Social media's role in the Arab Spring

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The role of social media in the Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests in the Middle East and North Africa between 2010 and 2012, remains a highly debated subject.[1] Uprisings occurred in states regardless of their levels of Internet usage, with some states with high levels of Internet usage (such as Bahrain, with 88% of its population online in 2011) experiencing uprisings as well as states with low levels of Internet usage (such as Yemen and Libya).[2]

Arab Spring, 2011

Acknowledging the role of social media during the Arab Spring[edit]

Social media played a significant role in facilitating communication and interaction among participants of political protests. Protesters used social media to organize demonstrations (both pro-governmental and anti-governmental), disseminate information about their activities, and raise local and global awareness of ongoing events.[3] Research from the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam found that online revolutionary conversations often preceded mass protests on the ground, and that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring.[4] In various countries, governments have used social media as a tool to engage with citizens and encourage their participation in governmental processes. Conversely, some administrations have engaged in monitoring internet traffic, restricting access to websites, and in notable cases such as Egypt, entirely cutting off internet access. These measures were often implemented in an effort to suppress potential uprisings.[3] Extensive research into the role of social media during the Arab Spring has led many scholars to recognize its significant impact in terms of mobilization, empowerment, shaping opinions, and influencing change.[3][5]

Uneven impact of social media on political processes[edit]

Social media's impact varies per country. Social networks played an important role in the rapid and relatively peaceful disintegration of at least two regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, where the governing regimes had little or no social base. They also contributed to social and political mobilization in Syria and Bahrain,[2] where the Syrian Electronic Army, a still active Syrian "hacktivist" group, was established in order to target and launch cyber attacks against the political opposition and news websites.[6]

While nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians responded to a poll that they used Facebook to organise protests and spread awareness,[7] the role of the social network wasn't central in countries like Syria and Yemen, where there is little Facebook usage.[3] During the Arab Spring the number of users of social networks, especially Facebook, rose dramatically in most Arab countries, particularly in those where political uprisings took place, except for Libya, which at the time had low Internet access preventing people from doing so.[3]

As previously mentioned government reactions to social media activism differed significantly from country to country. While the Tunisian government blocked only certain routes and websites through which protests were coordinated, the Egyptian government went further, first blocking Facebook and Twitter, then completely blocking access to the internet in the country by shutting down the 4 national ISPs and all mobile phone networks on January 28, 2011.[2] The Internet blackout in Egypt failed to stop the protests, and instead seemed to fuel them.[8] As Zeynep Tufekci explained:[9]

Egypt's huge protest was located in a well-known, central place: Tahrir Square. Cutting off communication between the people at home and the people at Tahrir Square was an ineffective form of censorship because there was little to keep secret about the protest's existence or its location. But the drastic act of censorship sent a strong signal to the country and alerted people who might not have been aware of the scope of the threat the protest posed to the government.

Cutting off connectivity also made it harder for Egyptians to wait out the events at home, since they were suddenly plunged into information darkness. Many protesters told me that the cutting of cell-phone communication was what finally got their extended family to join them at Tahrir Square. They could either sit at home and worry about their children, relatives, kin, and friends or show up at the place where they knew that everything was going on. Unsurprisingly, many did just that.

— Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, p. 248

Because these censorship measures did not prevent the overthrowing of the Egyptian and Tunisian governments, some argue that social media's role in the Arab Spring is overplayed, that other social and political factors were likely at play.[10]

Origins of the social media movement in Arab nations[edit]

In the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution, young Egyptians spread the call to protest online with the help of a Facebook campaign, "We Are All Khaled Said", organized by the April 6 Youth Movement, Egypt's "largest and most active online human-right activist group".[11] As the call to protest spread, online dissent moved into the offline world.[12][13] The profile of the most active users of social networks (young, urban, and relatively educated) matches the description of the first anti-government protesters that emerged in the country in January 2011.[2] As such some analysts have used this to argue that the Arab Spring truly began as a youth revolution meant to "promote a collective identity" and "mobilize people online and offline".[14]

Other instruments of coordination used during the Arab Spring[edit]

Social networks were not the only instruments available for rebels to communicate their efforts, with protesters in countries with limited internet access, such as Yemen and Libya, using electronic media devices like cell phones, emails, and video clips (e.g. YouTube) to coordinate and attract international support.[2] In Egypt, and particularly in Cairo, mosques were one of the main platforms to coordinate protests.[15] Television was also used to inform and coordinate the public in some countries.

Criticism of social media's role in the Arab Spring[edit]

According to some experts, the initial excitement over the role of social media in political processes in the countries of the Maghreb and the Middle East has diminished.[15] As Ekaterina Stepanova argues in her study concerning the role of information and communications technologies in the Arab Spring, social networks largely contributed to political and social mobilisation but didn't play a decisive and independent role in it. Instead, social media acted as a catalyst for revolution, as in the case of Egypt, where the existing gap between the ruling elite and the rest of the population would eventually have resulted in some kind of uprising.[2]


  1. ^ Alkhouja, Mohamad (2012). "Social Media for Political Change: The Activists, Governments, and Firms Triangle of Powers during the Arab Movement".
  2. ^ a b c d e f Stepanova, Ekaterina (May 2011). "The Role of Information Communication Technologies in the "Arab Spring"" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2020-11-13. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e Salem, Fadi; Mourtada, Racha (May 2011). "Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-08-29. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  4. ^ Howard, Philip N.; Duffy, Aiden; Freelon, Deen; Hussain, Muzammil; Mari, Wil; Mazaid, Marwa (2011). "Opening Closed Regimes: What Was the Role of Social Media During the Arab Spring?" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-07-16. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  5. ^ Arthur, Charles (28 January 2011). "Egypt cuts off internet access". Retrieved 28 December 2019.
  6. ^ Clayton, Mark; Jacobsen, Katherine (28 August 2013). "Syrian Electronic Army: Who Are They and What Do They Want?". Christian Science Monitor.
  7. ^ Huang, Carol (6 June 2011). "Facebook and Twitter key to Arab Spring uprisings: report". Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  8. ^ Cohen, Noam (20 February 2011). "Egyptians Were Unplugged, and Uncowed". Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  9. ^ Tufekci, Zeynep (2017). Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. p. 248.
  10. ^ Soengas, Xose (2013). "The Role of the Internet and Social Networks in the Arab Uprisings-- An Alternative to Official Press Censorship". Communicar. 21 (41): 147–155. doi:10.3916/C41-2013-14. hdl:10347/21438.
  11. ^ Harlow, Summer (2013). "It Was a "Facebook Revolution": Exploring the Meme-Like Spread of Narratives During the Egyptian Protests". Revista de Communicacion. 12: 59–82.
  12. ^ "Days of Anger: The Egyptian People's Revolution for Bread, Freedom, and Human Dignity". Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  13. ^ Eaton, Tim (April 2013). "Internet Activism and the Egyptian Uprisings: Transforming Online Dissent into the Offline World" (PDF). Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture. 9 (2): 3–24. doi:10.16997/wpcc.163. ISSN 1744-6716. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-09-07. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  14. ^ Harlow, Summer (2013). "It Was a "Facebook Revolution": Exploring the Meme-Like Spread of Narratives During the Egyptian Protests". Revista de Communicacion. 12: 59–82.
  15. ^ a b Demidov, Oleg (2012). "Social Networks in International and National Security". Security Index. 18 (1): 22–36. doi:10.1080/19934270.2012.634122. ISSN 1993-4270.