Remembering the Role of Social Media in Arab Spring
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 26 May , 2017

It all started in Tunisia in the month of December, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, immolated himself in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. This very act initiated a series of mass demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia in protest of social and political issues in the country. The deeper reason behind the discontentment leading to the act of self-immolation was the rampant corruption and unemployment in the country.

Suddenly, this news caught attention of the people and was discussed intensely in the social media platforms. This was totally a new thing for Tunisian society. The rapidly changing scenario of Tunisia couldn’t be captured by the traditional media as it lagged far behind the amount of content that came up in the social media.

This ‘historic’ overflow of information caught attention of the global online community which led the whole world get a first-hand information on what was going on in Tunisia without having to rely on traditional media sources. Both the timeliness and proximity to the unravelling of series of events in Tunisia gave the world a glimpse that something ‘new’ was going on there on a very frequent pace which was unheard of in past.

Soon, the protests spread to other countries of West Asia after the government in Tunisia was overthrown and president Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011. Later, the same month on 25th January 2011, thousands of protesters in Egypt gathered in Tahrir Square, in Cairo. They demanded the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. People in Egypt were caught in the momentum of protest that was started in Tunisia. Crowds started to swell in thousands at Tahrir Square, the images of which were flashed and shared across the social media as well as traditional media.

These images had a very powerful effect on youngsters sitting at home who thereby decided to go at the ground zero and join the protest themselves. The social media was creating so much stir that a person like Hosni Mubarak who was at helm of the affairs for past three decades had to try an unsuccessful attempt to bring down the internet connectivity in order to cut-off the social media from its citizens.

This act itself shows the valuable part being played by social media throughout the Arab Spring. All these things boosted the confidence of people in many more cities across Egypt and even outside. Every city was now having its own ‘Tahrir Square’ where tons of people would gather and chant slogans against the tyrannical establishment.

Amidst all this, the social media empowered its citizens, especially youngsters, to share the live visuals of protests going on across the country. Most of these visuals were shared, liked, retweeted thousands of times across the globe. The youth of Tunisia started getting support from youngsters across different continents.

Suddenly, there emerged a sense of ‘unity’ or ‘oneness’ amongst all the dissatisfied youth who were frustrated with the lack of opportunities in their respective countries. The whole process itself became so powerful that autocratic, authoritarian, semi-democratic governments started to fear that the huge information flow of events unfolding in Jasmine Revolution could attract their own youngsters after which they could be facing the same situation as was happening in the parts of West Asia.

“In Tunisia, conversations about liberty, democracy and revolution on blogs and on Twitter often immediately preceded mass protests.  Twenty percent of blogs were evaluating Ben Alis leadership the day he resigned from office (Jan. 14), up from just 5 percent the month before.  Subsequently, the primary topic for Tunisian blogs was “revolution” until a public rally of at least 100,000 people eventually forced the old regimes remaining leaders to relinquish power” .

For the first time in history, traditional media houses had to follow social media reports. The rise of citizen journalism galvanised both the quality and quantity of content coming from this part of the world. Earlier, the information had to pass through various filters before reaching the outside world. The censorship on the traditional media was not a ‘new thing’ for the governments in West Asia but this time it was different because now, traditional media had taken a back seat in terms of its control over the information flow. The tyrannical governments of countries on which the Arab Spring had dawned could do not do the same with social media because of various reasons.

First, the authorities didn’t consider that social media could actually pose a challenge to them. By the time, the authorities realized its power, it was too late. The situation had gone out of control as now international community’s whole attention was now fixated on the events going on there through Facebook and Youtube. Most of the authorized people in the governments who used to ‘deal’ with media in the situation of crisis didn’t know how to deal with this medium.

The authorities now couldn’t take the risk of putting all the social media platforms altogether from their domain as it could lead to a huge international outcry and it would add up to the already messed up situation there. The thing about social media that makes it so special is that it can give ‘second to second’ coverage of multiple events at the same time which made it quite a potent tool for the protestors. Those who couldn’t or didn’t participate in the protests physically, turned into social media activists. Their activism played an important part in the Arab Spring.

Social Media played a critical role in Egypt as well as it did in Tunisia. The New York Times, carried an article, titled, Spring Awakening- How an Egyptian Revolution began on Facebook?. The article talks about the WaelGhonim, an online activist from Egypt who is also the author of Revolution 2.0 who energized pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt. The article says,

“An accidental activist, Ghonim tapped into a shared frustration that became immediately evident online. Two minutes after he started his Facebook page, 300 people had joined it. Three months later, that number had grown to more than 250,000. What bubbled up online inevitably spilled onto the streets, starting with a series of “Silent Stands” that culminated in a massive and historic rally at Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

It was amazing to see that a new form of media called social media had the potential to uproot some of the most ruthless, powerful and arrogant regimes of west asia and bring about a dawn in the region termed as ‘Arab Spring’. Little did the net users would have realized that in some time they will turn into online activists sharing some unparalleled events in the history of the region.

Social media gave power to the youth of the region who used this tool to uproot their respective governments from its very core. Its ability to gain the attraction of youngsters to come out and protest is highly commendable because nobody including many journalists looked down on this medium’s potency before Arab Spring. Social Media not only proved everyone wrong about both it’s potential as well as capability but it made traditional media take a back seat in Arab Spring.

The use of social media in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have now become the case studies for students of journalism and mass communication and is being taught in many universities across the globe. It also showed how youth of the region was in contrast with the older generation in terms of their willingness to use and adopt this new technology. It connected the youngsters across the globe and those living outside the region got a peephole to the closed societies of west asia with the help of social media, which was not possible earlier, as one had to rely on highly censored and filtered news reports.

Social media in the Arab Spring showed the value of free speech and expression which many of us who live in democratic and free societies don’t give much value to. It showed how restrictions on things as basic as freedom of speech can lead to a huge outburst of protest galvanizing the whole region. On a whole, its safe to say, that without social media, there might not have been an Arab Spring at all.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Martand Jha

Junior Research Fellow at Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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