By Samah Sabawi
Social media played an essential role in the early days of the Arab revolutions in promoting and strengthening civil society actors in their quest for democracy. However, more recently, social media has become a tool used by various movements in the region to disempower civil society and prolong democratic reform by highlighting divisions, polarizing views while making citizens more vulnerable to government propaganda and surveillance. After all, social media is open to anyone who logs in regardless of his or her true or made up identity, intellect, education, nationality or status in society. While this inclusive nature can be viewed as a positive democratic feature, it can have a detrimental impact on the quality, integrity and credibility of the content shared and the information needed in order to create a healthy and informed ‘public sphere’.
The arrival of the Internet opened up new and exciting venues for public deliberation. Transforming the power of broadcasting away from the centralized structure of traditional media to the decentralized nature of the Internet. This has been hailed as ‘the second media age’ (Poster1995). Many sources can now broadcast to many receivers, and citizens have seemingly equal access into this public forum that has global reach. This has transformed the existing political power structures, empowering and amplifying the voices of civil society while challenging the power and control of the ruling class.
Social media played an essential role in this transformation, with Facebook being one of its most popular social networking services, boasting 1.11 billion monthly active users as of March 2013 (Facebook 2013). These numbers continue to increase as users from around the world join the social networking site and form virtual communities unhindered by physical distance, class, ethnicity or gender. Within these virtual communities, strangers who may never meet in real life can become ‘friends’, exchange photo albums, comment on each other’s triumphs and tribulations and share their political and social views of the world. Semitsu (2011) described Facebook as a ‘controlled ecosystem’ where users voluntarily reveal private information about their lives and sometimes even their most intimate thoughts. This has made it a very attractive tool for advocates, corporations and world governments alike, as they all compete for access into the hearts and minds of this large online population in order to dominate the social networking space and to promote their agendas. The current revolutions in the Arab world offer us great insight into how these cyber battles for space and influence are fought between citizens and state actors.
In the Arab world, the internet offers civil society and opposition groups space where they can express dissent, organize and network, away from the intrusive gaze and control of the authoritarian governments under which they function. ‘To peruse the Arab social media sites, blogs, online videos, and other digital platforms is to witness what is arguably the most dramatic and unprecedented improvement in freedom of expression, association, and access to information in contemporary Arab history’ (Ghannam 2011). According to a report published by the online resource Arab Crunch, in the year 2010, before the first Arab revolution began, 17 million people were using Facebook in the Arab region with 5 million users in Egypt alone.
The year 2011 saw sweeping protests throughout the Arab world starting in Tunisia and moving to Egypt, then Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Yaman and in smaller numbers other Arab countries. Howard and Hussain (2013) examined the role of digital media in provoking inspiring and sustaining these popular movements for democracy. Adopting a comparative method in their approach and taking into account both the diversity and the common shared experiences of the citizens within the region, they argued that even though only a minority of the population in countries that were affected by the ‘Arab Spring’ had internet access, this minority was in fact significant politically as they represented the ‘educated elites’ who have the energy and the financial means to organize. This view was shared by many analysts and pundits who applauded the leading role Facebook and Twitter played in offering the protestors the space needed to organize, strategize, raise awareness and share tips on how to resist and challenge the authority.
Egyptian youth were amongst the first users of Internet in the Arab world to utilize social networking sites as a political tool (Harb 2011). They were the force behind various movements sprouting online focusing on Egyptian police repression and the corruption of the Mubarak regime. These movements included the 6th of April protest movement, which ultimately took its online expression of discontent into the streets, staging protests as early as 2007, years before the Egyptian revolution of 2011 began.
Governments in the Arab world watched these online communities closely and with contempt. Their initial reaction was to meet online criticism with brutality in order to strike fear into the hearts of the offenders while deterring others from such acts, after all ‘It is when power is wedded to chronic fear that it becomes formidable’ (Eric Hoffer 1954). For example, the former Egyptian regime implemented a heavy-handed response to online activism arresting bloggers and torturing and imprisoning them. This gave the regime a mistaken sense of security (Harb 2011), which soon began to diminish as Egyptians collectively decided to break the fear barrier and to take to the streets on the 25th of January 2011.
As protests spread in the Arab region, the important role of social networking became all the more evident as it gave the protestors access to the world community where they were able to amplify their message and receive tactical support. According to Howard and Hussien (2013) boingboing.net was quick to offer guidelines on how to protect anonymity online, an ‘Activist Action Plan’ was translated and hosted by the Atlantic Monthly while Telecomix posted information on how to rely on landlines in order to bypass the state’s efforts to block access to broadband networks. In the week leading up to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the number of tweets from Egypt and world-wide about the Egyptian revolution increased from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day while videos featuring protests and political commentary went viral (O’Donnell 2011).
During the first year of the Arab revolutions it appeared that ‘Digital media provided both an awareness of shared grievances and transportable strategies for action’ (Howard and Hussien 2013), which enabled the rise of the people and the fall of at least three oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. But as time passed, it became more difficult for the people to achieve their democratic aspirations in other countries such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where the protests still rage today. One theory as to why this may be the case was offered by Howard and Hussien (2013) who suggested that a revolution’s failure or success hinges on its citizen’s access to technology. They argued that countries that have more ‘tech-savvy civil society groups’ such as Egypt and Tunisia were able to successfully overthrow their dictatorships faster and with less ‘casualties’ than those countries that were not as strong technologically such as Syria. While this may be the case, it is also important to consider that just as the protestors were learning from one another the blue print of revolution, the dictators were also learning from one another how to manage these revolutions, drive a counter revolution and gain the upper hand both in the real world and online.
Authoritarian regimes often apply the same blue print in controlling the flow of information and crushing dissent. In fact, Arab ministers of Interior meet annually in order to exchange ideas on how to further secure their regimes. Howard and Hussien (2013) point out that during the last several years, the meetings focused on developing ways to tighten media regulations, increasing censorship and government control and expanding this control to the world wide web. For these governments, it is crucial to establish deterrence by creating and fostering a culture of fear by way of arresting and torturing dissidents.
However, the traditional deterrence factor proved to be no longer sufficient in 2011 when dissent spilled out from the virtual realm into the streets. As the protests spread, Arab governments had to develop new strategies. The first strategy was to censor and block online content while using their state media agents to disseminate their version of events. For example, when the revolution began in Egypt, the regime quickly tried to block Twitter, then Facebook, and to disrupt phone-messaging services. This resulted in an ongoing ‘battle of the blogosphere’ (Ghannam 2011) where citizens relied on proxies to bypass government blockings and firewalls. Two days later, the Egyptian government tried to shut down the Internet all together and even targeted phone networks to disrupt the flow of text messaging. The result was not in the government’s favour. Feeling a sense of isolation, people who lost their Internet connection and phone services were forced to go out into the streets ‘when they could no longer follow the unrest through social media’ (O’Donnell 2011). It didn’t take long for the tech savvy cyber army of activists from across the Arab World to exchange codes, tips and software to enable Egyptians to access the Internet once again.
When the Mubarak regime finally collapsed, many hailed the Egyptian revolution over attributing its apparent success to social media. Howard and Hussien (2011) even went on to suggest that ‘it is difficult to say whether the revolutions would or would not have happened without digital media’. Others proclaimed that the new media era has ushered in ‘the age of empowered individuals, who use potent new technologies and harness social media to organize themselves’ (Kirkpatrick 2011). But in hindsight, it would appear such views might have exaggerated the role of social media in the drive for democratic reforms in Egypt and beyond.
History teaches us that where there is state oppression, eventually the people will rise with or without the help of technology. Research done on political activism and the Internet also downplays the role of social media as a driver behind political action as it suggests that people who are likely to be politically active online are those who are already ‘political junkies’ (Johnson and Kaye 2000). Therefore, it would be incorrect to contend that without Facebook, the Arab revolutions wouldn’t have happened. As Zahera Harb points out, ‘social media facilitated the revolution when the right moment arrived’ (2011). The incident that sparked the first of the Arab revolutions in Tunisia was not planned on the pages of Facebook, it was a spontaneous act of despair by a Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest the economic hardships the people of Tunisia endured. It was his act that brought about ‘the right political moment’. Harb notes that the success of the Tunisian revolution is what inspired the youth of Egypt to follow suit and to organize their revolt. In other words, the Tunisian revolution is what brought about ‘the right political moment’ for Egypt’s revolution to begin. Finally, the suggestion that the revolutions were a result of a sudden online mobilization lead by the youth grossly overlooks the importance of the older Arabs ‘whose participation was critical’ (Lust &Wichmann 2012).
More telling of the limited power of the Internet and especially social media in driving democratic reforms is the fact that the revolutions in the Arab region are not over and democracy is yet to be delivered even in places where the regimes did fall like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Remnants of the failed regimes and the existing authoritarian regimes are evolving and are becoming more sophisticated, creating and supporting websites that promote their own view of politics and morality while dispatching their foot soldiers online to spread confusion and gather information. Arab officials have also become active on social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (Ghannam 2011) and governments are expanding their state-run media institutions into the online sphere.
Hussien and Howard explored in their work the rise of the counterinsurgency campaigns in the Arab world, pointing to how activists from the Arab region struggled to dominate their country’s hashtags on Twitter as army of advocates for the various Arab regimes used the countries’ hashtags to disseminate countless tweets depicting ‘photographs of national monuments and soccer statistics’ (Hussien and Howard 2013). Another method used by the Arab governments in the cyber battlefield was dispatching an army of anonymous trolls to defend the Arab regimes in order to silence the debate. This was evident when twitter feeds about the protests in Bahrain were suddenly dominated by the appearance of thousands of online anonymous defenders who ruthlessly executed a strategy of abusive attacks on anyone tweeting about Bahrain. Lynch (2013) argues it was the actions of these ‘trolls’ that ultimately crushed the online debate.
The use of anonymous trolls by governments adds to an already confused online ‘public sphere’ in which many activists and civil society actors also choose to remain anonymous for fear over their safety. With anonymity comes the question of credibility and trust. This issue is strongly evident if we observe the ongoing debate surrounding Syria on social networking sites. Videos and graphic photos are constantly being disseminated but many come with no disclosure and no way of verifying their origin or the authenticity of their message. The result of this is a public sphere where people become sceptical of any information they receive unless this information corresponds with their own pre-existing views. Unfortunately, this leads to increasing polarization.
Lynch (2013) argues that the polarization in the Arab world is reinforced within social media discourse, blaming this on the prevalence of the ‘informational bubbles’ that exist within social media. These bubbles do more to fragment and divide than they do to inform and encourage democratic compromise. Most often they foster ‘a narrow geographic focus’ of the world (Lynch 2013). Lynch’s argument is supported by the fact that Facebook groups are mostly nationally based or driven by a common political or religious agenda.
In the Arab region, the lines have been drawn in social networking space between the various parties to the raging conflicts. While such trends can strength the various groups internally by reinforcing their beliefs, they do little to encourage positive interaction with other groups who share different points of view. Lynch (2013) points to the current online interaction between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ruling party and opposition groups and observes that each side is eager to share and disseminate ‘uncritically’ any article that makes the other side look bad, in the final analysis he concludes that ‘the reality is that Islamists and their adversaries retreat to their respective camps, reinforcing each others’ prejudices while throwing the occasional rhetorical bomb across the no-man’s land that the centre has become’ (Lynch 2013).
This is not to say that social media is to blame for the current sectarian divisions in the Arab world. What social media does, is play a role in reflecting the current changes in the ‘texture of Arab politics’ (Lynch 2013) moving away from the traditional hold the Arab regimes had on the flow of information and creating new means by which the battle for control of information is waged.
Therefore, while it may be true that social media offers a new space not previously available for citizens to organize, communicate, and develop new and enhanced tactics of democratization, it cannot be viewed as an ideal space that will bring democracy to the Arab region, as many had hoped it would during the initial phase of the Arab revolutions. Democracy cannot be born nor flourish out of a sphere where the facts can be mixed with fiction, where sources cannot be verified and where accountability is lacking. If anything, social media is now being used to amplify sectarianism and to spread fear and mistrust of the other. And just as messages of Arab nationalism and unity dominated the social media networks at the start of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, messages of sectarian hatred fuelled by the tragic ongoing fighting in Syria is what is now dominating social media networks in the Arab world. The initial optimism for democratic reform has given way to scepticism while social media has become a virtual battlefield that is being manipulated equally by propaganda from all the different sides, as they all compete for dominance and power both in the turbulent regions of the Arab world and online.
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