| Maricela Embe
November 17th, 2014
The Implications of Social Media on the Arab Spring
When one considers the Arab Spring of 2010, one of the main concerns involves the use of social media throughout the revolution and what role it played as well as the ethics behind its use. While it is also known that social media did not cause the revolution, ethically it can be seen as part of the rights approach. Those fighting for change and using the internet to do so recognized that they should be seen as more than just ends to another end. They also understood that they had control over their lives and could use the internet as a mean of spreading awareness to the conditions they were living in as well as a means of fighting back. The steps taken by those in revolting countries during the Arab Spring were the right ones. Their decisions allowed them to be freed from decades of political oppression and brought more international awareness not only to their cause, but to just how powerful the internet and social media can be.
The Arab Spring of 2010, consisted of protests and demonstrations throughout North Africa and the Middle East as these regions moved towards a more democratic government and rebelled against the corrupt leaders who had ruled over them for several decades. What makes this particular series of rebellions stand out, is the use of social media by the rebelling countries. Various social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were used as they, “put a human face on political oppression” (Howard 2). The self-immolation of Bouazizi, in the middle of a busy street, can be credited as the spark of the Arab Spring as several bystanders used their smart phones upload the video online, quickly spreading it around the world. The use of social media throughout the Arab Spring was done predominately by “young, urban, relatively well educated individuals, many of whom were women “(Howard 2). These individuals were able to use the internet to their advantage, and in several cases were able to over throw their governments by sharing their political views and ideas through smart phones and the internet. While we ae all aware of the power that the internet and social media have, the Arab Spring brought a new focus to the matter. There are many implications to using social media in times of human crisis, whether it be to spread awareness or other reasons and in these case the use of social media greatly benefited those oppressed.
Social media and digital technologies have become such a major component of sharing information that journalists have tried to incorporate information from them into their articles. Social media was able to spread the new democratic ideas felt throughout the Arab Spring nations and spread these ideas across international borders (Howard 1). Social media accounted for 70% of all posts for the revolution (Creech 202). Articles written about the Arab Spring now incorporated more personal, empirical accounts of what was occurring, which can be seen as both positive and troublesome. As both sides had access to the internet and were able to spread their side of the story, it was often difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction. Media sources such as, Al- Messa newspaper were not above spreading lies about the protest and those involved. In January 2011, they reported that ‘‘the Internet youth have refused to follow those who are calling for chaos scheduled for the police forces celebration day,” implying that the protests were unsuccessful, when the opposite is true (Creech 198). Outside of newspapers, information was spread by bloggers who used the internet as a vehicle for publishing information regarding their governments. Many were able to spread credible information to Western new sites such as BBC and CNN throughout the revolutionary period (Howard 3).
While the use of social media throughout the Arab Spring helped to bring awareness to the cause, it did ultimately destroy the careers of many political leaders of several Arab regions. Egypt and Tunisa, often seen as the “poster boys” for the movement, were one of the few countries where the oppressive leaders were actually overthrown. In each case, some use of social media was present. Whether it be used to expose the leader and his practices or as a mean of spreading the news. Twitter became a major component in spreading the news of Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt. It was reported that in the week leading to said resignation the amount of tweets increased roughly from 2,300 a day to 230,00, stemming from people all around the world regarding the political change occurring in the country (Howard 4). Sensing the growing power of social media and the internet, Arab governments placed stricter restrictions on what content was allowed. Even now expressing any sort of controversial opinion, regardless of if it deals with “subjects deemed sensitive or traditionally off limits”, is still risky and dangerous. In Tunisia, President Zine el-Abdinine Ben Ali blocked any sort of video sharing website including Youtube, Vimeo, and Blip TV (Ghannam 11). Tunisian officials have even gone as far as trying to arrest any bloggers or persons using social media to spread negative news about the government (Ghannam 3). Even in Arabic countries that do not have blocks placed on social media, Internet freedom is scarce.
Baron argues that the use of social media during the Arab Spring caused more good than harm. The Arab people were liberated from their oppressors and were now making headway to a more democratic nation. The use of social media “supersized not just the mobilizations but also the size of the threats that Mubrak’s regime experienced during the revolutionary dynamic” (Baron 90). There is truth behind this as digital media in the Arab market throughout the Arab Spring was used mainly by the youth who had a large understanding of it and were able to customize it to use however they best saw fit. However the biggest ethical concern comes in the form of outside help when it comes to Arab freedom of the internet, as pointed out by Ghannam. As many Arabic countries were oppressed, they relied on the aid of Western countries to spread their message; one of these countries being the United States. While Western countries, like America, funded many of the bloggers and journalist of the Arab Spring, these Western countries were not the ones engaging in dangerous or risky behaviors by going against the government and were not the ones being arrested and imprisoned (Ghannam 18). By accepting the aid of Western governments, Arab activists (both online and “on the frontlines”) put themselves at further risk of being captured and punished for their acts. Even worse, when these activists do get caught, there is not much done by these Western countries to help out. Despite egging them on, Western countries are practically useless when these individuals are caught and can do little to nothing to defend them without admitting to the extent of their involvement in trying to rid a country of its leader. When asked to comment on just how far the United States was willing to support the use of social media and the activists who were arrested, Taamara Wittes, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs responded with the following:
Certainly, there are governments in the region that seek to control and monitor their citizens do online, to stifle the potential of these technologies and unfairly target their users. Around the world, our Foreign Service officers follow the cases of these individuals and report on them in our annual Human Rights Reports. In the 2009 reports alone, we cited over 20 cases of bloggers and other Internet activists being harassed or unfairly detained by governments across the Middle East and North Africa. The Department also speaks out on behalf of these individuals in official diplomatic dialogues and in the media. Our officials condemned the imprisonment of Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer and called for his release on multiple occasions (Ghannam 19).
While it is understood that social media is not the only reason that the revolutions were successful, its use during the Arab Spring should be carefully considered. The same practices used by both the protesters and the government could be used by other governments and who’s to say that each side does not improve its methods? The Arab Spring is a prime example of just how quickly democratic ideas can and will be spread. The revolts did not just start and end in Tunisia and Egypt. Their ideas about liberation and democracy were easily spread through social media mediums and in return easily adapted throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Social media platforms indigenous to the regions are trying to go above and beyond by now providing “community-driven quality news, online video stories, and forums for greater interactivity around timely issues, as well as the showcasing of art and culture” (Ghannam 7).
Overall, it can be concluded that the Arab Spring produced the most benefits for those that chose to rebel against their countries government. The use of social media during these revolutions not only opened up the westerns world eyes to the governmental struggle of the Arab world, but it also opened up new technological markets in the Middle East and North Africa. The ethical rights approach applied as countless bloggers, activist, etc. voiced their opinions online, risking embarrassing their own governments in hopes of a more democratic nation.
Ghannam, Jeffrey. "Social Media in the Arab World: Leading up to the Uprisings of 2011." Social Media in the Arab World: (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
"Howard, Philip N." Department of Communication. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.
"Profile Deen Freelon." Profile Deen Freelon. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.