Social Media Only Played a Supporting Role in the Arab Spring

The mass protests that broke out across the Arab world, starting with Tunisia in December 2010, were too easily called 'Internet revolutions,' but the truth is more complicated than that.

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"We are all Khaled Said" is the Facebook page that is considered to be the cornerstone of the Egyptian revolution. It was created by Wael Ghonim, the marketing man for Google in the Middle East, in honor of Khaled Said who was murdered by police in Alexandria about six months before the revolution began in January of 2011. There is no dispute that this Facebook account succeeded in enlisting thousands of Egyptians who gathered on January 25 in Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the regime on the day designated as Policeman's Day.

These demonstrations, which turned into mass sit-ins, infected the entire country and succeeded in toppling President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

But this was not the first mass political use made of the Internet. Three years earlier Egyptian bloggers founded the April 6 movement when, by means of the Internet, they called for a national strike in solidarity with the industrial workers in the city of al-Mahall al-Kubra. In 2004, the Kafiya (Enough) movement, consisting of a coalition of public figures and groups opposed to Mubarak bequeathing the regime to his son, opened its page on Facebook. From 2004 to 2011 in Egypt, hundreds of demonstrations and strikes were held in the streets, near government buildings, at factories or in the vicinity of mosques. In some of them the demonstrators used the Internet to a certain extent. In most of them the recruitment was accomplished by word of mouth or via cell phones.

Revolutions in the Arab world easily won the epithet of "Internet revolutions" and a broad research field has developed to study the connection between the Internet, particularly social networks, and revolution. However, observing the rate of Internet penetration among the public in the countries where revolutions took place is enough to discount the assertion that without the Internet the revolutions would not have happened.

In Egypt, for example, in 2009 there were about 16.6 million users, as compared to 22 million in December of 2011, out of a population of some 85 million. In Tunisia there were 3.5 million users in 2009, compared to 3.85 million last December, out of a population of some 10.5 million. In Yemen and Libya the rate of Internet penetration is 14.5 percent and 17 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, the number of mobile phones was between twice and three times that of the number of Internet users.

However, numbers alone do not reveal the limitations of Internet use. In Tunisia, for example, extremely strict censorship was imposed on Internet users and Internet cafe owners were required to register the names of users and their surfing history, and to show these details to special government inspectors. In Egypt the distribution of Internet use testifies to tremendous gaps among the various provinces of the country and even among neighborhoods in Cairo.

According to surveys conducted in Egypt, during the period of the revolution most Egyptians in fact obtained their information from television and radio broadcasts, with a large proportion of the inhabitants of outlying areas preferring the government stations to broadcasts from trans-national news outlets like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The Tahrir Data Project conducted by Christopher Wilson and Alexandra Dunn, which gathered and analyzed information on the use of various media during the demonstrations, indicates clearly that the demonstrators preferred television, print journalism and telephone voice conversations to the use of social networks or instant messages in order to get information on what was happening.

But even if the Internet was only an important auxiliary aid in recruiting demonstrators during the revolutions, there is no doubt with regard to its significant contribution to instilling awareness of the oppression by the regimes. Circumventing the censorship in Egypt by means of the Internet not only yielded collective knowledge that did not originate in the regime's media, it also forced the traditional press, most of it controlled by the regime, to address information published on the web.

Horrific images and stories of torture in prisons, information about arrests and reports about corruption among top people in the regime published on blogs sometimes forced the official newspapers to address them in order to maintain a modicum of reliability. Traditional media organizations also had to respond on behalf of the regime to claims that arose on the Muslim Brotherhood home page or protest movement sites even before the revolution, and in the very act of conducting a "dialogue" with its opponents on the net, the regime granted legitimacy to the new medium that it was late in adopting. The new regime is already thoroughly aware of the importance of the Internet and it knows how to use it well. The Muslim Brotherhood has a separate home page for the movement and a home page for its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. President Mohamed Morsi has an active Facebook account, as do the Supreme Military Council and every political movement and leader.

The result is that more and more reports in the traditional press or on satellite TV sites are based on reports on politicians' sites. This, however, is already a different revolution.

'We are the people of Facebook,' Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 2011. Credit: AP
Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 2011. Credit: Reuters

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