single social network that was completely responsible for the success of the revolution. Instead, it was the combination of mobile phones, the internet, and traditional broadcast media which aided citizens in forming powerful networks which strengthened their cause. Castells defines a network society as “a society whose social structure is made of networks powered by microelectronics-based information and communication technologies.

By social structure, [he] understands the organizational arrangements of humans in relations of experience and power expressed in meaningful communication coded by culture” (Castells, 2004). This definition accurately describes the atmosphere in both Tunisia and Egypt during their revolutions due to the reliance on online social networks. In both Tunisia and Egypt, there was a manifestation of technology which aided citizens in communicating. Social networking sites, instantaneous internet, and always-available mobile phones created a powerful network which allowed citizens to always be connected to each other.

Some degree of formal organizational and informal networks is necessary for revolution in order to communicate and plan. Egyptians utilized heavy social media connectivity through the use of the mobile device via texting of internet through their phone rather than personal computer. One Egyptian citizen tweeted on January 26th, 2011 “You who have Twitter and Facebook working on your phone, use them to spread words of hope. We won’t let this end here #jan25 was just the start” (Boyd, 2011).

Citizens were encouraging each other to avoid traditional forms of communications via the internet to avoid government censorship and interference. Castells stated that “thus was born a new system of mass communication built like a mix between an interactive television, internet, radio and mobile communication systems. The communication of the future is already used by the revolutions of the present” (Castells, 2011, emphasis on the original) when describing the use of technologies in the Arab Spring. The issue of censorship posed a large barricade on the protesters due to their reliance on social networks and the internet.

The Ben Ali regime realized the importance of Facebook in early January 2011 and stepped up their censorship with attempts to curb the heavy distribution of photos of protests and repression. There was increasing interest from the foreign media due to the power of ICT’s in spreading the story worldwide, which also influenced the state to up online censorship. The head of the Agencie Tunisienne d’Internet (ATI) said “the number of websites blocked by the authorities doubled in just a few weeks. More than 100 Facebook pages about the Sidi Bouzid events were blocked, along with online articles about the unrest in foreign media... olice also hacked into Facebook accounts to steal activists passwords and infiltrate networks of citizen-journalists” (Reporters Without Borders, 2011) . It was the power of networks which allowed the citizens to overcome the censorship of the government. Due to the many options of communications devices, when one was blocked citizens would resort to another. In addition, citizens found ways around the internet blockage and activist hacker groups rebutted with hacks on government websites and found technical ways to pass on news and demands from inside Tunisia.

The positive role of technology within the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt cannot be disputed. Although, such heavy use of technology caused the corrupt governments to attempt to intervene, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Information and communications technologies allowed oppressed citizens to rise above the government through the power of mobility, networks, and information. The portability of the cell phones partnered with the creation of networks through the multiple technologies utilized allowed the voice of the citizens to be heard worldwide.

The positive effect these technologies had in empowering the both the Tunisians and the Egyptians is clear in the mere rapidity that they overthrew their corrupt governments once they started revolting. In addition, it is clear that these ICT’s had a large effect since the government responded so harshly towards them, clearly feeling threatened. Overall, it is evident that ICT’s played a large role in the effective and swift revolutions which started the domino effect of the Arab Spring. *Copy Right- Nobody has permission to use my work in their own academic research*

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Social Networks and the Arab Spring. (2016, Dec 06). Retrieved from

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