First Published: 2013-03-10

 

Arab Spring: Did social media really spark revolutions?

 

Amid fierce debate in academic circles, upcoming book argues social media made key difference in successful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt.

 

Middle East Online

By Rob Lever – WASHINGTON

But, dictators can use social media too

How important were Twitter, Facebook and other social media in toppling regimes in the Arab Spring uprisings?

Amid a fierce debate in academic circles, an upcoming book argues that social media and new technology made a key difference in successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and helped foster grassroots movements in other Arab nations.

The book by Philip Howard and colleagues concludes that digital media was "consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions" for the Arab Spring movements.

"There was a longstanding democracy movement in these countries that for many years tried many tactics but none of them worked," Howard said.

He maintained that new media made a difference because it "has so fundamentally changed the way people think about their options."

The Arab Spring movements "involved a networked public of generally younger folks," which was "structurally different" than prior movements headed by a charismatic leader, Howard said.

Howard, a University of Washington communications professor who is visiting at Princeton, said authoritarian regimes had been accustomed to controls on traditional media but were unable to keep up with the rapid pace of Twitter and Facebook organizing at that time.

"Democracy's Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring," written with Muzammil Hussain, counters the conclusions of other academics who found that the impact of social media were exaggerated in the West.

Earlier research led by Sean Aday of George Washington University concluded that new media "did not appear to play a significant role in either in-country collective action or regional diffusion" during the 2011 uprisings.

"This lack of impact does not mean that social media or digital media generally were unimportant," they said in a report for the US Institute of Peace last year.

"But it does mean that at least in terms of media... (especially Twitter), data do not provide strong support for claims of significant new media impact on Arab Spring political protests."

The 2012 study said the tweets and Facebook posts probably did more to spread information outside the affected countries and could have led to "a boomerang effect that brought international pressure to bear on autocratic regimes."

A separate study led by Juergen Pfeffer and Kathleen Carley at Carnegie Mellon University found that "the pattern of spread of the revolutions was not related to the pattern of social media usage."

"In other words, the social media did not cause the revolutions," they wrote.

Many activists in the region maintain that social media helped keep up the momentum of the protests that began in Tunisia, toppled two more dictators in Egypt and Libya, and continue to shake the region.

And a study by Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina and Christopher Wilson of the United Nations Development Program supported that notion.

"Social media in general, and Facebook in particular, provided new sources of information the regime could not easily control and were crucial in shaping how citizens made individual decisions about participating in protests, the logistics of protest, and the likelihood of success," they wrote in the Journal of Communication.

Some researchers point out that social media's power appeared to be limited to organizing protests and failed to help those people create a stable government after the uprisings.

George Washington University's Marc Lynch said social media became polarizing after regimes fell in Egypt and Tunisia.

"While social media boosters envisioned the creation of a new public sphere based on dialogue and mutual respect, the reality is that Islamists and their adversaries retreat to their respective camps, reinforcing each other's prejudices while throwing the occasional rhetorical bomb across the no-man's land that the center has become," he said in a Foreign Policy magazine blog.

Even those who credit social media in the Arab Spring say it seems unlikely that the popular uprisings can be replicated in other places, because regimes have found new ways to control and track dissidents.

"It is a bit of a game," Howard said. "Democracy activists used digital media to catch dictators off guard, but we're now in a situation in the 'late spring' countries where the regimes figured out some of the tricks."

He added that "the Facebook and Twitter story may be over because authoritarian regimes have learned how to use these for control" but that it would be a mistake of give up on social media.

"There is always some new tool, because there are democracy activists who are desperate," Howard said. "I don't know what it's going to be, but I think there will be some predictable surprises."

 

Syria accuses Israel of strike near Damascus airport

Palestinians strike in support of protesting prisoners

Merkel warns EU-Turkey ties 'severely hit' by Ankara developments

France says has proof that Syrian regime behind 'chemical attack'

420 tonnes of plastic bags seized in year in Morocco since ban

EU reviews Libya request for naval equipment

Jail terms over death of Moroccan fishmonger

UN appoints Syrian Olympic swimmer as ambassador

Iraq forces retake town of Hatra from IS

Bahraini activist on hunger strike behind bars

Calls on Saudi social media for jobless protest

Tunisian coastguards no match for high-speed smugglers

US wants 'strong, democratic' Turkey: ambassador

Israeli tank trades shots with Hamas in Gaza

Syria says France 'hiding truth' about chemical attack

NATO chief warns Turkey to respect ‘rule of law’

Exiled Turkish journalist urges EU to confront Erdogan

Mass funeral for dozens slain in Syria bus attack

Qatar insists Baghdad had ‘full knowledge’ of hostage deal

UN eyes new Yemen peace talks

Erdogan resumes Gulen arrests after referendum win

Turkey opposition heads to European court to challenge referendum

Turkey says informed US, Russia prior to Kurdish strikes

Iraqi forces liberate ancient city of Hatra from IS

Saudi fire stops explosives-laden boat from Yemen

50 Syria migrants stranded on Morocco-Algeria border

Libya asks EU for patrol boats to stem migrant wave

Bangladesh approves Saudi-funded mosque project

German Chancellor regrets Israel snub of foreign minister

Global leaders call for ridding world 'forever' of chemical arms

UAE sentences Iranian to 10 years for sanctions breach

IS using weaponised drones in battle for key Syria dam

Saudi government shake-up strengthens position of king's son

Israel allows NGO director visa after 'bias' row

Kuwait suspect confesses to plotting IS attacks

Russia has thwarted IS attack on far east oil hub Sakhalin

Death toll in Turkish air raids on Syria Kurds rises to 28

Draft resolution to pressure Polisario to withdraw from Guerguerat

Iraq holding hundreds of millions of Qatar’s ransom money

Trump says Assad's future 'not a deal breaker' on Syria

Baghdad condemns Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish forces

Iran, major powers to review adherence to nuclear deal

Turkish warplanes pound Kurdish forces in Iraq, Syria

IS executes Iraqi civilians in Mosul

Netanyahu cancels talks with German FM over NGO meetings