Revolutionary use of social media changes Arab world
Ever since some people started calling elements of what came to be known as the Arab Spring, the “Twitter Revolution”, the actual contribution and significance of social media to those struggles has been vociferously debated.
The very fact that the terms Twitter Revolution and Facebook Revolution were pervasive in the media in 2009 and 2010, as struggles in the Middle East ignited, indicates the degree of popular belief in the power of social media in these political arenas. Numerous serious studies also confirmed a correlation between social media use and organised activism.
At the same time, there has been scepticism, equally learned and documented, including a book-length study by Stanford scholar Evgeny Morozov, and a controversial essay by Malcolm Gladwell that ran in 2010 in the New Yorker with the subheading, “Why the revolution will not be tweeted”.
One analysis last year by researcher Kathleen Carley, of Carnegie Mellon University, used specially designed software to comb through 400,000 media articles. Carley’s conclusion was that, while social media was an important tool in the Arab Spring, it wasn’t the catalyst for change. You can set against that a 2011 report by a group of University of Washington researchers that analyses three million tweets and thousands of blog posts and YouTube videos. It concludes that social media had a major shaping role in Arab Spring political struggles. So take your pick on which conclusion is correct.
In many ways, I’ve found the context of the argument more interesting than the argument itself. Why this urge to attribute so much weight to communications tools? Nobody referred to previous political struggles as “Telephone Revolutions” even though that device must have played a critical role in many.
In the sphere of social media, there’s also reluctance to accept the negative roles social media technologies can play. Many enthusiasts were reluctant to accept that social media might have had a pivotal role in the London riots of 2011, for example. Or, as Morozov argues, that governments can use the same tools in underhand ways.
I’ve seen people who have celebrated the role of Facebook in driving revolutionary change, then argue that people who criticise Facebook and other social communities for enabling bullying behaviour are attributing too much to the social networks – in short, blaming the tool rather than the activity. Surely that makes no sense at all. My gut feeling is that social media is deeply influential in many spheres in highly nuanced and complex positive and negative ways, which will remain hard to define and will often be viewed subjectively. As with the debate over whether violent computer games promote, or otherwise contribute to, real world violence, these arguments are going to run and run.
However, one study at the end of last year, on the use of social media in 21 countries, does throw up fascinating contrasts between western countries and those central to, or in the vicinity of, the Arab Spring. This is yet another survey carried out by Pew Research in the US, which regularly produces interesting work on internet and communications. To set the scene for the study, the survey notes that social media technologies are extremely popular in most developed countries but also in lower income, developing nations.
“Once people in these countries are online, they generally become involved in social networks at high rates. For instance, the vast majority of internet users in Mexico, Brazil, Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and India are using social networking sites,” the study says.
However, it is the use of social media by Arab populations that is really intriguing, and which lends credence to the argument that social media did have a prominent role – however a researcher might choose to define it – in the uprisings in many countries. The study found Arab users of social media were far more likely to express opinions on politics and community issues on them. In the Arab Spring nations of Tunisia and Egypt, six out of 10 use networks in this way. That contrasts with a median of only 34 per cent posting political opinions across all countries. Likewise, a median of 46 per cent use social networks to discuss community issues. Compare that to seven in 10 in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan.
On the evidence of this study, Twitter may, or may not, have been the architect of the Arab Spring. But for those Arabs able to get online, it and its social media relatives clearly nurture a far higher level of community and political engagement than is seen elsewhere.
Which is a revolution in its own right.