Can the Arab Spring be considered a social media revolution? New-era’s revolutions and the role played by technology.


The Arab Spring is an important event that marked the end of the last decade and the beginning of the subsequent one. The expression “Arab Spring” refers to the struggle that the Arab countries were living due to the repressive and authoritarian government to which they were subjected. This occurrence can be defined as remarkable because it is one of the first protests, with the use of social media as a communication mean. Indeed, the new media, term referring to social media in this context, played a fundamental role in facilitating the spread of the revolution in North Africa and Middle east. Therefore, the aim of this essay is to analyze how they made the difference in the revolution and how the idea of revolution can be argued to have been transformed by social media beginning with the Arab Spring. First, I will give an analysis of the former governmental and social context in Tunisia, which created tension among the citizens and how it eventually led to the case of Mohamed Bouazizi. While explaining the Tunisian background, I will also illustrate a brief overview of the social situation in the neighboring countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Through this analysis, I will be able to show how the actions taken in Tunisia played a role in uprising riots in other countries. Following this, I will narrow my focus on the role of social media in the Arab Spring and the revolution they brought in terms of organization and awareness among people, and also with reference to the freedom of expression. Furthermore, I will state my standpoint on the efficacy and aid social media gave to civilians to speed up the process of handling information. This claim will be supported by some research data on the use of social media among citizens, analyzed through graphs.

In order to start the analysis of the difference made by Social Media in the Arab Spring, one must set up the context where the revolutionary uprising started. The Arab Spring begins in Tunisia, a country that had been subjected to the corrupt and authoritarian rule of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali obtained the power due to numerous elections through intimidation and non-transparent election techniques, using secret police in order to force to keep the population and the political opponent under control. Indeed, his presidency was characterized by a repressive control of civil society and political opponents. Moreover, there was a lack of respect for human rights, especially for freedom of expression. All these factors caused great resentment against the president from the citizens who were tired of their miserable conditions, creating the context for a protest to start. Among all the mistreatment inflicted on the population, there is one specific case that provoked the beginning of the protest. Mohamed Bouazizi was a 20 years old boy who had to take care of his family when his father died. His family lived in a miserable neighborhood in a small Tunisian town and, even though he graduated, he had no choice but to work as a peddler of fruit and vegetables.

On December 17th, 2010, Bouazizi was approached, beaten, and humiliated by Tunisian authorities because of his unlicensed cart. As a desperate gesture for claiming the injustices coming from the government, in a short protest, Bouazizi stood in front of the local government and set himself on fire. Bouazizi became a martyr, a figure in which many Tunisians could identify themselves, given their living restrictions. Mohamed Bouazizi’s action had an immediate effect not only in Tunisia but also in North Africa and in Middle East: a sequence of demonstrations, gears of protest, and rebellions that occurred during the following weeks and months.

As I have mentioned previously, the event happened in Tunisia played a role in uprising riots in other countries in North Africa and Middle East. Throughout January, protests erupted in Algeria, Jordan, and Oman. By January 25th, the movement reached Egypt, followed by Syria, Yemen, Libya, and several other countries. In order to have a better understanding of the various episodes happening in some of these countries which bring together the backgrounds of these places, I will narrow my focus on delineating the experiences in opposing the authoritarian politics. As the example of Bouazizi in Tunisia, in 2010, also in Egypt, the death of a young man named Khaled Said, who was publicly beaten by two policemen, aroused the eagerness for a revolution. One might guess that these violent actions against the citizens have been caused by the same type of environment that we observed in Tunisia. Indeed, Egypt as well was subjected by an authoritarian government that restricted the freedom of the people. Consequently, as I have mentioned, former Egyptians wanted a change in their conditions to happen. Animated by the Jasmine revolution, protests in Egypt broke out by the end of January 2011 and ran for 18 days with the outcome of the withdrawal of Hosni Mubarak from the presidency. Meanwhile, during the month of February, inspired by the uprisings happened in the other Arab countries in particular Tunisia and Egypt, also in Libya erupted violent protests in Benghazi due to the poverty and famine that the population was experiencing after over 40 years of tyranny of Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Eventually, after a year of uprisings, Gaddafi was captured and killed by the France military forces. In light of the aforementioned statement that the Tunisian riots reached many countries, the following section will provide an overview of the events happened in both Yemen and Syria to give further evidence of the shared revolutionary instincts of the Arabian countries. Motivated by the step-down from power of the Egyptian president, Yemenite protesters gathered in Sanaa in order to vindicate their condition of poverty and the corrupted government through pro-democracy slogans. In contrast to the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, where there was a lack of centralization in the guidance, the revolutionary movements in Yemen were coordinated and led by an alliance of Yemeni opposition groups. On this ground, to keep protestants’ tempers in check, Saleh decided to grant concessions, such as a reduction in income taxes. However, on March 18th, 2011, Saleh loyalists caused bloodshed killing more than 50 protesters. In this period of confrontation among loyalists and oppositors, Saleh lost the support of many members of the government and army as well. Furthermore, the intensification of conflicts during May and early June, caused Yemen edging its way towards a civil war with the attempt to Saleh’s life on June 3rd. Eventually, by the end of 2011, Saleh’s was forced to step down. Similar to Egypt and Tunisia, also in Syria, citizens suffered from abuses by law enforcement. At the beginning of February, people tried to protest after a policeman publicly attacked a man in old Damascus. Moreover, at the beginning of March, in Daraa, fifteen children were arrested and tortured for having drawn graffiti against the government. After having experienced these episodes, Syrians started protesting against President Bashar al-Assad, demanding reform for more freedom. Despite the different claiming from the population, the Assad regime reacted with severe repression against protesters shutting down electricity and confiscating food. Differently from the governors of the other countries previously mentioned, the Assad regime is still running today. Generally, one can affirm that the main reason why these countries rebelled were: no political freedom, the corrupt governments and the unacceptable administration of the state, violation of human rights, extreme poverty, and lack of work. Aside from the miserable condition that each population of these countries was living, one can notice principally that all the revolts happened in the same period. That is the key factor that created the “domino effect” affecting so many countries in North Africa and Middle East. Compared to other former revolutions in history, the Arab Spring happened during the technological era, which was just starting to develop a tool that is currently highly used: social media. Softwares like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and WordPress are online platforms that allowed communication among people further apart only with the use of internet connection. As one might guess, these means played a central role in facilitating the spread of the protest all over the Arab countries and in terms of organization for planning uprisings. The Arab Social Media Report declares that the number of Facebook users had incredibly increased in the countries involved in the revolution; it passed from 14.8 million in 2010, reaching 28 million in 2011. A post published in Tunisia could reach Egypt and several other countries in a few minutes, allowing the protesters to promulgate their message at an instant rate unachievable without these websites. Furthermore, digital media brought freedom of expression, something that traditional media such as television, newspaper, and radio did not have because they are entirely monitored by the government. One might object that only 25% of the citizens had access to the Internet, and 75% had access to television . However, the “news” going through 1 social media was not only transmitted to people who had a cellphone, yet there was a collective communication, as people who used Facebook and Twitter actively engaged in spreading the word between people who did not have the chance to access them. Overall, I have given a general overview of the context of some countries in North Africa and Middle East; they were fighting against their governments, aiming to realize a process of democratization. So far, I have stated that there were various internal problems which equalized the different population. However, these are not the only causes which provoked a revolt in countries apart from each other at the same time, yet the critical factor was internet communication. Therefore, I will focus on the analysis of the most used social media, and I will give a detailed explanation of the use of social networks during Arab Spring by giving some practical reference. The role of Facebook cannot be underestimated in the Arab revolution since it is used as a tool to share people’s opinions and useful information in order to plan gatherings. Moreover, even though not everyone had access to Internet, this did not prevent people from advertising the news previously published on Facebook, by printing them out and delivering them by hand. With this in mind, one can claim that social media have cleared the path and smoothed the process towards a new kind of revolution. Further evidence supporting this assertion is the case of Wael Ghoneim, an Egyptian Internet activist, who wanted to circulate the information about the abuse of Khaled Said through the creation of a Facebook group called “We Are All Khaled Said”. Thanks to the latter, the cruel event could reach several citizens, encouraging the awareness of the circumstances and leaving a lasting mark on people’s consciousness. Although Khaled Said was an ordinary man, his death was made remarkable by these technological platforms. The upshot of the Facebook’s influence can be summed up by the words of one of the members of Takriz, a Tunisian NGO: “Facebook is pretty much the GPS for this revolution. Without the street, there is no revolution, but add Facebook to the street, and you get real potential. ” There has been an inclusive debate about whether researches provide enough support to the claim that Arab Spring could be denominated a social-media revolution. From this perspective, I shall now highlight where my opinion stands. I strongly support the view of the fundamental job of online platforms in speeding up the circulation of the information and the process of uprisings’ organization. However, some counter-arguments can undermine my point of view. Although Internet can be considered as a useful instrument to let our thoughts circulate among strangers, at the same time one has to take into account the fact that social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be easily manipulated since they are “centralized on the same software layer”; namely they are interconnected . Indeed, this type of organizational 3 system of the Internet facilitated the despotic governments to put shutdowns into action. However, the attempt to ban Facebook by the Egyptian government through the start of a blackout only incited the protesters to involve even more people to resist such an attempt. Furthermore, as it is shown in the study called “Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter”, precisely in figure 1, there was no direct causation between the existence of Facebook pages and the organization of revolts. That is, the creation of these online pages did not cause the outbreaks, yet the latter had an impact on the arrangement of movements. For instance, Libya had only a 4.3 % penetration rate, and due to its wide population, this rate results in 500.000 Facebook users, who consecutively are linked to a broader number of social connections. In addition to this information, figure 2 outlines which type of media has had the most influential role in spreading the news on the events happening during the civil riots in both Egypt and Tunisia. As can be seen, social platforms sources previously mentioned had the highest effect, ranging between 88% and 94% of the users; meanwhile, the well-known traditional media, such as newspapers and the radio, only reached an average of 37% of the population.

Taking everything into account, one has to set up a critical analysis starting from the background of the countries involved in the revolution in order to illustrate the function of social media in the revolution and to prove how they gave a boost to the news to go around. I began my discussion by introducing the case of Mohamed Bouazizi, which gave a start to everything, and this enabled me to set up the socio-political context in Tunisia. Furthermore, I have explained the situation in some of the other countries involved in the Arab Spring, which were experiencing a similar situation under the economic, political, and social points of view. Moreover, I have stated the similar injustices that they were living and how social media helped them fighting against that violent environment. This thereby allowed me to introduce researches and practical examples of how social media made the difference in terms of organization and solidarity in order to fight against a common enemy. On this ground, I was able to explain my idea regarding the role of social media during the Arab Spring and how they made the difference in terms of shortening the time for the ramification of the information among people. Overall, I consider these elements to be satisfactory in order to understand how revolutions have now changed their way of being confronted and organized,beginning from what happened in North Africa and Middle East countries in the last decade. Therefore, not only has Arab Spring had a fundamental impact on empowering people’s rights and freedom, but it has shaped the role of future revolts.



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